USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

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


Located in the Qingpu district of Shanghai, Zhujiajiao is a water town lined with never ending merchants, colorful smells, and a culture that dates back 5000 years.  This video is a short compilation of my experience through this tiny village: the sights from a river boat ride and the sounds of walking through the merchant streets.  As it is impossible to remember every moment of an experience, the video slows down to focus on a few select flashes of the everyday culture in Zhujiajiao in order to enhance the reality of this unique place.



Filed under: China, River, Shanghai, Video, Zhujiajiao

Week Combine Collision Program End

The film Week End, by Godard, falls into a category of art I would also include such works of art as Rauschenberg’s combines.  It is an assemblage of events or items, although seemingly utterly disconnected and random, each part actually works together to form a greater meaning as a social commentary.

Canyon by Robert Rauschenberg

Week End is a Rauschenberg’s Combine because of the way the movie is assembled.  Each part of a combine is an already existing entity, with its own context, meaning, and allusion.  That singular part is then radically changed by being placed in a new context and used in a way it was never intended.  These parts make a whole without making a direct focus.  Rarely in Rauschenberg’s combines is one particular item the center of the viewer’s attention while the other parts are subject to its hierarchy.  Instead the parts are assembled to make one lose focus of any singular item.  As a collective, a social commentary can be derived based on a juxtaposition of the combine’s pieces.  Hence the interest of these projects lies in the tension of the elements instead an allegorical hierarchy.  This relates back to the Week End’s ‘story line’.  Seemingly random events are strung together by this bourgeois couple floating through the story like the eagle in Rauschenberg’s ‘Canyon’.  Each of the events- the car crash, the philosopher couple, the singing man in the telephone booth, or the African revolutionary narrative-  act as the paint, photography, found object, or newspaper used in any number of Rauschenberg’s combines.  Each becomes aloofly strung together, and collide as forced together programs.  Together, with the focus lost on a singular event, the whole tells the meaning.  It reveals Marxist leanings and a commentary on the upper class’s internal preoccupation onto worldly problems.  There is a specific language used to interpret either work, one not of hierarchy or direct translation, but of an optical structure- a reinterpretation of spectatorship.

These works speak loudly of Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.  Here Venturi promotes a collision of programming. Programming that is complex and ironic, paradoxical and dramatic, through a lack of simplistic order.  This order is so complex because it lacks singular focus, and instead creates foci.  Ultimately, this promotes a richness of meaning over an overt clarity of meaning.  I don’t think a statement embodies Godard’s Week End or Rauschenberg’s combines more.  Each item of Rauschenberg’s combine is a separate piece of program that collides with its neighbors, giving the overall piece complexity and more intricate level of meaning than any singular item could have on its own.  The same is true of Godard’s work.  Each event the couple experiences is like a rouge program crashing into the next in its sequence.  These incidences create a complexity of meaning that would elude any one situation shown.  These works of cinematic and fine art prove Venturi’s theories span well over more than just architecture.  This ideology is the structural system through which we can perceive.


Filed under: Architecture, Godard, Rauschenberg, Venturi, Video

The Urban Generation

At the beginning of the 1990’s, a new wave of Chinese filmmakers emerged out of industry taking the world by storm, calling themselves “The Sixth Generation”. It was coined as “the return of the amateur filmmaker” because of the trademark use of producing edgier underground films that relied on long takes, hand-held cameras, etc. However, through all the usage of techniques like nonlinear narratives, fast-motion camera, jump cuts, and a lighting style similar to film-noir, the essence of these films always revolved around the urban. This new generation of filmmakers, including Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle) portrayed a less romantic view of the urban, but focused on the disorientation and loss of place associated with the metropolis. It was the intention of these filmmakers to highlight the negative repercussions of China’s emergence on the global-economics front through the often unpleasant and mundane activities/spaces. These films are intentionally set within the metropolis as a way to narrate and deal with the urban physiology in hand with the psychological; what becomes of the public/private space in the rapidly urbanizing Chinese city? The following are various clips from two sixth generation filmmakers: Lou Ye’s Suzhou River, Jia Zhangke’s The World.

