USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The Symbiosis Between Information Technology and Cultural Interactions

“While advances like the telephone and automobile clearly had wide-ranging impacts on the twentieth-century city, the recent wave of information technology promises to prove many more”- Scott Page and Brian Phillips, Urban Interfaces Designing the In-Between

Technology has become so vital in our lives that it facilitates almost everything around us. It allows us to gather information and increase our awareness of different programs as the distribution of communication, interaction and information is constantly morphing on a day-to-day basis. It now holds a greater presence within our lives more than ever.

As cities are shifting towards technology based, the physical city and its inhabitants are relying on the developing network of communication infrastructures. Cities including Tokyo and Seoul have fully immersed into this concept. Tokyo’s transit stations, in particular Shibuya Station, are catering to its population density, entertainment, and commercial intensity. The city has tapped into digital technology resulting in its commercial centrality to reflect human patterns and culture. Seoul has immersed itself into a completely wireless city- regardless of the location within the city, one is guaranteed to have access to a wi-fi network above ground and below ground (ie. metro subways). The web presence is substantial, unlike any other city I have visited. Upon landing into the ICN Airport, I was immediately connected to the internet via iPhone. I had no network data yet the internet allowed me to stay connected- I was “in the network” and I was connected up until my departure one week later.

Information is constantly being created and distributed. Heavily influenced by “the perspectives of media, speed, and personal perception”, the representation of our world impacts the way in which we design (61). The evolution of technology affects the way we conceptualize design. With vertical and horizontal connections, the vertical builds upwards as the horizontal allows information technology to spread among the landscape through infrastructure.

Connections are formed between networks of the urban fabric or physical beings such as social networks. Formed communities via the web have created spatial constraints as they manipulate the manner in which the user desires to be apart of something. The downfall is that physical impacts are decreased which then blurs the distinction between virtual and physical space as location-awareness diminishes. The virtual interface focuses on the particular needs of the individual catering to personal environments. We are influenced by the physical form that acts as a vehicle for “modulating streams of images (62)”. Projected images such as advertisements or entertainment media instill in the user a desire to match what they see. Advertisements for reconstructive surgery were plastered all over Seoul. A city known for its surge in aesthetic surgery clinics, there is a need to perfect the physical form. The persuasive ads to achieve a ‘specific look’ send underlying messages of pressure to cave into the generic. As the city conforms based on economic exchange, this need for personalization overrides the importance of the collective users. The quantity versus the individual places the individual under the generic, simply a number within the population.

The need to regenerate the technological based society means that the system will collapse, it does not have the ability to personalize. It all reverts back to the idea that money is a driver for culture. There is a desire to discover new advanced technology as this has a direct correlation to power. The more information given and known keeps the distribution of communication going tapping into the culture that feeds into this phenomenon.

11/26/2013 Paula M Narvaez

Filed under: Architecture, Culture, Japan, Korea, Tokyo, Urbanism, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Future of China

I am departing Shanghai once again.  This is my second time visiting this great city, but this time with 3 months of travelling in between analyzing Asian cities.  I will be leaving with a different knowledge of Shanghai than with my first departure–  my first exeperience in Shanghai gave me a familiarity, while this one allowed me to appreciate the “real” Shanghai beyond the cliche and realize the beauty of the everyday.

Making an impromptu decision to visit Hangzhou, I decided to take the high speed CRH Chinese High Speed Rail.  Just recently, CRH set the world record speed of high speed rail trains and I wanted to compare this experience to the Shinaksen in Japan.  Once I arrived at the platform looking at the aerodynamic nose of the CRH train, I was overcome with the same excitement that I had months ago in Japan riding the Shinkansen.  Though my emotions were the same, the reasons why I had this amazement was completely different.  I was in the People’s Republic of China, a country that has just come out of the Cultural Revolution only 30 years ago.  After a decade of isolation, China has the technology that matches and even exceeds that of Japan, which has developed with constant progress.

Perhaps in Japan, my amazement came from this first sight of the great and majestic Shinkansen.  Japan was the first country to effecitvely utilize high speed rail by alleviating the congested and overloaded roads and rail lines between Osaka and Tokyo.  Now, the Shinkansen connects cities like Osaka, Tokyo, Sendai, Yokohama, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka.  As the bullet train arrived in Tokyo station for a few short minutes, I saw its long, aerodynamically shaped nose that reminded me of a duck or platypus.  When the train reached this as its termius, I wanted to ride the train right away as the passengers got off.  However, I had to wait because the workers were preparing the train to head the other way.  I was easily amused by the automatic turning of the chairs as the train prepared itself for the new wave of passengers heading towards another destination.  I loved watching window washers meticulously cleaning to keep the prisitine apperance of the train.  When I was finally allowed in, I waited for the food cart lady to come by, not because of the snacks on it, but to see her bow before she exited each car.  Everyone had their belongings neatly stacked on the overhead storage area or in the back of the cabin.  A man would eventually walk by to check our tickets recording it in his book, and sometimes stamping it with a purple insignia that was handed back to me with two hands and a quick bow.

