USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Failure, and the City

Throughout many parts of rapidly developing China remarkable juxtapositions exists. It is not in the least bit uncommon to see wealth, right next to poverty. Or is it uncommon to observe beautiful natural landscapes, interjected with mechanized industrial complexes. However, in Shenzhen there exists a particular juxtaposition, that when carefully examined, could provide deep insights into the way that, architects, planners, and urbanists think about the city. One instance of the juxtaposition is typically a tight aggregation of small buildings reaching five to six stories in height that spreads over, what would be three to four city blocks. Within this instance, the streets are full of people gathering in multitudes of shops and restaurants. Small businesses line the streets, and vendors enthusiastically sell anything from clothes and food to furniture. However, in this instance forms of oppression also exist, prostitution and drug abuse among others are evident. Furthermore, sanitation and other infrastructure components are often lacking quality in this instance. The other instance occurs often times just on the other side of a street of the first. It is typically defined by newly constructed towers in a controlled complex. The complexes often provide resources such as educational facilities for young children or facilities for leisure such as restaurants. The former instance typically is identified as an urban village while the latter is one of the common copies of new Chinese developments.

The insights that can be gained from these two instances arise not from their individual qualities but instead from circumstances of their creation. The Urban villages exist as a combination of residual policies left from the communist organization of China, and market demands created by the wave of urbanization. The borders of the urban village are determined through a governmental process where negotiations are made between villagers and the provincial government. The negotiations result in the former agricultural land of the villages being exchanged with the government for compensation. The resulting islands of land owned by the villagers after some time become surrounded by the city. The villagers often take advantage of the opportunity this creates by building apartments or commercial space that are then leased, which provides income for the villagers. The villager’s right to develop their property usually results in what is typically known as an urban village. Subsequently, government or a developer becomes reengaged and negotiates again in an effort to replace the urban village with new, usually tower, developments.

When the city is considered as a whole both of the two conditions, of urban village and modern skyscraper development, exist within the same ecosystem. Both conditions are results of political policies and economic demand. Both conditions satisfy a certain niche that is needed by the city. In certain yet distinct ways both conditions represent a form of chaos evident in the city. As much as politicians, developers, planners, and architects try to control the physical outputs their efforts will not affect the underlying chaotic inputs. In the essay “What Happened to Urbanism,” Rem Koolhaas writes, that the chaotic inputs,” happens when things are not designed, it cannot be engineered, it infiltrates, architects can only resist it and fail.” However, even with lack of control comes responsibility. The urbanist has tools to activate the city for higher potential. The tools might be as tangible as infrastructure, architecture, or public space. Or the tools might be intangible such as culture, community, and pride. However, even with these tools urbanists have failed to improve the potential of cities, in fact sometimes they failed spectacularly. Nonetheless the city has flourished. Koolhass argues that regardless of failures architects and urbanists need to take a stand on urban issues. By taking a position these professions can in fact learn from their mistakes and hopefully improve in the future. In China the issue of the Urban Village and skyscraper is evolving. The country is taking a stand, and learning from mistakes. It is now that many professions have the opportunity to guide the course of this work and have a historical impact.


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Voyeurs or walkers?

Too often do we associate our designs to be used by the users at a specific manner. Designed space is used by a variety of users. Hence, the way humans interact with space is different for everyone. This applies to cities as well. Not only do we have to investigate the basic forms and structures and macro view of the cityscape, but also the culture and social aspect of the city. Hence, to fully understand a city, we have to observe the city from a geometrical and anthropological perspective.

De Certeau explores the two types of cities, the geometrical and anthropological. As a voyeur overlooking the city from a bird’s eye view, he only understands the overall physicality of the city. Being so detached from the city, it is impossible to understand the city. Certeau comments that “this panorama-city is a ‘theoretical’ simulacrum whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and a misunderstanding of practices.” Contrastingly, the anthropological city allows him to truly understand these practices, analyzing the city while walking in the city and engaging with the people. The relationship between the person, the space, and the surrounding crowd provides a bigger picture of how city acts upon users and how users act upon space.

Before arriving to Shanghai, I have always observed the city geometrically. Based on iconic photographs and maps of Shanghai, I know that the city is divided into two sides, PuDong and PuXi. Like any other “tourists”, I am amazed by the skyscrapers on the Central Business District (CBD) and by the skyline. However, purely remembering the iconic image of Shanghai’s skyline does not fully explain true mechanisms of the city – the economic, social, political, and physical aspect of Shanghai.