Lou Ye’s major motif of the river serves as the backdrop from which the story and, to a certain extent, the city of Shanghai is perceived. The Suzhou River has historically been a major waterway that has supplied trade and commerce to the development of Shanghai. But the former glory is sharply contrasted with what Lou depicts: dark and muddied and filled with trash. The city in the background is starkly imposed upon images of decrepit steel factories decaying at the river’s edge, the crumbling ruins of an industrial China. In essence, the Suzhou River once supplied the lifeblood to the city, but now merely acts as a relic of time, receiving the waste of Shanghai’s shift into urbanization. What is the real Shanghai, is it the romanticized picture of glamour, or is it really comprised of the gritty reality engrained within the urban fabric?

The World is a film about the unfulfilled lives of a few characters that work at a World theme park. Zhangke celebrates the glamour of this make-believe world, but undermines the superficial through exposing the deception of what the park really means. The despair of the characters is epitomized by the soul-less architectural manifestations that surround them; it is representative of their desire to escape, yet inability to actually do so. Their search for the cosmopolitan associated with the urban leads them to the false realization of “traveling the world”. If the metropolis has evolved to point of quantifying and servicing the macro, global scale as a commodity, what then becomes real? For some, a theme park may be the closest chance they have to exploring the world/culture. It is the realization (and the capacity) of China’s global emerging perspective, but presenting it in a mundane and almost repetitive way that makes The World a telling narrative of an empty, urbanized, city.


Filed under: Architecture, China, film, Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye, Metropolis, Psyche, Suzhou River, The World, Urbanism, Video,

“Terrain Vague”

While in Beijing, our group visited district 798, one of China’s contemporary art and cultural industries. While most of us, including me, went into the many galleries to observe the various art exhibitions that were put up, I spent the majority of the time walking the back alleys, hidden corners, and deserted streets that make up district 798, looking for something else. Just as much as the art contained in the designated galleries intrigued me, so did the ‘art’ that many of us take for granted, art that exists not in designated sheltered spaces but that which exists in these alleyways: graffiti.

During a workshop in Seoul, the term ‘terrain vague’ was employed to describe socially and functionally undefined urban space. The lexical meaning of ‘terrain vague’ also includes ‘vacancy’, ’emptiness’, and ‘absence’ while at the same time holding a possibility for meaning or function to be applied to these non-confirmed spaces. In contemporary modern architecture, many buildings are designed today as ‘objects’ – focal points of form and the space they contain, yet many times completely insecure of their relationship to the urban space that the building exists in. These object buildings tend to exist in an absent state, autonomously broadcasting the obsessive authorship of the architect and their arrogance in form-making. Buildings like these tend to homogenize the space displaced around them that is just as much a part of the existing urban texture as designed urban space.

At the time, I hadn’t truly grasped the meaning of this term, but walking through district 798 it became more and more clear to me what Professor Koo was referring to. ‘Terrain vague’ is urban space with no meaning, and it is artists like these that define this ‘leftover’ space. Often times, the ‘negative’ space or space ‘poche’ that is created by object buildings on a site become unaddressed and left homogenized. Spaces like back alleys, corridors, ‘butt’ ends of buildings are now becoming inhabited by graffiti artists not necessarily concerned with the money, fame, or the credit their ‘high-end’ art counterparts produce and display in galleries. Rather, they are much more concerned with a sub-cultural movement of rebellion, often expressing social or political commentary. It is activities like these now give these neglected ‘negative’ building spaces meaning, giving a social and cultural intention to spaces in the urban fabric unaddressed by the buildings that make them.

Walking through the alleyways of district 798, I was reminded very much of a famous grafitti artist based in the UK who goes by the code-name of Banksy. Banksy’s works have dealt with an array of political and social themes including anti-capitalism, anarchism, and existentialism, with commentary on the human conditions of greed, hypocrisy or despair. Banksy claims that graffiti art is much more ‘true’ to the art form because it is uninhibited and uncensored by the limitations placed on ‘high-end’ art: like the cost of entering and viewing it in a gallery, or the spatial and dimensional constraints demanded by galleries or patrons. Unlike traditional applications where type, layout, and design serve the needs of buyers and sellers, artists like Banksy through irony and sarcasm create with no social pressure and labels such as ‘success’ or ‘failure’, carry no allegiance to anyone.