That was in Japan, and now I am in China.  I arrive in a large atrium space after purchasing my ticket to ride the bullet train to Hangzhou.  I blinked my eyes like I was in a dream because I was in disbelief that that China is capable of having this major transportation hub and have high speed rail connceting major cities right underneath after a period of global isolation.  However, I was upset because I couldn’t see the arrival and preparation ritual of the train for its next journey like in Japan.  I didn’t even know if there was one given the fact that China neglects the maintenence of things.  As I reached the platform, everyone quickly rushed to their cars, while I deliberately walked to the end of the train to see the nose of the bullet train.  Not quite as cool looking as Japan, but it can still hold its own in speed.  The workers looked at me funny because my peers and I were the only ones who were taking pictures in the chill, while everyone was already comfy and cozy in the train.  Once inside, there were many migrant workers who stuffed many of their belongings unorganized on top of the bars.  People were eating and constantly talking especially if they had companions sitting next to them.  There were also sliding doors that people never closed because it became and inconvenience for both the stewardness and the people walking to the bathroom.  I was anticipating a cart lady to come by, but instead I was sent the food zone that all passengers could visit.  There was no man to check my ticket because the turnstile had registered it.  The service aspect was completely removed and everyone was in their own self contained bubble within the confines of their seats.

I dare not to say that I did not have a journey to Hangzhou, but rather it made me reflect on my rides on the Shinkansen.  Within the contained vessel of the bullet train cabin, I was able to get two different experiences.  It was the Japanese perfection of the job at hand versus the loud talking, spitting [not on the floor thankfully], and space hogging people.

Even looking at the city morphology pass by when travelling from the city center to the outskirts back to the city center, I noticed the differences with Shanghai and Japan’s urban condition.  Because of the limited amount of land in Japan, most of the density is centered within the city and as you move toward the outsikts, there are few dispersed patches of civilization.  Shanghai’s sprawl was apparent from the cabin as I saw a continuous fabric of clustered developments that eventually transitioned into fields of farmland.

Riding in the high speed rail in two different countries made this trip come full circle in multiple scales.  Zoomed in, I can make observations of the collective.  By zooming out just a little bit, I can see the urban strategies of sprawl and densification.  Zooming out and looking at Japan and China, I can conclude that each country is at different levels of development.  While Japan is connecting the already extablished and propogating cities, China is using high speed rail to link cities that are still growing.  This fascination and excitement for both China and Japan have variations sets of factors giving each other the tension and an opportunity for me to spot these differences.


Filed under: China, everyday, Hangzhou, high speed rail, Japan, News, Shinkansen, Tokyo, Transportation,

The City: through the lens of transport








Filed under: airplane, Architecture, boat, China, ferry, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Public Transportation, streets, Subway, Tokyo, train, Uncategorized, Urbanism, Video, walking

The Sleeping Giant

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve.”

-General Isoroku Yamamoto after the bombing of the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.

The Harvard-educated Yamamoto, quoted above, accurately predicted the insurmountable awakening of the United States industrial machine as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II and forever altered the international power structure of the 20th century. For the rest of the century, the United States would be the benchmark by which the rest of the world measured itself, in regards to economics, politics, infrastructure, and industrial might. That was then. This is now. At the dawn of the 21st century, the sleeping giant that was awakened by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor is asleep once again, sedated by complacency on the world stage. While the rising stars of China and India work steadfastly day and night to reach the plateau currently occupied by the red, white, and blue, the Lone Superpower nation squabbles within its ranks, letting the partisan politics of its Republic keep its eye within itself, not on the world around it.

The encapsulation of the nations current predicament can be seen in the topic of high-speed rail development. At present, China, amongst other top economies in the Asia, have, are developing various high-speed rail systems in order to lay a solid infrastructural foundation that is needed for their growing countries. This is not an Asian phenomenon though. Western Europe famously has one of the most thorough and efficient rail-networks in the world. Once one is in a European country, they have unlimited access to the rest of the continent by train, instead of by plane. It is cheaper and more efficient to move by train.

