USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program


Having stayed in Shanghai for almost two months now, it almost feels like I’ve been living here my whole life. A few days ago, I was at the subway station waiting for the next train to arrive when an elderly woman came up to me and inquired whether or not the train I was waiting for would bring her to her destination stop; In one of my proudest moments, I answered that question without hesitation and even suggested what exit to take to get to her destination, all in Chinese! It seems to be getting easier and easier to get into an everyday routine nowadays, especially at the subway station. One second you’re descending the elevators into the terminal and the next, you’re surrounded by a sea of black haired and brown-eyed men and women crowding to squeeze into the subway cars. Trying to hold your balance during jolts of the subway cars, the musty scent of body odor and sweat, the occasional beggar journeying from one end of the subway to the other shaking his coin jar, being inches away from the person next to you during rush hours; all that has become part of the everyday, at least for me. All this reminds me of what Michel de Certeau validates as being a “haunted” place,

Haunted places are the only places people can live in”.

Scary, right?

I think what Certeau is ultimately getting at is the core of all this phenomenology within a city: the notion of a place. If place is defined by the metaphysical (memory, time), than that place is no more defined than through what is seen. The existence of that significance is within the memory, which associates certain emotions/ideas embedded within a space. Memories, are in essence, the practice of spatial ordering because places are merely fragments of private histories accumulated from everyone who has passed through there. People are the make up of the city. Certeau even suggests that the city space is, in itself, the canvas on which the people (pedestrians) write the story through their movement through and within these spaces.

However, I would argue that unlike what Certeau argues as the inevitability of non-place as a direct result of mobility, the city itself is full of urban places solely because of pedestrian traffic. If walking is the “acting-out” of a place, the city is then the container of these acted spaces. The very act of naming spaces are the “impetus of movements, like vocations and calls that turn or divert an itinerary by giving it a meaning (or direction) that was previously unforeseen”. Names we are all too familiar with now like “The Bund”, “People’s Square”, and even our very own “Old Humin Road” all connote some sort of experience or memory that transcends just the physicality of the site or the label. These places have become more than names or streets but destinations, meeting points, symbols. It goes beyond just being a dot on a map, but only to be experienced fully from the viewpoint of the individual. And all this is part of the story that the city tells through the observer. These “Urban Texts”, if you will, are written through the mobile nature of the individual and the masses that each offers their own experiences. Spaces can only be defined as long as the person stays there, with the next person replacing the narrative with a fresh perspective. The city can never maintain one image since the mass population can never remain static nor impose one unifying image on a space in which they move through. It’s amazing and simultaneously wonderfully exciting to think that what I offered as my own experience of the subway ride may be the total opposite image of the next person riding the same train, five cars down. So perhaps while I silently let the subway rock me back and forth on my next Line 1 ride, I’ll be reminded that what I see, feel, and hear is just an excerpt from my Shanghai narrative that has yet to be fully written.



Filed under: Architecture, China, haunted, Michel de Certeau, Shanghai, Subway, Urbanism, Walking in the City

Up in the Air

In the seventh chapter of Spatial Practices, titled Walking in the City, author Michel de Certeau considers the implications of viewing pedestrians from high atop the World Trade Center in New York.  He recognizes that elevation transforms us into voyeurs, at once detached from the city physically yet endowed with a uniquely invasive perspective.  From an observation deck, Certeau goes on, people on the streets move about as though writing urban text but without being able to read it. This privilege is instead conferred upon the voyeur, on whose initiative rests the opportunity to decipher and translate this text into something more than mere writing.  If pedestrian movements are the pen strokes, than streets and buildings are the spacing of the lines and layout of the paragraphs.

All this lends itself to comparison of urban writing just as novels do literary writing, and so I used my time atop Shanghai’s World Financial Center to do just this.  Drawing on memory from my own experiences looking down at New York, the movements and forms of Shanghai were rich in contrast.  In place of Manhattan’s rigid grid of streets and enormously diverse buildings stock was a pattern of superblocks and meandering roads containing tens of identical apartments practically begging for copy-paste Autocad jokes.  If New York has one-way avenues with narrow sidewalks packed with pedestrians, Shanghai has grand boulevards with ten lanes of car traffic, two lanes of bike traffic, and 20 meter sidewalks on either side.  These sidewalks are also filled, but pedestrians in Pudong pass only one cross street for every 400 meters, while New Yorkers might pass 4 during the same distance.  This tends to aggregate disparate circulation paths and limits opportunity for route improvisation, creating a more unified pedestrian body.  Combine this with an interchangeable and repetitive building stock, and viewing the urban fabric of these two cities from above suddenly reveals a great deal about the politics and society of their respective countries.

My experience definitely lent credence to Certeau’s idea of ground level pedestrians writing an urban text; the only shame is that at the Shanghai World Financial Center it costs a month’s worth of subway fare for a chance to read the book.

Matt Luery


Filed under: China, Michel de Certeau, Shanghai, Urbansim, Walking in the City


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