While shunned by some as vandalism and deemed by many city officials as illegal, Graffiti writing is growing to become an integral part of global fashion, music, graphic design, and illustration. In trying to understand how counter intuitive shifts are eventually accepted by society, architect Bernard Tschumi wrote in his treatise, Violence in Architecture , “If the Sistine Chapel were used for pole-vaulting events, architecture would then cease to yield to its customary good intensions. For a while the transgression would be real and all-powerful. Yet the transgression of cultural expectations soon becomes accepted. Just as violent Surrealist collages inspire advertising rhetoric, the broken rule is integrated into everyday life.” Recognize that graffiti, just like architecture and other modes of meaning or concept that is given a graphic or formal interpretation by said artist or architect, becomes as Tschumi describes it: just a pause in which our current violation that can be absorbed and one day become accepted in society. Architectural space doesnt exist as a framework of function unless imbued with meaning or intention. The activities performed in spaces like the Sistine Chapel whether that be something as absurd as pole vaulting, or graffiti artists in spaces like the alleyways of 798s, give definition to that space; over time these transgressions of new activities become integrated into society and everyday life.

~ Evan Shieh

Below is a dark and politically charged opening sequence that Banksy did for the Simpsons, aired just a month ago on Oct. 10/2010. Anybody else reminded of the ‘real copy’ art production in China discussion we had and rethinking what it really means to be ‘Made in China’.

Filed under: Architecture, Banksy, Beijing, Bernard Tschumi, China, District 798, Graffiti, Graffiti Artists, negative space, Terrain Vague, Uncategorized, Urbanism, Video

Not Just Packaging

The following video compiles a series of video clips taken at the Shanghai World Expo 2010. At the World Expo, countries are promoted through their pavilion design. Exterior elevations and appearance are very important, and These wrappers become the primary way for branding. Focusing on the exterior makes sense since a majority of people will only see this wrapper, due to obscene lines (some take up to 4-5 hours to get through). On the inside, each country creates its own narrative to display their  culture and identity. The Expo’s theme, “Better City, Better Life”  is clearly present in a majority of the pavilions demonstrating their “green” lifestyle. By using different forms of media, each pavilion was able to create unique environments to display their ambitions, lifestyles, and ideas for the future. This small compilation of pavilion narratives samples some different takes on countries presentations. I hope my time waiting in line provides you with some insight towards the Shanghai World Expo 2010.
Ross Renjilian

The music used was recorded in different exhibits accordingly as follows
Australia, Austria, Portugal

Filed under: 2010, Architecture, Australia, Austria, Branding, China, Denmark, Expo, Identity, Netherlands, Norway, Pavilions, Portugal, Shanghai, Spain, Video, World, Wrapper, ,

Jump off a Building

In a recently assigned reading, “Made in Tokyo” the author connects the values of contemporary urban sports to the environments in which they are born, namely skateboarding.  I found particular resonance with this section of the article.  As a skateboarder, I continually find myself weighing the pros and cons of each city we visit in terms of the sport.  I am always pointing out “good skate spots”, and thinking about how architectural and urban elements can be utilized via the board.  “By finding residual spaces inside the closely packed urban field, and using human action to turn those surfaces into sports fields, the elements of the city gain a whole new appearance.”  Stairs become something to jump down, ledges become something to jump on, ramps become something to jump off.  Every piece of architecture is broken down into a set of elements, which are then re-visualized as urban skate parks.  How can you link one trick to the next to create a “line”?  This begins to mix architectural language with skateboarding language.  Circulation, solid/void, sequence, materiality, and even urbanism take on a whole new meaning when perceived through the lens of the sport.

One question that remains is why more designers don’t use this link between sport and architecture to their advantage.  Two days ago we visited Norman Foster’s Hong Kong Shanghai Bank.  At the ground floor, inside the voided open-air lobby, we witnessed a truly amazing spectacle.  Every Sunday, hundreds of people gather in this space to spend time with family members, eat meals and socialize.  They are so densely packed you can barely see the ground.  Obviously, this was not Foster’s intention at all.  Who would have thought a bank would become a hot spot for family time?  I see this same situation happening all the time with respect to skateboarding; interesting and physically unique pieces of architecture that become the best and most popular places to practice the sport.  Yet it is never the designer’s intent to have people skating all over their work.  If architects are able to understand this phenomenon, then they could use it as a design tool to stimulate urbanism and create a functional, programmatic and social relationship between their work and the people.