The U.S., however, has seen little logic or appeal for this infrastructure layer of high-speed rail. Why take a high-speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco when one of the many airlines can offer a relatively low price?

O, let me count the ways.

For examples-sake, let’s imagine that you are flying out of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for a business meeting in San Francisco. There’s no problem, the flight is only about an hour long, much faster than using any high-speed rail that would take about two hours and forty minutes (according to California High-Speed Rail Authority Development). But wait, there is that transit time just to get to LAX and then security, and knowing that there is guaranteed to be traffic in route, so you have to give yourself at least two hours just to get to the airport. So, in all, we are talking about three hours just to get to San Francisco International Airport, where you will then have to arrange for another travel means of getting to your business meeting inside the city, and not twenty minutes south of the city where the airport is. Then again, if you took the high-speed rail, not only could you have gotten to the Bay Area more quickly, but also then transferred to the efficient Bay Area Rapid Transit train system that would have brought you even closer to your destination. Not only is the high-speed rail connecting the major urban nodes of San Francisco to Los Angeles, but it is also connecting the two cities micro-transit systems.

::Poking the sleeping giant::

O.K., American Public, you are still not impressed with the fact that you would save more time and possibly money by taking the high-speed rail. A high-speed rail development would also boost the economic growth along the entire rail network. We are in a recession are we not? Imagine being able two live in central California and be able to work in either the San Francisco or Los Angeles area, without paying the often-outrageous living and property costs. It might take you an hour to get to work, but what’s the difference between spending an hour on the train and an hour stuck in traffic on the 405 Freeway. We have already seen the economic impact of Japan’s bullet train. According to the Shanghai Daily, the Shinkansen, connecting Tokyo and Osaka (two of Japan’s largest cities) has “rejuvenated rural towns that would otherwise be too distant from major cities.” Not only are “living costs lower [in the in-between areas], but residents can commute to either city while the city’s own business will be developed.” This practice has also been put into use in China, where a high-speed rail planned between Shanghai and Hangzhou will, according to article in the Shanghai Daily, “eventually integrate the cities and force Hangzhou businesses to become more competitive.”

This is known as the Dumbell Effect. You’ve seen it already, America, every time you go to your local malls. Have you not noticed how your Nordstrom’s, and your Macys chains anchor the ends of the mall, with smaller retailers in between? The larger retailers act as the points that draw you, the shopper, through the mall from one end to the other, with the in-between smaller retailers benefiting from this movement. Imagine that on more macro-scale, such as California.

::Poking the sleeping giant::

Are we starting to get the picture?

“No,” replies the airline industry, “the high-speed rail would kill our already fragile industry. We couldn’t take that competition.” Competition. Capitalism. Is that not what this country thrived on for so many decades? Competition not only with the rest of the world, but within ourselves, has made our country better as a whole. We live in an era of globalization, where not only are the world’s economies connecting with one another through trade and technology, but everything is shared, most of all information. We are living in an era of supermodernism, where our cities are growing similarly and facing the same problems as well. The sprawl of Los Angeles and the issues it is facing are some of the same ones that Beijing and Madrid are facing as well. There is bumper-to-bumper traffic on the streets alongside Tiananmen Square just as there is gridlock on the streets alongside Pershing Square.

::Punching the sleeping giant::

“O, China is a developing country. Of course they are going to have those types of problems.”

Then what is our excuse for having those problems? We are the Long Superpower! Even worse, what is our reason for doing little or nothing about it? Partisan, partisan, partisan. Democrat, Republican, Independent, Green Party, Tea Party: everyone wants to do it their way, or no way at all.

Randai O’Toole writes in his USA TODAY article “We can’t afford the luxury of high-speed rail,” about how the enormous cost of implementing a high-speed rail system is too high and not worth the cost. He writes how the $500 billion cost of President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail proposal is comparable to the $450 billion paid to the Interstate Highway System, “which provides more than 4,000 miles of passenger travel for every American, miles that Americans were not traveling before the system was built. Mr. O’Toole, when was the Interstate Highway system put in place? If my memory serves me correctly, it was after World War II. You’re going to sit there and write that an infrastructural system over half a century old is still serving our country adequately, even in a new century? Please tell that to millions of Los Angeles citizens who spend hundreds of hour in gridlock every year. And no, adding another lane to the 605 freeway is not going to alleviate traffic congestion enough so there is not traffic grid-lock seven days a week.