More importantly, immersing myself to Shanghai for the past two weeks gave myself an anthropological perspective of the city. A visit to the bund on China’s public holiday was a perfect opportunity to emerge myself into the local culture. It was a Friday night and a Chinese public holiday. I was finally part of the crowd of the locals walking and pushing along NanJing East Road to reach to the Bund. The experience was more than just enjoying the skyline of the Bund. It was more about viewing the crowd at the Bund than the skyline. While finally standing on the boardwalk of the bund after a twenty-minute struggle walking from the subway station, I was still having trouble enjoying the scenery. People were yelling to each other. A woman lost her son in the crowd. Hence, frantically pushing the crowd and calling her son’s name and talking to the phone at the same time. A man was trying to help his son to get the best view of the bund among the crowd hence pushing us and moving the crowd to get the best position on the boardwalk. Even policemen were part of the crowd, constantly blowing their whistle and waving their arms to hopefully construct order. Blowing whistles, honking cars, screaming kids, shouting policemen, and loudly talking people. Noise level at the bund had definitely risen to its highest capability.

It was then that I started to realize the real culture of this city. Glamorous buildings and skyscrapers are only iconic images for the world that Shanghai is going to be the most developed city. But to fully understand how Chinese locals utilize the city, it is important to observe their activities. Observations at the bund show that Chinese locals like to be loud and crowded. If the crowd of Chinese locals were to be replaced with Japanese locals who are known for having high discipline, the atmosphere at the bund would be different. Rather than people pushing around, spitting without hesitation, singing, or blowing the whistle, people would be quietly strolling along the boardwalk, sitting at the benches enjoying the night view, or casually sipping their beer with friends. Hence, different people with different cultural background manipulate the atmosphere of the city.

This further brings to the question of whether Shanghai’s rapid economic development of the city fits coherently with its social and cultural development. It is obvious that Shanghai has improved and developed drastically for the past ten years. The CBD proves Shanghai’s capability to achieve high economic standards by creating more building to generate money, and inviting western companies to facilitate globalization. However, it is also evident that Shanghai still needs improvement on its social and cultural development. Situations such as locals spitting at public casually, or fighting and pushing to get into the subway, or even cutting the line to pay at the “Uniqlo” store, clearly shows the lack of education for the majority of Chinese locals.

In conclusion, Shanghai shows its glamorous side geometrically. The built structures, such as skyscrapers at the CBD district and all western companies, show that Shanghai has well achieved economically. However as the city is seen from an anthropological perspective, the lack of education is shown. A better balance between the economic development and the social and cultural development would mould the city even better geometrically and anthropologically.

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Temporal Transformation

Architecture in Tokyo has more layers than initially meets the eye. They transform into deeply layered vertical landscape of light, hue, and structure throughout various times of day, which reflect the transformation that the community goes through as the day changes. Mornings are governed by the motion of a sea of white collared shirts, rushing through the metro station on their way to who knows where. At this time, the buildings are homogenous in mood and coloring, as they are preparing to fill up with the morning crowd. By the afternoon the city shifts as the second wave of people rush though, children on their way home from school, people leaving their places of work, to cafes or shopping centers, making a paced transition to their home, while the buildings start to light up and fill up with people that are done with their daily obligations and are starting to leisurely enjoy themselves. By night fall the city is in chaos with the influx of people that are on their way to be social, whether it is at the bars, clubs, restaurants or just to be seen in the crossings, the entire city comes to life with motion; at this point the buildings are illuminated with every color imaginable, most displaying billboards or other advertisements trying to catch the eye of every passerby. Throughout the day the people morph from monochromatic worker bees to luminescent social creatures, and the buildings follow suit.

Everyday, as if by clockwork, this transformation happens. In a city where refinement is a guiding factor in social and psychological development, it is hard to not notice the highly structured transformation as it unfolds throughout ones explorations.  In “Walking in the city”, De Certeau talks about the ability for places to become habitable by the local authority governing the social uses of spaces. This is apparent in the shifting of life in these buildings due to the transformation of the local authority throughout the day. The facades of these buildings catalyze this transformation through the shifts it goes through as the day passes and the people go about their daily lives.