That being said, the architect must also consider the social ecology of the environment they are designing, as well as that of the larger city.  For a design to function harmoniously between the public culture and the skateboarding culture, and to ensure a duality of usage, programmatic planning and spatial designations must be carefully considered.  Since skateboarders utilize many different public amenities (stairs, seating, access ramps), it is necessary to allow the sport to function without disengaging the environment’s intended public use.  Furthermore, I find the sport’s nature particularly conducive to the social ecology of Hong Kong.  Unlike the respectful, collective and civil culture of Japan, Hong Kong’s culture is a bit more brazen and independent.  People will bump into you on the subways and streets, cars always have the right of way, and forget about any form of courteous bow or thank you.  It is not unlike major urban capitals in the West in this regard, such as New York and Los Angeles where skateboarding is most prevalent.  People don’t seem to mind the proximity of crowds and muliple activities, as evidenced in the Foster building.  Therefore, a successful balance between activity, public culture and host environment can be established.

Lastly, the economic concerns that hamper skateboarding in the West can be solved during the design process.  Property damage can be minimized with the use of proper materials and construction methods, both of which have already been perfected in skate park and skate plaza design.  Combining these material strategies with the proper programming moves, and factoring in the established social ecology of metropolitan cities, skateboarding can certainly be utilized as an urban design incentive.  If it is used accordingly, and whether or not it is successful… only time will tell.

Kaijima, Momoyo, Junzo Kuroda, and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto. Made in Tokyo. Tokyo: Kajima Inst. Publ., 2001. Print.

Filed under: America, Architecture, Made in Tokyo, Skateboarding, Uncategorized, Urbanism, Video


In Tokyo, the unfamiliarity of such extreme cultural organization and efficiency allowed me to observe the Japanese from a very removed perspective.  Because of the language barrier, my observations were limited to sights, sounds, and smells.  While this limitation made it difficult to communicate at times, it also provided a more focused lens with which to observe the efficiency of movement, space, and time that the Japanese seemed to have mastered.  The people moved with intention, the streets were immaculately clean despite the peculiar lack of trashcans, and the subway cars were never a second late.

Transitioning from Tokyo to Kyoto, I expected a slower pace, more rural scenery, and a sense of history within the architecture.  That is what I got.

Intrigued by temples I had only studied in school and by a culture so foreign to my Hawaii-born, LA educated eyes, I began to film everything that caught my attention, even if I wasn’t sure quite why.  The clouds billowing behind a stoic roofline, the cicadas relentlessly chirping their songs, a monk chanting words that have been pasted down for generations.  Our Kyoto visit concluded with the Heian Temple, which provided a perfect opportunity to let the mind synthesize, draw conclusions, and absorb the serene surroundings.  Unfortunately, my mind and body were too exhausted and decided to take a nap.

Dropped back into Tokyo for one night, I had the chance to upload all the video clips from Japan.  Flipping from clip to clip, I again expected to see a calm, historic Kyoto.  However, within this temple-filled city, I found hints of the organized and clockwork culture that I thought was native to Tokyo. Just as the red torii gates in Kyoto provided a set path of movement up the mountain, the bright yellow pathways in Tokyo outlined the most efficient line of circulation through the subway station.  Perhaps the repetitive and ritualized culture of ancient Kyoto has translated into the metropolis of Tokyo.  Zen gardens are replaced by pachinko parlors, while the act of beating a gong has become the ritual of swiping a subway pasmo card.  Tokyo is not simply an urban metropolis, just as Kyoto is not simply a historic city of Zen.  Rather, the organized nature Tokyo is a result of the ritual culture that originated in Kyoto.


Filed under: kyoto, Machine, Movement, Ritualization, Subway, Tokyo, Torii Gates, Video

Tokyo By Night


Filed under: Japan, Tokyo, Video


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