::Kicking the giant::

Mr. O’Toole goes on to make the claim the high-speed rail would only serve the urban elite.

“Since most high-speed rail stations will be in downtowns, the main users will be downtown workers such as lawyers, bankers, and government officials. Yet less than 8% of American jobs are in central city downtowns, meaning all Americans will subsidize trains used by only a small urban elite.”

So, Mr. O’Tool, are you saying that only the urban elite of New York utilizes the cities subway and commuter rail transit systems? Or how about how the upper class is the main user group on the Los Angeles metro lines everyday during rush hour? Recheck the demographics of public transportation user groups and you will find that fair majority of its users are of the lower and middle class.

“High-speed trains in Europe and Asia may be a boon to American tourists, but they haven’t proved transformational in those regions either. France and Japan have the world’s most extensive high-speed rail networks, yet their average residents ride the high-speed trains less than 400 miles a year.”

“Haven’t transformed those regions either.” Is Japan, along with the United States, one of the top economies in the world? Have you been to Tokyo, Mr. O’Toole? Perhaps one of the reasons that the average resident rides the high-speed train less than 400 miles a year is because the geographic area of Japan is only 145, 925 square miles with a population of 127 million people (that’s 873 people per square mile), compared that to the United States, with an area of 9.8 million square miles with a population of 310 million (83 people per square mile). It is also perhaps that more often than not, the average Japanese person’s home and work is often in close vicinity because of the country’s small area. And if they do not live in close proximity to their work, Japan’s metro and commuter transit system is one of the most widely used and efficient means by which to travel. In the United States, where the average American might work in the city but live in the suburbs, the conceptual framework for the argument changes.

As for high-speed rail not transforming regions, look at the high-speed rail being put into place between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, two Chinese cities with populations of fifteen and seven million respectively. An hour drive separates the two cities, but will soon be connected by a high-speed rail that will move users from one city to the other in 14 minutes. 14 minutes. It is estimated that the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Metropolis will be amongst the largest metropolises in the world, containing a population of over 20 million people. America’s largest city is New York City, a mere eight million. How’s that for transforming a region, Mr. O’Toole?

::Dropped piano on the sleeping giant::

Come on, America, you can’t afford not to wake up.

-Christopher Glenn

Filed under: American mall, BART, Bay Area, Bay Area Rapid Transit, Beijing, California, Dumbell Effect, economic growth, Economics, Globalization, high speed rail, Hong Kong, Infrastructure, Interstate Highway System, japan, Los Angeles, lower class, middle class, Osaka, partisan, Pearl Harbor, Politics, President Barrack Obama, randai o'toole, rural, san francisco, Shenzhen, Shinkansen, sleeping giant, supermodernism, Tokyo, traffic, Uncategorized, upper class, urban areas, usa today, World War II, Yamamoto,

Lost in Tokyo

It could be said that Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation could be filmed in any Eastern metropolis. The story line is simple; two strangers meet in a foreign city and through the mutual feeling of loneliness find comfort with each other. Easy right? But not quite true. Tokyo is as much as of a character as Bill Murray’s, Bob Harris and Scarlett Johansson’s, Charlotte.

First off, let’s define protagonist: the main character (the central or primary personal figure) of a literary, theatrical, cinematic, or musical narrative, around whom the events of the narrative’s plot revolve around. In Lost in Translation, Tokyo is the protagonist. It is a city that knows itself and within its network of streets, signs, and buildings two people find themselves “lost.” Within each frame, the city has its presence, the emotions of the characters enhanced by their surroundings.  The intrigue in Lost in Translation is not only the friction between Bob and Charlotte, but between them and Tokyo. There is a level of detachment that can be seen in every shot of Charlotte gazing out into the panoramic view of the city. There is a sense of isolation with the visual; the plane of glass becomes protection from the outside while being partial to the otherness looking in.

Tokyo is presented to world as being global yet as soon as you touch down there is a strong local presence. You are cast into a medley of foreign signs and overwhelmed by the new. Pretty soon you begin to look for some sense of familiarity. That is usually reached at the hotel. Once you arrive you take in your room, immediately heading to window to get one more glimpse of the new before you take in the comforts of “home.”  Just as the window was a buffer between Tokyo and Charlotte, Park Hotel became the median point for us. But even within the confines of our room the city began to influence us. With its flashing lights, towers, and transit system we began to be taken over yet never embraced. There in lies the tension between Tokyo and the visitor. There always seems to be a sense of distance that you cannot breach. Of course not knowing the language effects this distance but after being in Korea, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, all dense cities where language is a factor, you realize there is something else going on in Tokyo.