The façade becomes more than the division of interior and exterior spaces by becoming a portal to the split personalities of the city throughout time. The development of this “façade” appropriation happens at the city scale, through the divisions of neighborhoods, to the street scale, at the division of commercial streets, to the building scale, at the physical boundaries. Each space has it’s own identity through the market that it subsists of as well as the social standards that revolve around it throughout time. It is the shift in users throughout the day that allows for the temporal evolution brought on by users as they transform throughout the day.

In conclusion, the evolution of Tokyo happens at the scale of the person as they evolve throughout the day. As De Certeau says, the local authority governs the habitability of spaces and this is true in Tokyo due to the reuse of space throughout the day allowing for the transformation of work to leisure and play to happen at the efficient and rapid pace that it does.


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Conformity of the Urban

Upon first observation, the citizens living in Tokyo seem self-disciplined to a strict adherence to order and structure. The robust Tokyo transportation system is highly efficient, accurate, and punctual. In an almost ritualistic manner, Tokyo train commuters silently form a line, allow passengers to exit the train, and board the cars with the utmost fluidity. This blasé attitude described by Author Georg Simmel is clearly evident in their behavior. Most train passengers spend their commute staring at the train’s floor or focused on a book. Social interaction between commuters that do not know each other is rare, or even non-existent. After observing the first layer of the psychology of Tokyo’s society it seems that individuals act together as one to create a better society.

Simmel extensively theorizes how the psyche of the modern man has changed with intensification of city life. Simmel describes how the metropolitan man develops a blasé attitude to cope with the amount of stimuli in a city. Furthermore, Simmel argues that as a city grows, calculability as well as the market economy grows in power. These developments are evident in many cities around the world. However, Tokyo seems to incorporate all these elements to create a level of mechanization unique to its urban fabric. In many ways the existence of the complexity found in Tokyo seems only possible through the emergence of mechanization, and the suppression of individuality.

However, as the layers of Tokyo’s society are peeled away to expose the deeper psyche, the yearning for individualism begins to show through. In subtle glimpses and hints, expressions of individuality begin to emerge from a sea of homogeneity. For the most part the society seems to stick to strict social stereotypes, but tucked into the many alleys of the city, vibrant sub-cultures thrive. Many of these subcultures act as an escape, reaction, or even a defiant notion against, the aggressive stereotypes of Japanese society. Some of these subcultures such as pachinko and anime are clearly recognizable around the city, while others stay hidden within the shadows of general Japanese society. Nonetheless, all of these subcultures pale in comparison to the driving force of cultural uniformity.

The emergence of mechanization within the Japanese Society has enabled the creation of the Tokyo metropolis, but sacrifices go hand in hand with the suppression of individuality. In his description of a generic metropolitan man, Simmel writes, “the individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of a purely objective life” (Simmel 422). The reduction of the individual to their specific duty within society seems very pronounced in Tokyo. However, the worshiping of individual freedom and power in America carries its own weaknesses and sacrifices. The cleanliness and precision of Tokyo unmistakably contrasts with the sprawl, grime, and inefficiencies of Los Angeles. Nonetheless, people around the world strive to make their way to America. Due to the influx of immigrants, the United States boasts one of the highest population growth rates among industrialized nations. In contrast Japan scrambles to find solutions to accommodate a rapidly diminishing population. Furthermore, the empowerment of the American individual may be one of the reasons why America is known for creative and technological innovation. In contrast Japan ranks last among twenty-four industrialized nations for entrepreneurial activity. The urban sprawl of America is unequivocally unsustainable. Many elements of urban development evident in Tokyo could have significant impacts if applied in the US. However, the suppression of individuality in Japan may hamper the ability to innovate creative solutions to human problems. Perhaps both societies can learn from one another in order to reach a greater future potential.

Sam R

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cost of efficiency

It’s astounding how quickly ones perception of a place can begin to shift. Japan, during the months preceding our arrival, had become built up in my mind as a place of fantastic efficiency and sense, where society functioned as it should. Coming from L.A. or more broadly, the U.S. in general this seemed incredibly appealing; on arrival this dream experienced a level of affirmation. The population exuded a certain level of awareness, blasé as Simmel calls it, that I had never seen before. Things work “properly,” public transportation is impeccable which should lead to a certain equalization of class, people are aware of their impact on the collective whole, quickly amassing into ordered lines and standing on the correct side of the escalator, they wait patiently at intersections, they follow the rules. The population, as a whole, is aware of its purpose, to make Japan economically more successful. But after this first impression, which could be described as the macro view, akin to de Certeau’s experience from the top of the World Trade Center, I had to come back down, I had to examine the situation from the micro level, from the street, and quickly my opinions on Japanese society headed in the opposite direction.

