USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Wisdom in Footsteps

In modern society any person will most likely pass through many cities before their death, and each one imprints a specific memory of place unto the person’s mind. A traveler’s memories may be small glimpses of buildings, or streets. Perhaps a person might remember their experience of a specific monument or cultural institution. However, if a person has spent a significant amount of time in a city their memories most likely will be different. They’re more likely tied to the significant parts of their lives that took place in the city. Perhaps it’s a specific place a person shared times with family or a loved one. Perhaps they’re strongest memory is of a place a friendship grew, or a place they experienced pain loneliness or anguish. The importance of these memories come not from the only the physical surroundings, but instead it is derived from an essential relationship between life, and the physical environment.

Throughout the time I have spent in Shanghai, my conscious memory of the city has grown slowly, but now seems to have created a small network of memory associations, and systems of personal knowledge. The knowledge of city can grow before a person ever touches foot in it. My knowledge of Shanghai grew first from a series of maps, historical events, and series of architectural elements. This information started building a timeline of physical morphology. My understanding grew about how the city evolved from a series of economic and political forces. Geographical elements such as the Yangtze River or political events such as the concession to the French and Mao’s revolution all have left a physical legacy on the city. The timeline created static glimpses, almost like snapshots, of the city historically up to the present day. The time in-between the snapshots was subconsciously filled in with assumption made from my personal understandings. However, the minute someone steps foot within the city, they begin to gain an understanding of the true knowledge of place. It is an understanding of how life infiltrates between the systems of roads, subway, and buildings. It is a dynamic knowledge that has a relationship to the static physical context, and thus it also has a relationship to history. The only way to gain insight into the knowledge of space is through immersion into the city. However, the knowledge of place is continuously changing. It is constantly evolving and being shaped by both local and global forces. The knowledge of place is concerned not with the specific nature of singularities, but instead by relationships and hybrids of space. It is from these relationships that the knowledge of place gains importance for architects and urbanists.

For an architect or an urbanist to successfully design for a city they must have knowledge of both physicality of a city, and the anthropological element of the city. The value of the anthropological element of the city comes from the understanding of the way people interact with the systems of the city as a whole. In Shanghai, city life tends to spill out of buildings on to the sidewalks. For an architect to design to the full potential, they must have an understanding of this anthropological instance. However, the physicality of a city still plays an important role. The grid of the streets, transit routes, and program dispersion are have important impacts on the city, however they gain true intelligence when those concepts are merged with anthropological elements.


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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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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