Tokyo’s personality can be described as cold, robotic, and relentless; a place where no one seems to “stop talking, walking, or existing.” You begin to wonder how you can stitch yourself into this fabric of pristine white shirts and seemingly choreographed movement. It is this frustration that adds to the intrigue of the city. You begin to venture out further to try and understand what makes the city tick. In the subways you begin to watch the mannerisms of the Japanese. Almost trying to disappear in the background and not interrupt the exchanges going around you, as if by existing you change the dynamic of the subway car.

Tokyo asks you to not only join but to observe and understand. In order to do this you have to become “lost” within the fabric. You have to walk the streets of Shibuya and Ginza and not only shop but experience. You have to look the flashing lights, the bright neon signs as not only a given but a way of communicating. You have to take in the dense urban fabric and understand why. That is the hard part. It is not a city waiting in the wings. It is fast pace and moving. You have to jump in and seek and maybe, just maybe it will find you too.

– Precious

Filed under: Architecture, Japan, Lost, Tokyo

Anywhere, Everywhere

The world of today is growing ever larger, yet paradoxically growing smaller simultaneously. The common man can now access everything in the world much closer both physically and virtually, and the scope of that reach has leaped tremendous bounds through telecommunications and technology. And it doesn’t just stop there; globalization has cultural and economic implications as well. Continued spread of cultural consciousness all embody an overarching goal to diffuse culture across the world. As such, more and more consumerist ideas are adopting technology and communication as a means to advance the proliferation of foreign products as a way to participate in the global culture. But the spread of globalization has its inherent consequences. A phenomenon that seeks to unify a largely diverse group of individuals into one singular, functioning society will have a large impact on the urban both on the physical and social levels. If the world is systematically being reduced, on the spatial front, as a result of increased mobility, Ibelings concludes that, “space itself is being steadily reduced to a zone that is traversed, an interval in a continuous movement interrupted at most for a brief stopover”. We all experienced this notion of spatial reduction on our first flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo. With merely a brief stop in Hong Kong, our 12-hour flight took us from one country to another, merely passing through several airport lobbies and train stations, spaces of “placeless-ness”. As such, the result is a loss of meaning within built structures. Spaces such as airports, bus terminals, subway stations are all transient spaces serving the modern, mobile person. The mere function is not for social gathering, but rather a nodal diffusion point within a broad network of transit oriented services. Thus, unlike post-modernism, which seeks to charge meaning into the built structure through contextualization, this new age of “Supermodernism” rejects that in favor of a more neutrality through non-places. With this in mind, it is conceivable to envision the future of cities within the era of globalization as conglomeration of service industries. Individualization of services and the autonomy of individuals in relation to the urban would totally affect the use of public/semi-public space as less and less “social”. These spaces do not function or act in the traditional way that perhaps a town center is used as meeting grounds; there is no “special attachment” that creates any meaning to it. If, in fact, places are charged through social interactions between individuals and memory, the contemporary notion of traversing through transition spaces creates non-places.

The modern man, as Ibelings puts it, is “constantly being bombarded with information” (abundance of signage). Whether it’s the virtual gamut of research we have at our fingertips, or the commercial intensity of neon signs we walked through in Kowloon, the global industry of commercialism seems heterogeneous from the observations we’ve conducted throughout the trip. The fact that we’ve seen McDonalds in every city and country we’ve been to so far, or that high end retail here still encompasses brands such as Prada, Gucci, etc. all speak towards the global nature of commerce. On the architectural/urban front, the consequence of such programmatic and social tendencies creates heterogeneous urban physiology in almost all major global cities. Ibelings states that contemporary architecture has lost all contact with context and is an, “architecture in which superficiality and neutrality have acquired a special significance”. As cities, more so nations grow to attract investments abroad, the tendency is to create a “branding” of sorts to showcase modern services. Architecture has become large, monumental, and stylized, a slogan for many countries to attract global attention. “Starchitects” like Rem, Gehry, Nouvel, and many others have captivated the world with architectural wonders of the contemporary age. China is now the new stage for supermodernism to play out itself within the urban developments sweeping across the nation. As both China and the rest of the world continue to globalize, it will be interesting to see the evolution of cities on the macro scale, as well as the development of the social and urban spaces within the micro.



Filed under: Architecture, China, Ibelings, Japan, Shanghai, supermodernism, Tokyo, Urbanism

The bitter mote…of a soul?

