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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

A Weekend in Xi’an

On our recent trip to Xi’an, I was exposed to the last frontier of China.  On the outskirts of Xi’an around Qingyun Ma’s Jade Valley Winery, small clusters of dilapidated houses and a vast, green patchwork of farmland covered the landscape.  I was in agruarian China, right at the cusp before development.  Next to the clusters, I could see the construction of a new school and a small town center starting to take form.  This experience of being away from the city was a relief, but for the people who lived there, this was their everyday life.  For cityfolk like me, anything beyond the city that I did was a spectacle, or even absurd.

In Henri Lefebvre’s Everyday and Everdayness, he sees the world destroying diversity and working towards uniformity.  He stated that “Every complex ‘whole’ from the smallest tool to the greatest works of art and learning, therefore possessed a symbolic value linking them to meaning at its most vast: to divinity and humanity, power and wisdom, good and evil, happiness and misery, the perrennial and the ephemeral.  These immense values were themselves mutable according to historical circumstance, to social classes, to rulers and mentors.  Each object was thus linked to some ‘style’ and therefore, as a work, contained while masking the larger functions and structures which were integral parts of its form.”  However, because the “functional elements was itself disengaged, rationaled, then industrially produced, and finally imposed by constraint and persuasion: that is to pay, by means of advertising and by powerful economic and political lobbies”  these everyday items have lost their “essence.”  We have been numbed by society to not see differences and be curious about the world.

Our class had to take cars to visit Dean Ma’s father’s house and one mode of transport was in the back of a pickup truck.  Riding on the back of a pickup truck in America is different than riding it in the Xi’an countryside even if the pickup trucks were the same.  With my conditioned mode of thinking, I have rationalized that its dangerous and the police would not hesitate to issue me a ticket for such ridiculous behavior.  But in Xi’an, I wanted to ride the back of the pickup truck because there were no such thing as rules to govern me.  I was responsible for my own injuries because it was my decision to ride in the back of the pickup truck.  For the people living in the Xi’an countryside, people ride in the back of trucks all the time.  Society has conditioned me to think that riding anywhere besides the passenger seats is considered unsophisticated and dangerous.  Most of my classmates and I WANTED to sit in the back of the pickup truck because we could break free from society’s constraints and enjoy the Xi’an countryside in an absurd, but memorable way.  Our bickering to ride in THAT pickup truck in THAT setting subconsciously justified our appreciation and desire to experience the everyday.

This event reminded me of the film Weekend because it extremitized the everyday by making it completely ridiculous and because of its absurdity, thus making events more memorable.  One particular scene filmed a traffic jam with cars set ablaze and dead bodies sprawled, but some people have casually parked their cars having a picnic, or running around.  At the time, I was thoroughly confused and thinking “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON”, but those emotions and thoughts jolted me out of my complacent mindset of what a movie should be.  But does the absurdity of the everyday imply that it’s impossible to occur?  I would argue that it is more improbable than impossible that the absurdities occur, especially in a desensitized world today.  But when noticed, they give me a jolt of excitement that I immediately want others to also see.

Back in the city, I visited Xi’an’s city wall.  The width of the wall was wide enough for charriots to pass through, and now as a tourist attraction, visitors can ride a bicycle along it.  After recently watching Beijing Bicycle, this strange coincidence came full circle.  In the movie, the bicycle becomes takes on a character because the movie shows it being more than it is.  For one character, the bicycle is a dream to have, enjoy, be cool and to attract a girlfriend.  The other character values the bicycle because it is his way of making a living delivering packages.  Both become attached to the bicycle that stir a range of emotions like sadness, courage, fear, and worry.  The bicycle transcends its normal meaning of transporting a person from point A to B.

Seeing the Beijing Bicycle and Weekend helped me understand that I was not just riding a bicycle.  I was riding it on a relic and ancient artifact of the city.  I was seeing the roofscape of the buildings inside the city wall.  I was seeing the new skyscapers just outside of the city wall.  Riding a bicycle on the street would not have given me this same experience [nonetheless riding a bicycle in a country that doesn’t give the pedestrian the right of way is another expierence].  The meaning of this bicycle went beyond just riding it, but all the other sights that came about after I started pedaling.