In the hope of making my impressions more understandable I will start with my conclusion, the majority of the Japanese population, like much of the globalized world, suffer from a complete absence of a self-determined consciousness, but unlike the majority of modern society, they are aware of their conscious death and have accepted it. With that said it is necessary for me to better describe my somewhat metaphorical notion of death, and death may be the wrong word for I am not sure there was life to begin with and can one exist without the other?  But I refer to the lack of self-consciousness or self-determination that permeates not only Japan but the majority of the modern world. They have no mental independence, and therefore, in my opinion, do not experience true life what the human mind is capable of. What strikes me about Japan is that the population has realized their lack of self-consciousness and accepted it. In order to achieve a consumerist society with this level of efficiency the people have had to, in what could be argued as their last conscious act, choose to give up their free will and consequently have every desire, ambition, dream catered for them.

Waro Kishi described Japanese culture as one of refinement, agglomerating technologies, ideologies, religions from their neighbors and vigorously polishing them, but instead I would describe Japan as the culture of imitation. Imitation is at the heart of consumerist culture and Japan, in my experience, is the champion of consumerism. From the vast shopping centers massed around transportation hubs to the Hips entertainment palace in Osaka, consumerism reigns supreme here and no one seems worried or ashamed. Debord describes it well near the conclusion of his work the Society of the Spectacle stating, “The acceptance and consumption of commodities are at the heart of this pseudo-response to a communication without response. The need to imitate which is felt by the consumer is precisely the infantile need conditioned by all the aspects of his fundamental disposition.”

Michael dH

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El vee for you?

Walking down Nanjing Lu, we tourists—and let’s face it, we’re often easy to spot—are approached every five to ten meters by women shoving designer logo-riddled pamphlets in our faces.  “Bah-burry.  El vee.  Best quality,” they chirp.  Then, “Good price for you.”  For me.  Right.  God forbid you allow your eyes to linger on the pamphlet for too long, and you will suddenly find yourself surrounded by a crowd of women offering similar ‘designer’ goods at ‘Chip, chip’ prices.

If and when you do decide to follow (after a long day of walking past store after expensive store of luxury goods that you need in order to become a certain kind of person who you want—but simply cannot afford—to be, you are led past the skin composed of these high-end retail stores and into the depths of the old fabric.  Via the network of narrow alleyways—a huge contrast to the wide, open shopping street—you arrive at an unmarked, ordinary door.  On the opposite side of the door, however, you are greeted with brightly lit shelves lined with neatly displayed handbags from every well-known designer label.  A bit further, and you see Chanel sunglasses, Rolex watches, and Gucci shoes, all of which look absolutely authentic, especially to the untrained eye.  The salespeople insist that their merchandise is the best available, yet the prices are completely negotiable.  Finally, if you are unable to find what you want, the ‘guide’ is more than willing to lead you to the next back-alley shop.

Counterfeit versions of almost anything are easy to find in China, whether one is looking for DVDs, fragrances, or outerwear.  Likewise, however, shoppers in China must be wary of the fact that the goods of which they think they’re buying the genuine product, such as foreign cigarettes, car parts, and even medicine, may not only be fake as well, but can also be dangerous.  And then there are the goods that fall in a ‘gray’ area—headphones, golf clubs, and computer software—where the product’s performance, not simply its exterior image, is what makes the authentic version a popular luxury item.

But how has this phenomenon come to be?  And, perhaps just as importantly, how has such blatant illegal activity not yet been abolished, despite many countries, especially the US, having expressed their frustration with the quantity of pirated goods that are crossing their borders via China?  Although the Chinese government has established many programs meant to alleviate this problem, such as a hotline that grants monetary rewards to people who report on illegal factories, these stores are all too easy to come by.  However, according to an NPR article, “experts doubt whether China can—or even wants to—enforce its own piracy laws” since the “industry of knockoffs generates income and employment for local governments” (Lim, Louisa.  “Chinese Crackdown Fails to Stem Counterfeit Goods.”  Aug. 23, 2006.).  Moreover, the availability of quality lookalikes is a major tourist attraction.  One could even argue that the brands being replicated have failed to intervene because they know that anyone buying a fake version of their product will eventually want to own a real one.