Ever since the first computers, there have always been ghosts in the machine. Random segments of code that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul. Why is it that when some robots are left in darkness, they will seek out the light? Why is it that when robots are stored in an empty space, they will group together, rather than stand alone? How do we explain this behavior? Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter mote… of a soul?

As an architect, you have the power to control everything. As an architect, you lack the power to control anything. That is the lesson I am discovering on this leg of our journey through Hong Kong and Shenzhen. We have visited countless architecture works by architects from Ando to Ito to Koolhaas to Foster and yet, no matter how star-studded and acclaimed these architects may be, I argue that not a single one can design a building where they control every surface and every interaction that occurs within its realm. We encountered an unexpected programmatic use on the ground floor of Norman Foster’s Hongkong and Shanghai Bank on a Sunday (if you visit, it has to be a Sunday!). There, blanketing the ground floor that powerful bank executives cross everyday during the week, are hundreds of Filipino women and children, sitting down, playing cards, and taking in the Sunday relaxation. You could look around the grounds for a sign designating the area Sunday Picnic Space but you would never find it. I am reminded of the old architect mantra “build it and they will come.” No offense to Lord Foster, I do not believe he anticipated the use of his ground floor for leisure rather than business. Instead, we witness a fascinating parasitic weekly occurrence. The building acts as a “host” to the people, who utilize the space for short periods of during the week and then leave. What makes this phenomenon more prodigious is that something of this nature is seldom seen back in the States. The main operating principle of a parasite is that it feeds off of its hosts but never harms it. The ground floor is never left with trash or waste when Sunday ends. How many times has a parking lot outside of a stadium been left spotless after a day of tailgating?

These types of conditions are more closely detailed in Junzo Kuroda’s Made in Tokyo: Guide Book. Kuroda’s guidebook chronicles various urban spatial situations throughout the city of Tokyo that are unique because of odd programmatic groupings. Kuroda labels these situations as Da-me architecture, or not the “architecture of architects.” He observes instances such as a highway department store, roller coaster building, and a graveyard tunnel that are a result of an organic city that breathes, consumes, and produces. As architects, we cannot ignore the fact that often times the city creates where architects or civil engineers do not. We must accept that the city evolves and morphs on its own.

The film quote above is by a scientist discussing the artificial intelligence of robots and the possibility of a machine having a soul. Why is it that when [programs] are stored in an empty space, they will group together, rather than stand alone? I witnessed one instance of this along one stretch of street in Hong Kong. As we traveled on the tram, we passed dry-fruit stand after dry-fruit stand, all lined up next to each other. Then it would change to light store after light store. Groupings of similar program change as the fabric did. Is this by coincidence or the act of architect or engineer? Did the entire dry-fruit stand owner population get together and decide to post up their shops next to each other?

Rather, there is anintelligence at work. An intelligence that seeks to counter the “void phobia,” as Kuroda describes it, that the city of Tokyo combats by filling every available space, even the smallest amount of space that can be filled by a vending machine. This void phobia exists over streets in Hong Kong, with signs stretching over and past one another, fighting to gain leverage over the other. This intelligence is everywhere. You only have to look.

-Christopher Glenn

Filed under: code, cross programming, da-me architecture, ghosts in the machine, Hong Kong, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, intelligence, Junzo Kuroda, koolhaas, Made in Tokyo, mote of a soul, signage, sunday picnic, Tokyo, Uncategorized, unexpected protocol, Urban, void phobia,

A Simulated Retrospective

While watching the film Tokyo Ga, I couldn’t help but think of the idea of simulacra and simulation- a concept propelled by Jean Baudrillard.  For Baudrillard, simulations are more real and better than reality. A simplified example of this would be a football game- going to the actual game would be the real experience, and watching the game on TV would be the simulated one. One may consider the simulated one better because you have the comfort of your living room, get instant replays, and never have to worry about someone blocking your view.  The simulation is therefore a different reality than the truth of its origin.   This is a crucial part of understanding Tokyo for me.  I started to realize this with the viewing of Tokyo Ga.  Every incidence in this film seems to prove a simulation of reality- the wax food, the golfers, and the greasers.  The pieces of wax food seem too perfect to be real- in fact, their very lack of imperfections seems to declare them as unreal.  The Japanese greasers have no historical connection to what they were doing.  The pseudo golfers, legitimately think they’re golfing but have so thoroughly detached it from its origin that it no longer retains the same objective of getting a ball in a hole.

