USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Lookin’ Good

I can confidently say that many of us in this program, myself included, were firstly intrigued by architecture because of its aesthetic value.  Even up to the point when we all decided to choose it as our course of study and possibly our career, the thought of designing a visually appealing, beautiful building principally fueled our pursuit of architecture.  There is no doubt that by now we are able to transcend our initial aesthetic conceptions of what great architecture is, and to consider the functional, polemical, and societal implications of design.  But at the end of the day, we still want our work to look good, and more so, to look unique.  What happens then, when this allure of creating the next iconic and significant architectural aesthetic becomes harder and harder to realize?  As Winy Maas of MVRDV points out in Towards and Urbanistic Architecture, “The notion that from a technical standpoint everything that can be constructed coincides with the awareness that every type of architectural object has been made.  Have we reached the limits of architecture?”

The current digital age and the universal access to information, photos and drawings of nearly all significant projects of the past and present are without question leading contributors to this crisis.  Maas points to the, “rapid spread of ideas through international magazines, the increasing opportunities for collaborating with local architects abroad, the speed of technology, and the employment of a common pool of students [that] lead to a convergence rather than a differentiation of architectures.”  We have witnessed this constantly over the past months.  Last week at the design office where class is held, as I browsed through the many physical models of the firm’s projects with several classmates, we couldn’t help but designate each to its’ respective stylist.  Koolhaas, BIG, SOM… the list went on, without crediting the actual designer with any originality.

This example only refers to the pinnacle of architecture, however, which in reality makes up only a trivial percent of the built environment.  The crisis is even more noticeable in what remains.  From the cookie-cutter McMansions of Orange County to the endless public housing towers of Hong Kong, the fabric suffers from a majority of the same.  “Currently, the world is dominated by cheap, banal structures, a sea in which the architectural object ceases to exist.”  This condition is rationalized, however, by economic and political viability.  Replicable construction processes and efficient floor plan extrusions minimize the need for pricy design consultants and maximize occupancy and developer profits.  In the end, everyone gets what they want, but the quality of design and visual distinctiveness suffers.

The question still remains then, how do we as architects realize a new aesthetic amidst the overwhelming uniformity of the existing fabric, without merely referencing a previous architecture?  Maas suggests that this crisis “bifurcates the role of architecture.  On the one hand the interior becomes more important, and on the other, the urbanism is brought to the fore.”  In my opinion, the solution rests with the latter of these.  Urbanism encompasses an entire list of issues that surpass those of just architecture, a list that is ever diversifying and thus has the potential to inform a new aesthetic.  Time, scale, infrastructure, growth, migration, mobility, specialization and climate are some of the larger issues Maas identifies that will literally, “shape architectural practice in the decades to come.”  The aesthetic potential of the urban agenda and urban design has continued to amaze me, especially now that we have been tasked with creating such.


Filed under: About, Aesthetic, America, Architecture, China, MVRDV, Towards an Urbanistic Architecture, Urbanism, Winy Maas


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