This desire to appear a certain way—wealthy, sophisticated, stylish—is what is perpetuating this vicious cycle in China.  It is hard to believe that the government is not simply turning a blind eye to the parade of easily-spotted, pamphlet-wielding women, and it is common knowledge to counterfeit sellers that, if their booths get shut down, they can simply relocate.  When Shanghai’s famous Xiangyang market (in which an estimated eighty percent of the goods were fake) was closed, stallholder Huang Xiaoyu, having been protected from punishment because her stock was valued at less than 50,000 Yuan, “thought she’d probably move her stall elsewhere.”  Were it not in the Chinese government’s best interest to allow this behavior, it would work harder to eliminate the counterfeit industry.

Now, again, I must ask what makes this industry so lucrative that the government is willing to ignore a practice that not only upsets its friends and allies, but is also known to sustain child labor and violent crime.  The answer is simple: the volume of sales that these stores produce is just too profitable to eliminate it from the Chinese economy.  And why is this the case?  We are so obsessed with outward appearances that we are eager to follow the lady from one store to the next, buying items we’ve always wanted as well as those which we hadn’t even realized we wanted until they were affordably in our financial grasp.  Moreover, the counterfeit goods in China are, notably, perfect copies of the ‘real’ thing.  Therefore, even if one could afford a real Louis Vuitton handbag, why would she invest in just one bag when she can take the same amount of money and buy an exact replica of the coveted purse plus four other expensive styles?  Then again, when evaluating the legitimacy of buying imitation goods, one can’t help but take into account (and be heavily influenced by) the ‘real fakeness’ of the items; that is, if the original and counterfeit purses are made of the same materials, assembled via the same method, and look and feel exactly the same, who’s to say that the fake isn’t the ‘real’ thing?

However, when it comes to image, the pattern in China proves that consumers are only interested in authenticity when it is immediately and physically visible, such as the case with wallets and sunglasses.  The availability of counterfeit Beats, a line of headphones known for producing high-quality sound but at a relatively high cost, demonstrates the fact that people are purely concerned with how they appear on the exterior, since the interior mechanics of the fake product—which is what makes said product special—are nothing like the real thing.  Similarly, what is the point of buying a fake iPad, when it will most likely underperform the real thing, if not to manufacture a certain image by which others will think of you?

This leads to the question, what is reality.  With the quality of counterfeits improving so much, sometimes even the professionals are fooled; counterfeits have made their way into legitimate stores, while an early 2000s study found that some fake Rolex watches were so well made that even Rolex employees had difficulty distinguishing them as replicas.  Because of this, “not even the ‘pirates’ are immune” to being ripped off; “there are even…rip-offs of successful [fake] brands, that is fakes of fakes,” (Yi-Chieh, Jessica Lin.  Fake stuff: China and the Rise of the Counterfeit Goods.  Page 22.).  Will the fakes become real?  The global phenomenon, in which people attach so much value to the iconography and branding of lifestyle goods, is perpetuating a practice of “reproduction” that is infiltrating into all other aspects of culture, especially with regards to the notion of cities and urban development.


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De-densification of the Physical City

Everyone’s eyes glued to their cell phones

By the year 2012, Korea plans on connecting every single home in the country to the Internet at one gigabit per second. Upon hearing this, the first thought that crossed my mind was how convenient it would be to stream 1080p HD quality videos on YouTube without any lag or buffering time. Its obvious, however, that the Koreans have far more important reasons for advancing their status as the “most-wired” nation in the world than for the mere sake of entertainment. We witnessed firsthand the extreme extents to which the Koreans have practiced their increasing digital prowess. They use their mobile devices to pay for public transportation, shop for clothing and other products, buy groceries, handle business, and do various pastime activities. These are all programmatic activities that at one point in time required architecture to house them.

But when all these programs are conveniently compressed into a singular handheld device readily and affordably available to an entire population, the growth of the physical city slows down.  Why waste space to build a physical grocery store? You can easily display pictures of food on the wall of a subway station and have customers scan bar codes of desired items with their cell phones on their way home.

Scanning barcodes with cell phones at subway station

All you need at that point is the manpower to deliver the food. The notion of a city’s physicality is diminished, if not completely trumped, by a nation that doesn’t simply want more efficient phones or faster internet; it wants to be a city that operates digitally. Lacking the competent manpower, landmass and political authority to compete with China, Korea has decided to conquer the intangible realm of the digital world. Consequently, the need for a physical building is so drastically reduced that the city actually begins to “de-densify” its built environment. As a result, a reduction in density leads to gradual increase in open public space.