Our own experiences echo those documented in the film and further prove to be simulations of truth.  We witness greasers do their thing, bumpin’ their music- when I’m not too sure they knew what the Rock’a’Billies even were.  On every street we walk wax food seems to haunt us.  We even spot a golfing range in a well-netted enclosure and men practicing their swing with a rolled up newspaper.  Clubs play American music from several years ago, or even Disney music from most American’s childhoods, but the Japanese eat it up as if it were the greatest trendiest thing out there.  Nothing however compares to a local baseball game. The experience is unlike any American baseball game I have ever seen.  As Americans, the point is to go to see your team win, and hopefully get few drinks and good laughs while you’re at it.  But for Japanese, you’re there to support you team- win or lose.  The baseball leagues don’t even seem to be that good by American standards, but still the people come, doting umbrellas, team flags, and other team paraphernalia.  When a home run hits, everyone opens their umbrellas and cheers, pumping their umbrellas to the sky.  Their ‘game-food’ somewhat references our own- plates of ‘lil-smokie’ type wieners and oddly sauced potato wedges with the addition of takoyaki and rice curry.

None of these things connect back to their original meanings, to their truths.  They only make vague references, yet somehow become better than the actual due to their simulated nature. To compare these two counterpoints would be irrelevant.  The greasers take on a different social construct than their predecessors because of their adoption into this new context.   People are more excited and happier with these simulations because it fits their environment appropriately.  If one were to misplace these simulations into the settings of their original they would have no bearing.  It’s the wax food that entices one into the restaurant, the loyal spirit of supporting your team that draws you to the game, and the eccentricity of being a greaser in a homogenous society that are the truths of these things, the simulation, not the real truths they represent, the simulacra. It affects us a visitor to this setting because we become part of it. We become part of the ‘other’ that is the environment of the simulated.

So how does this connect to architecture?  Three buildings we saw describe how- the Tokyo Forum, Sendai Mediatech, and the port in Yokohama.  These buildings use shipbuilding as an instrument to a new reality.  Some essence or truth of ship building is transformed into something new and unrecognizable from its origin- and it’s beautiful.  They no longer relate to their simulacra, no longer hold the same truth of functionality.  They have their own realities of unmitigated structural boundaries.  The Tokyo Forum uses ship building as a structural basis to construct a multi-level open space the size of two football fields with only two columns.  It essentially uses ship building techniques to ‘float’ a solid structure in ephemeral space.  Consequently using the same techniques but disconnecting it from its inherent function, to float in water.  Sendai Mediatech uses ship building techniques to connect its structural features that curve in ways land based architecture cannot fully answer.  Each tube is treated as a ship’s bow and is used to hold up each floor, circulation elements, and service elements.  These techniques could not be farther removed from its original function.  However, it works in a whole new manner separate from its original idea yet still referencing its origin.  This instance is most fully reflected at the Yokohama port.  Sectionally this structure reads as a ship, walking into the body of the building even feels like you are in the bowels of a ship.  Furthermore it is used to board cruise liners and floats in its own precarious way like a ship.  Walking to its edges is even like standing on the edge of a ship looking onto the ocean.  Yet this ‘thing’ is ironically used to board the vessels it reflects.  The ship references in this project create a different typology that does not functionally connect to its origin.  In all these cases the reference is there but its original purpose removed, thereby making judgments based on the original irrelevant.  They are not less real than their predecessors, they just follow a different truth.  Subsequently they are the simulation of the simulacra, they are the Rock’a’Billies of Japan, they are the wax examples of food, and the golfers without a club or ball.

Filed under: Architecture, Tokyo

“The Ants Go Marching”

Prior to arriving in Tokyo, I have this preconceived image of what Japan will be. Clips from Blade Runner and The Fifth Element feed the growing sense of intimidation with which I expect to soon be faced. Zooming around skyscrapers in flying vehicles with her bright orange hair and strappy outfit, Milla Jovovich somehow comes to represent what I will find here.

The ride on the limousine bus from Narita Airport to Park Hotel is reassuring. Aside from the foreign vegetation growing on the side of the road and the fact that we are driving on the left lane of the highway, things aren’t looking too extraordinary. We arrive, check in, and head out for dinner. Nothing crazy.

It isn’t until we enter the subway system that it hits me. This city is alive.

The network of subterranean stations seems too good to be true. Layers upon layers of trains and tracks worm their way beneath the bustling city. Crowds of daily commuters board and exit as if following their own invisible network of tracks with tunnel vision. As densely packed as these stations are, everyone knows where they are going and how to arrive at their destinations. Efficiency is key, and nothing is an afterthought. It also helps that when a train is scheduled to arrive at 11:23am, it actually arrives at 11:23am.