I am ashamed of the fact that I have been numbed by society and blinded to see the excitement and beauty around the city.  Now that I notice that simple things that occur in the city as part of the everday experience, the city is not just a place where I inhabit. It is a larger, living organism that has varying scales of activity that my curiosity allows me to see.

_Joyce

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Filed under: America, beijing bicycle, China, conditioning, Desensitize, everyday, experience, society, transcend, weekend, Xi'an

Sex, Love, & Money

My previous blog touched upon relationship of Henri Lefebvre’s writing on the everydayness and the Hong Kong Kar Wai Wong film, Fallen Angels. While Fallen Angels subtly mocked the everyday drudgery by following the life of a contract killer, director Kar Wai Wong challenged the notion and interpretation of Lefebvre’s everydayness, but in a typically subtle way. The French film, Weekend, on the other hand, challenges Lefebvre’s everydayness to the extreme, and perhaps the only way, in order to critique the point that previously noneveryday activities must be taken to the extreme in order to maintain their noneveryday status. No longer does violence, sex, and money stir the mental activities of the general public. The public views these acts on the evening news on a daily and sometimes hourly basis, resulting in a level of desensitization. The film seeks to overcome this desensitized notion by showing the pseudo-noneveryday activities that Lefebvre labeled as counteracting the everydayness, such as violence, sex, and money. Not only are these activities carried out to the extreme by the films characters, but are shown over and over again, often in different forms and in great detail.

Sex.

The film follows the lives of a couple, and in an early scene, the woman sits upon a desk in her underwear, chronicling and detailing to her lover a sexual encounter she had with a woman and her husband. Without ever showing a visual manifestation of her story, the woman describes, in detail how and when the man and woman touched her and how it made her feel. However, not once during her telling did she give the slightest hint that there was any emotional connection involved. She told the tale in such a lifeless, matter-of-fact manner that the viewer could interpret it as something that might happen all the time for the character.

Money.

The main plot throughout the entire film is how the couple is attempting to lay claim to the large inheritance of her parents. They are eagerly awaiting their death, even going to the length of poisoning her father’s food every Saturday in order to speed up his demise. The couple displays a cutthroat attitude in their quest to get their hands on this fortune, eventually leading to the brutal stabbing of the mother when the couple discovers that they aren’t going to get an equal share after the father dies. Even this is treated in a nonchalant way. Which leads to the largest purveyor of the noneverydayness in the film.

Violence.

There is one telling sequence in the film that takes place on a country road, where the constant sounds of yelling and car-horns can be heard while the couple attempts to navigate through a traffic jam of overturned cars and angry people mobbing their convertible as they pass by. The striking aspect of this long, continual camera shot is that none of the people who are bearing witness to the overturned cars and dead bodies strewn alongside of the road take notice, or seem to care. There are children throwing toy balls around and adults playing board games on the road. This critical depiction of the way that the majority of society views violence today is fairly accurate. They see it all around them whenever they surf the Internet, watch television and films, or read the newspaper. Perhaps the singular factor that makes all of the violence in the sequence outlandish is the fact that it is in the countryside, not the city. Urban areas are notorious havens for crime and homicide, which begs the question, why show all of this violence in a non-urban setting? Maybe it is to shed light on the fact that murder does not have to be in the city for it to be overlooked. Or perhaps it is because the countryside is not tainted like the countryside. If the rural-scape is tainted, what is left?

After viewing this film, there begins to be a blurring of what we consider the everydayness and the same applies to the noneverydayness. It is also something that can largely be applicable to urban life, which is the focus of the writing Aesthetic + Urbanism. Robert A.M. Stern declares in his piece “urbanism is about human life.” I agree completely with Mr. Stern’s statement, that urbanism should focus on “what the good city is” and “what is the good life that we as architects should advocate.” I think this type of attitude should be brought to the forefront in a society where violence occurs an unimaginable scale everyday and yet the public is still numb to it. Perhaps this is where architects can lend a helping hand and provide a vision to help create a reality where acts like those in the Weekend are truly considered acts of the noneverydayness, which is definitely not what they are now.

-Christopher Glenn

 

Filed under: aesthetics + urbanism, Desensitize, everydayness, fallen angels, Henri Lefebvre, Hong Kong, Kar Wai Wong, sex love and money, Uncategorized, violence, weekend

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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.

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AAU FALL 2013:

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

Director:
Andrew Liang
Instructors:
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
Students:
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