            Chinese cities, however, cannot be any more different. Their cityscapes are covered with dozens of massive yellow cranes erecting steel skeletons of new high-rises under construction. Many of these cities, especially Shenzhen, are characterized by an artificially rapid growth of their built environments. Thus in China’s case, a city’s change in physicality becomes a standard by which we can gage the rate of its growth. Chinese cities do create parks and public spaces for leisure, but such projects do not result from a de-densification of the physical city. In fact, they have to sacrifice and allocate valuable real estate within areas of high density and rapid commercial developments for the sake of their people and their city’s image. With such rapid increases in built density, land not allocated for public spaces becomes too ex

Seonyudo Park

pensive for anything short of lucrative malls, offices, and residential high-rises. In the case of Korea, on the other hand, it is specifically the contrasting decrease in built density, resulting from a trend towards digital development, that actually leads to a reintroduction of open public spaces and landscaping. Intentions reach far beyond sheer leisure for the public. The recently finished, Seonyudo Park epitomizes this current trend of de-densification. It is an award-winning landscape project built on an island formerly utilized as a sewage plant. Its creation represents the nation’s strong willed trend toward providing more parks and public spaces for its people.

            It’s ironic how digital advancements in Korea can actually lead to a possible increase in social life. It’s a situation in which a country has become so developed in their digital prowess that they are actually stepping backward by building less buildings and implementing more green.

– Daniel

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Age of Accessibility and Notion of Authenticity

Advancement of technology and the great sense of virtual connectivity, secured by the Internet, have seemingly brought everything within our reach.  You no longer need to go to the Louvre museum to see Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  You could simply go online and look at a virtual copy of it.  You can even print out a high quality picture of it and hang it up in your living room if you want.  Technology has influenced the daily life of average people and has provided households with tools that facilitate access and connectivity.  These advancements have dramatically changed our culture.  The fact that an average person could go online and connect to almost anywhere in the globe, access a load of information, and even add information and his/her interpretation to the pool of data online, really blurs the ideas of authenticity of ideas and information.  Also, the fact that most common people have access to tools that allow for production and reproduction of works of art redefines issues of copyright.  Downloading movies and music off the Internet is an example of that.  Nowadays many people have the capability of illegally downloading almost any songs or recently released films.  So issues of copyright start to become about refraining from an activity that you otherwise, with a little bit of effort, have the capacity of doing.  Again this is an outcome of providing average people with efficient and easy-to-use tools at their disposal.  But what one might find intriguing is the extent to which reproduction of an artwork diminishes the value of the artifact.  Also, how accurately could one describe what is fake or what is real?  Is copied article or a fake-real object without merit? 

ImageDafen village, in Shenzhen China, is a great phenomenon to study.  This community is mainly made up of artists whose occupations are replicating famous paintings of artists around the world, especially westerners.  Looking at classical western art the value of the artifact was embedded in accurately and realistically depicting the subject matter and in doing so creating your own style and technique.  In case of modern art the value of the work is understood in terms of the message the artist is trying to convey through the piece and, in many cases, the process of making that piece starts to have more importance than the final outcome.  In the contrary to western art, what Dafen village artists are doing is not about originality of the artwork or the inserted message.  Their skill lays in their astonishing ability to replicate.  This is what distinctively sets western and Dafen village artists apart.  One could argue that original artists of some of the reproduced paintings you would see in the village perhaps could not have replicated their work as accurately as these community based artists. An idea that really appealed to me is the way these local artists go about dealing with the issue of copyright.  The Dafen village artists are all trained to copy a certain style or even a certain element in a painting (the eyes, the beard, etc.).  So when producing a painting a number of these artists participate at the same time each drawing only a portion of the piece.  The fact that the painting is reproduced through collaboration of multiple artists and not just one person is a loophole in dealing with copyright issues.  The works of these artists really start to question the notion of authenticity and copyright.

According to Walter Benjamin’s essay The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction “reproduction of work of art jeopardizes its authenticity and authority”. But at the same time Dafen artists do not mechanically reproduce these famous artworks.  The fact that these articles are painted by hand part of the painter’s soul gets engrained in the object through the process.  In a way, the larger effect of the reproduced art in Dafen village is that it dilutes the halo of inviolability that surrounds the iconic artworks of our time, such as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Claude Monet’s Water Lilies.  In other words, it makes art more accessible to public and great pieces of art are no longer that untouchable mystery.  I tend to agree with Mr. Benjamin when he said “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element:  its presence in time and space.” Yet what lends value to reproduced paintings of Dafen village is not their originality or authenticity but the mastery of these artists at the art of non-mechanical flawless duplication.




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Dafen Village Artist

Dafen Village Artist

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“Made in China”

“Made in China”

Urban Hive & Guangzhou Opera House

The juxtaposition of the images of the Urban Hive commercial tower by In-Cheurl Kim and the Guangzhou Opera House by Zaha Hadid would most likely draw untrained eyes initially toward the latter. The playful form of the opera house is a radical accomplishment of structure and space that is framed to compositional perfection. But what is impossible to notice from the beautifully lit and digitally enhanced images online is the quality of its detail and construction. Blatantly smeared paint on the glass rail panels and large unsmoothed spots of plaster left over by the hands of rushed and unskilled labor show clearly how China has been constructing its architecture. Meanwhile, the Urban Hive tower, can be read as repetitive or even “boring” at the superficial level with its uniformly porous exterior; however, this seemingly less interesting form is actually an extroverted structural skin constructed in a way that the Chinese would not be able accomplish at the speed at which it is developing. It is a 230 foot tall concrete skin that is almost entirely cast in place. Kim is highly respected among Korean architects for taking this route instead of using pre-cast modules which would have obviously been the more economical, time-efficient, easily adjustable method for such a repetitive skin pattern.

Cast-in-place concrete

And yet it is possible for the building to be constructed with such a high level of quality because the nation has matured over time enough in its development to come to the conclusion that quality has some kind of desired significance. Regardless of its benefits in the long-term strategy of growth and development, the nation seems to have recognized the significance of producing quality at the cost of reducing quantity in building construction.

This kind of quality in building construction in Korean cities is apparent throughout the city at the urban level. Regardless of the kind and degree of vibrancy at the pedestrian level compared to Chinese cities, streets in Korean cities are significantly cleaner and greener even though some are much older than those of many Chinese cities. It is not simply a difference in the amount and density of shoes that have stepped on a given square meter of land, but rather everything from the quality of the layout of pavers to the absence of trash and drops of saliva. These clean streets are decorated with sufficient and well-maintained greenery that make all its wide boulevards psychologically wider by giving it visual breathing room.

Ultimately, this pursuit of quality seems to come from the country’s age. Korea is at an age that is still young enough to be expanding and developing at a rapid pace like many Chinese cities, but has, at the same time, enough years of experience and trials under its belt to pursue and understand the importance of a quality life and society. This maturity culminates beautifully in the recently renewed and revitalized Cheonggyecheon River at the heart of Downtown Seoul.

Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, Korea

It is a stream decorated with stones and gentle green that flows through a contrasting sectional frame of skyscraping steel and concrete. Its specific direction of “Design” and decoration can be argued but it is unquestionably a widely used public space for the community that is even used during business hours because of its strategic location in between a long stretch of commercial high-rises. A city that is willing to spend a hefty 386 billion Korean dollars to implement such urban spaces simply for free and unmitigated public enjoyment (and not commercial gain), is a city that has matured enough to afford the money, time and political will to do so.

But after three years of careful constructing the Urban Hive, the equivalent Chinese counterparts would have designed and constructed dozens more. Is the quality of smooth plaster and even paint worth the sacrifice of building dozens more projects generating money, advancing infrastructure and widening the availability of demanded program? Spending just two months in China has lead me to a kind of calculated tolerance towards this idea of quantity over quality in growth. While the westerner might see “quality” in a single program within the boundaries of a single building, perhaps the Chinese find “quality” in the sheer density and availability of an incredibly wide plethora of programs all spread out, but accessible by intelligent infrastructure.

Intersection with seven multi-story indoor malls, restaurants, and three subway lines

While we look down at the singular quality of products that are “Made in China,” we fail to realize the sheer quantity and widespread availability of goods they produce and provide worldwide. In fact, China has managed to accomplish this feat in a mere few decades of rapid development. We can only begin to imagine where the country will be in the decades to come.

– Daniel

Filed under: building, China, construction, Facade, Infrastructure, Korea, Program, Uncategorized


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