Beyond the station checkpoints, seemingly endless networks of stairs and escalators carve away at the ground and ceiling, giving a glimpse of light above and routes that lead even deeper into the earth. Shops and skylights enticingly line the path from one platform to another, suppressing the instinctive urge to break the surface for a gulp of air.

Even when one does emerge from below, the connection to this underground network remains very much intact. Rising through the levels of a building, there is a constant reference to stations found beneath the horizon of skyscrapers. It feels as if the city protrudes directly from the ground with a thin skin draped over its back, manifested in what we perceive as simply architecture.

Peering down from the uppermost levels reveals the grander scheme being carried out. Lights and shadows delineate meticulously choreographed paths. As I choose a pair of headlights to follow, I am reminded of the times when I observed ants crawling along the edge of a sidewalk, easily dodging pebbles and puddles. Of course at that time I also held a magnifying glass in my hand, waiting to catch the right angles of light so I could burn holes into leaves and fry the little critters. For those that escaped my childish curiosity there likely awaited a series of tunnels and chambers at their destination.

Suddenly Tokyo is no longer just a city.

It is a collection of void-filled mounds occupied by a group of organisms living and working for the greater good. Specific roles are delegated and carried out in a manner that allows the collective to function as a single entity. There is a sense of reluctance to step out of line and express individuality, in much the same way that ants avoid straying from the group. The one who wanders likely finds itself under a hot spotlight.

– alfredo

Filed under: Anthill, japan, Tokyo, Uncategorized,

Grasping Zen

During our two weeks in Japan we were able to make many correlations between the highly disciplined nature of Japanese culture and the refined complexity of their urban planning and architecture.   It was obvious that the social ideology of the Japanese people manifested itself in the streets they walk down, the metros they ride and the buildings they inhabit.  Every element of the city works harmoniously to uphold this social system that has been embodied in its people for generations, long before the city itself existed.  However, in our quest to critically observe, analyze and draw conclusions from the urban conditions we experienced in Japan, there was one crucial element that was never comprehensively discussed – the concept of Zen.

Zen, as a metaphysical construct of Buddhism, is in fact the antithesis of Japan’s contemporary social condition.  The Japanese people are ritualistically self-conscious and live in a perpetual state of anxiety concerning self-image and objective status.  John Clammer in Aesthetics of the Self, reiterates this point when he states, “…it is in Tokyo that the consumer culture of modern Japan has reached its apotheosis, it has done so in the context of a society in which both conformity and aestheticism have reached high levels.”  Such high levels in cultural cohesiveness were achieved through a social system reliant on the individual consumer’s ability to maintain self-control.  From the mundane day-to-day tasks to the distinctive tea ceremony ritual, every act must be performed with the utmost discipline and self-awareness, resulting in a culture characterized by anxiety.  This can only be relieved by leveraging Zen as an outlet for this pressure to perform appropriately.

Architecture is then what allows Zen to transcend its metaphysical nature and offer a morphological answer to the Japanese consumer culture.  It enables one to release the egocentricity tied to their societal role and be comfortable in that moment in place and time. As observed in the temples of Kyoto and the traditional gardens of Ryaonji, Zen is the basis for which sequential layering of spaces can be determined in order to place the viewer in a “removed” state-of-mind.  Specific room adjacencies, connection of interior to exterior, and material palettes can all be physical instances of Zen. Most notable are instances of pure, uncluttered spaces.  By doing away with the emblems and symbolisms associated with a consumer-based culture, the viewer can focus simply on the self.  In this respect, Zen can be credited with many of the functionalist and minimalist undertones of the Japanese design aesthetic.

Being a somewhat close-minded westerner myself, I often turn to the teachings of Alan Watts, a philosopher who breaks down Eastern philosophy for western audiences.  Above is a video clip of his brief introduction to Buddhism in Japanese Culture along with scenes from our experiences of Tokyo and Kyoto. Scenes in black and white reflect the self-conscious exterior appearance of the city and it’s inhabitants.  When the scenes become saturated with color there are conditions of Zen influence, where symbolisms relating to self-image are removed.

Note: Japan has the 5th largest percentage of Buddhists, with 96% of the population practicing the religion.

Bryn Garrett

Video: Alan Watts – Buddhism as Dialogue #2

Filed under: Buddhism, Japan, japan, kyoto, Tokyo,


The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu