"The city is being swept away by the metropolis. This action does not just replace one noun with another, but radically turns one state of affairs into a state of perpetual motion. As a collective action -- a verb more than a noun -- the metropolis destabilizes our concepts of time and place. With the dissolution of the city into the forever- emerging metropolis, our existence slides into permanent mobility." - L. Lerup, in After the City


thirty-four. pause.
the view of south SF from the plane is window-hazed, dust-littered, and abstract, but still gorgeously saturated with the hues of these red-algae salt ponds (for the science of it, see http://waynesword.palomar.edu/plsept98.htm).

the view: a prelude to a precious few days' worth of time spent feeling cool wind on post-tropical skin, vertical sidewalks beneath worn shoes, more green salads and strong black coffee than i'll ever want, and anticipations of imminent johannesburg, south africa, where i look forward to participating in Global Studio 2007 (http://wwwfaculty.arch.usyd.edu.au/web/future/globalstudio_jo/).


thirty-three: Xi'an & Shanghai
nb: this blog will have to serve as a memory of two cities I passed through between Lhasa and San Francisco. (I say pass through because my state of mind was such -- the commute ‘home’ from Tibet was exactly that – an impatient scurrying to get to cleaner air and a place to decompress. when my mind/body hit saturation, no amount of my willpower could make room for more traffic…)

Xi’an was described in the 1995 LP as one of China’s cleanest, greenest cities, once again proving that expectation sets the stage for disappointment or pleasant surprise. something about this quite-beautiful city has allowed its air to wallow within its thick stone walls and settle like a film blocking the nostrils’ attempts to respire. my fatigue here was biological, and worsened by a lingering cold from kick-in-the-ass altitude changes up in Tibet.

nonetheless, Xi’an is vibrant and it’s Ming city walls, recently completed to allow circumnavigation, envelope the city center with atmosphere. its wide tree-lined avenues (again chessboard format – likely the precursor to Beijing, as Xi’an was the imperial capital long before Beijing ever was) were buzzing at 10pm with people out walking – couples hand in hand, late-night diners, mothers with babies out for a play (dirty pajamas scrubbing the sidewalk surface). Xi’an’s food culture is vibrant as well, influenced by a thriving Muslim quarter, and patronized by late-night throngs of university students and domestic tourists; a strolling, progressive street-stall dinner included, in sequence (and over 1.5 hours), fresh watermelon, pepper-fried squid-on-a-stick, herb-filled cabbage humbao, steamed rice-flour cakes, fennel and egg pancakes, and a can of warm tsing tao.

Xi’an is perhaps most famous not for the urban center itself but for its surrounding historical monuments, not the least of which is the tomb of the terra-cotta warriors. (you don’t need to read this blog to get a description of one of China’s most famous tourist attractions). for someone who tires of ‘sights’ this was one that didn’t fail to astound, and was worth the pomp and circumstance of long lines & clicking cameras. China’s first emperor (Qin Shi Huang, circa 250 BC, and the same emperor that began the building of the Great Wall) had a fantastical fervor for his own egomaniacal safety in the afterlife and buried some 6000 life-size warriors near his tomb. three pits of varying sizes, in varying states of excavation, are open to the public, the largest of which is housed in a football-field sized hangar. the first several rows of warriors have been restored to near-mint condition, their body-parts reassembled, their stances upright and aligned. near the rear of the hangar is where time and gravity are revealed; limbs and heads and torsos lie piled on top of each other at various helter-skelter angles, growing from the ground, disappearing into walls, bodies becoming earth becoming bodies. the 2000 year-old subterranean claustrophobia is palpable, one man’s suffocating fear of death physically captured and unintentionally revealed (the tombs were meant to be a secret forever: no written record of their existence has been found).

…this is perhaps a good segue to Shanghai, where the highlight of a brief 4 days was the Shanghai Museum. (I sound like a tourbook but) the ancient bronze collection is unmissable; it’s hard not to be blown away by imagining the development of bronze-casting techniques from the 15th century BC, painstakingly developed over generations, through a multitude of hands, that produced pieces that still retain in the sterile glow of a glass museum box a singular Presence. not surprisingly, war and worship seemed to be the biggest inspirations in the way of weapons and statues of Buddha, reminding me humbly that progress is a farce.

Shanghai…I’d heard of its romance and looked for it hard, finding instead very expensive restaurants on the Bund full of beautiful Caucasians for whom begging mothers with children on their hips wait at night, hands outstretched. I found the city’s poetry at 4:30 am, after a night of insomnia, sitting on the waterfront. at this hour the Bund is finally reclaimed by the city (and not overrun by the 9pm spectacle of coca-cola stalls): an old man flying a kite ran-skipped his way down the promenade, trying to stay in front of his kite as he reeled it in, a few joggers & all-night partiers headed home, the Pudong business district across the water finally dark, save for the growing light of dawn, the streetlights along the Bund flickering off in quick succession around 4:45am.

at night, I found the city’s made-up oddness walking through the Yu Yuan district, towards the water, the streets lightless and dark in the name of energy-saving, while down near the water towers and advertisements glowed with fluorescent gaudiness. people still sit on sidewalks eating in the urban night, even as their low-rise apartments are being choked by the surrounding towers and the roar of construction. this same phenomena was confirmed when I ascended SOM’s Jin Mao tower, by far Shanghai’s best built highrise; far below, the waterfront glows, as do the Nanjing and Huaihai shopping thoroughfares, but much of the city beyond lies in darkness – another reminder that perhaps only the most visible parts of urban China are racing ahead at a pace much faster than the rest of the country, and often at its expense.

for being mainland China’s counterpoint to global Hong Kong, finding internet in Shanghai is a scavenger hunt that takes the seeker up unadvertised stair corridors into smoke-filled rooms of silent games and the 24-hour stares of pale faces behind half-shuttered windows. these hidden hangouts are nothing short of bizarre, rarely signed in non-Chinese, if signed at all, and seem to be a by-product of a crackdown on internet use, especially by foreigners, who, if we manage to find these places at all, are subjected to a rigorous passport screening replete with multiple scans of multiple pages of our little blue/red/black/brown, etc. books. however, like HK, the city-airport rail link, in the guise of the Maglev, is hard to beat: 9 minutes of supersonic speeding through the city’s blurry panorama that tilts forwards and away as the compartment leans on its rails. it reaches a phenomenal 400km/hr but only for the middle minute, before the train must start slowing down after attaining its peak speed.
this airport departure experience, along with the time spent amongst the bronze museum pieces, were the moments in Shanghai that made my heart race. I dare not blame the city, and I was loathe to even blog this one, recognizing my state-of-mind which needed a reset none-too-soon. however, to presume that my readings of other cities, when I am bright-eyed & fresh, are somehow more ‘objective’ is no less risky – so I honestly admit: here I was, perhaps a little too tired to see much at all. my apologies to Xi’an, and even more to Shanghai, whose extended metro lines into suburban reaches surely have much to reveal.


thirty-two. Beijing outreach: Lhasa
the largest rail station along the Lhasa Express train route, besides Beijing West (second to none in the world, with its massive facade and multi-leveled entry-flows which all come to a screeching bottleneck upon entering through the building's ONE door...), is the newly built station serving Lhasa, Tibet. straight out of Tianan'men sqaure, its massive proportions and high ceilings are an unwelcome respite after hundreds of miles of empty arctic tundra, the wind-torn tents of nomadic yak-herders, and the dilapidated structures of isolated gas stations and outposts.

what to say about the train...it is nation building at its most distilled, a linear moving extension of Beijing that stretches to this town in which i now type, which has a schizophrenic existence caught between the winding back streets and colorful 3 and 4 storey brick buildings of the old Tibetan quarters, and the glossy-but-shoddily built Chinese section where streets spread like a chessboard, and repetitive one and two storey buildings align like the guards that march past the Potala Palace now and again to make their presence flagrantly known. across from the awe-inspiring 13 storied Potala, which is built into the (otherwise-flat) town's largest rocky outcrop, the Chinese government has graciously bestowed their own horizontal monument: People's Park, modeled on Tianan'men's flat banality, and crowned with a flag-bearing concrete monument that praises the liberation of Tibet.

however, i get ahead of myself. this arrival in Lhasa could hardly come as a shock. the Lhasa Express, only 6 months in operation, and purportedly China's darling of luxury rail travel, has already seen, and passed, her best days. tired carpets sport stains, ubiquitous non-smoking signs are casually disregarded, slippery water-logged loos become a site of (ignored) passenger protest (especially by the elderly tour group crowd), windows are so streaked with dirt that photo ops take on a hazy visual surrealism -- perhaps appropriately matching the psychological surrealism of the experience. it's a beautiful, mind-boggling journey through some of the country's most remote territories; it's also a horrifying journey past some of the China's most polluted, forgotten wasteland-cum-towns, within a highly politicized moving vehicle in which cabins are distinctly divided by ethnicity, and kitschy Chinese souvenirs and blaring loudspeaker announcements claim cultural authority over a region that is being very heavy-handedly Beijing-ized. (e.g. Chinese who move to Lhasa are given incentives in the way of tax breaks and higher-than-average wages, and, none-too-hesitantly, the town's main thoroughfare is called Beijing Ave.)

everyday Lhasa, however, is not quite as 'reinterpreted' as the train ride, or the Potala/Tianan'men juxtaposition might suggest. the main public space of the city is still in the Tibetan quarters, in the Barkhor, which surrounds the incense-infused Johkang Temple. here dozens upon dozens of pilgrims and monks come daily to prostrate themselves repeatedly before its weathered walls. the kora (pilgrim's circuit) has become intertwined with a linear market which runs the circumference of the temple, selling all manner of Tibetwares, and perhaps is a prime example of how tourism and cultural identity exaggerate each other in a spectacle of exchange. the main street offers a less glamorous glimpse of the speculative, frontier-aura of current-day Lhasa: rubble-filled construction sites, yak butter stores, butchers, candy stores, trekking supply stores (toilet paper, cooking oil, cookstoves, cheap rope, etc.), tourist hotels, clothiers, restaurants, tea stores, travel agents, and pharmacies alternate in rapid succession.

and anywhere, everywhere, the prayer flags.

photos of snow-covered peaks tented by these windblown colorful strands are not isolated representations, but are merely a small piece of this Tibetan Buddhist practice, the details of which I can't theorize. all I can describe is what I saw in the way of the prosaic compulsion to catch the wind; any site with any height is a potential repository for these whispy offerings of worship. most houses sport them on their roofs, they can be seen in the distance running across the ravines of near-vertical slopes, along the handrails of bridges which cross the Lhasa River, and, most poignantly, between the tops of power lines and cell phone towers. infrastructure becomes impromptu temple, and the flags' ubiquitousness is sometimes so thick as to create a type of room, or roof, fluttering in the wind, in the hopes that the scripts written thereupon will be captured and heard.


thirty-one. Beijing S/XL
5.5 thru 5.10
somehow the written word never prepares one for the reality of the dusty winds from the parched plains which both weigh down and renew the city at once. journalism that emphasizes the communist regime's hegemony, or capitalism's increasing unraveling of that, don't illuminate the on-the-ground atmosphere of familiar interest, casual optimism, and lack of intensity that is striking after Mumbai/HK/Bangkok/Tokyo's scrambles for space and money. it is surprisingly easy to be here, albeit a constant surprise.

the gargantuan scale of the Official city was established long ago with the Forbidden City's yawning open spaces and massive buildings. in kind, 20th century DPRC buildings are both liberating and oppressive -- the exact intent, perhaps. built at the scale of mountains, monotonous brown-gray columnaded facades adorning platonic massings dwarf, intimidate, & awe the human body. the world's largest 'public' square (Tiananmen), across from the world's largest parliament building, is heavily controlled and, although often crowded, is rarely truly inhabited. Tiananmen and its surrounds is a three dimensional facade for notions of a 'public,' and a symbol of official China's austerity & ability to reconfigure, indeed even erase, history. the streets surrounding the square are mind-bogglingly wide, for easy tank navigation should the need arise again.
the above is not to suggest that a vital social existence is stifled; notions of the communal are expressed vibrantly, loudly, and are manifest in the smallest gestures built and behavioral. on a given afternoon, the city's parks fill with middle-aged groups of singers who congregate around accordian players or conductors. sheet music is printed and left in a pile for whomever would like to join in the aural celebration of spring in Beijing. public exercise areas with candy-colored analog workout machines can be found in small pockets of urban space -- lining a sidewalk, at the entrance to a housing project, along a strip of green. at night hutong sidewalks fill with food stalls and tables, and wall-like stacks of beer crates are testament to the city's lively enjoyment of food and drink. additionally, i have never seen so many public toilets in my life -- often one every two blocks, in response to the hutongs' lack of a sewer system. (if only the Mumbai government could become so responsive).

these are necessary reminders of life in the small that help to balance out an otherwise surreal landscape of a city undergoing reconstructive surgery. the world is coming to Beijing now (in the form of the Olympics), has been for a couple decades (in the form of global capital), and this has generated a city full of facades, old and new, literal and figurative. no housing typology escapes this generalization; entire hutong neighborhoods lie in various states of abandonment/demolition/renovation, surrounded by vinyl billboards depicting promises of sparkling new developments to come. (one particularly difficult-to-digest sign depicts a "chinaman" in traditional garb whose arms are weighed down with shopping bags). oddly, the sound of construction is rarely heard behind these flimsy visions. in areas where there is an attempt to preserve old-world hutong, brightly painted Ming-era facades provide entrance to air conditioned interiors full of tourist wares.
high rise residential buildings abound as one moves further from the city center (which remains largely low-rise in homage to the Forbidden City and governmental monuments). currently about 30% of these buildings are half-covered in glass, damp concrete frames protruding from beneath a fragile exterior. this ubiquitous state of growth and decay has generated an unsettling cityscape, and it is hard to say if there is more standing than there is lying in rubble and wait. the city maps optimistically depict the future that will happen, and are currently prematurely updated.
this frantic charrette in preparation for the Olympics has its pluses and minuses. some hutongs purportedly need a significant infrastructural upgrade. however, it's too easy to wonder what is being overlooked in the mad rush to present a pretty face to the world. excluding the Bird's Nest and Water Cube, both near completion, Olympic Park, north of the Forbidden City, is currently an empty field of rubble, a few stalwart sqauatters persisting in half-standing shacks. the expanse is covered in a gauzy green screen in preparation for massive grass plantings and the arenas whose foundations have yet to be poured. wandering through this off-limits zone the other day, having passed through several guarded gates by taking advantage of the immunity that foreigners unofficially enjoy, i was finally accosted by a boy-guard no older than 12 who yelled at me for being in an off-limits zone.

Beijing's tourist city is significant but also hard to get out of. it announces itself as soon as you leave the arrival hall at the airport, where the familiar green letters of a starbucks awaits. (there is also a starbucks in the Forbidden City, in addition to many other eatery stalls nestled into the modular pavilions). this insularity of the tourist track is partly a product of the language barrier, which remains significant, but it's easy to wonder if if this barrier might be partly intentional. everyday infrastructure remains largely unpenetrated by travelers, who more easily resort to tour buses or taxis.
relatedly, due to its spread and scale, Beijing is not a foot-friendly city. however, its total lack of topography, wide roads, and bicycle-designated lanes make it one of the world's most bikeable cities (save for the air quality which can be cough-inducing). the city's automotive transit flows, but doesn't scramble, and when it does become slow, it rarely piles in stasis. the highly gridded streets are wide and easily navigable, and are surrounded by 4 (and increasing) concentric high speed ring roads. if bus or metro bound, walking distances can still be significant; bus stops (staffed during rush hour by flag-waving queue managers) are sometimes a near kilometer apart. there are only 3 completed metro lines (of a proposed 5), and cabs, although cheap, are an indulgence for everyday commuting. the metro system is one of the more lo-tech i have yet used, with paper tickets, and tear-by-hand ill-regulated gates. the atmosphere is casual and somewhat dingy; conversations, both real-space and cellular, are loud, and food is not a taboo.
i hurry to post this as i am Lhasa bound tonight, excited to experience the world's most highly engineered, and politically controversial, rail route (which begins from...you guessed it, the world's largest train station). signing out...

5.4 Tokyo's goodbye on a humid friday morning:
two tarmac employees wave enthusiastically to our departing plane, their distant figures only inches high. how incongruous! a (nearly empty) flying machine begins to feel like an anthropomorphised pet with a name, and something about the gesture (finished with a tidy bow) was both unsettling and charming.

i write from Beijing; the smells and sensations of a new metropolis already begin to soften the impressions of Tokyo which, after all, remain largely sensual rather than intellectual. the first few days in any new city never cease to amaze me, the way that fleeting nuances of atmosphere initially read like projections on a movie screen. a few scattered words from my brief hours here: dusty red laughter dark narrow rubble wind monument watching order night lights silent square.

in acknowledgment of my inability to tidy up Tokyo, and my restless aversion to sitting the day away on this machine while Beijing's mega-streets and little lanes wait, i annotate Tokyo a bit chaotically:

crowded privacy, saving space, & boundary
doing makeup on the train seems like an oddly intimate gesture but is acceptable and common, while the rare soul who dares speak on their cell sticks out like a sore, blaring thumb. behaviors have slightly changed in the space of 7 or 8 years; i remember looking over the shoulders of salarymen as they read pornographic manga, or staring at the voluminous cleavage of an ad for a sexy magazine. now the ads have cleaned up (more of the usual: wedding halls, travel tours, junior colleges), and the compartments feel noticeably desexualized compared to before.

in relation to landscape elevation the rails are rarely on par; usually they either run in a crevice, like a river, banks stabilized with grass-planted retaining walls, or they stream above the city ground, sometimes at a building's awkward mid-height. in such cases the right of way often becomes a hovering maelstrom of glowing billboards. for all the ubiquitousness of rail, the boundary between these zones of machinic movement and the rest of the city usually remains legible.

however, this does not mean that the spaces generated beside and below the lines is wastespace. Shinagawa station exhibits one of the more remarkable conglomerations of line, station, road, and store that i found in Tokyo. a major node with at least a half-dozen convergences, the rails occupy several levels in section, and the right of way is lined with gleaming new business towers that feel as if they're hovering on the edge of water (the rail's real estate as it swells at the station is astoundingly wide, 150 m perhaps). in the most well-established example of underpass opportunism i have yet seen, a length of eateries is built beneath the overpass. it's an efficient use of space, and the shops are no ad-hoc job either, boasting their own mid-level wooden boardwalk which connects their storefronts and creates a walkway below sidewalk level but above 'true' ground.

other spatial efficiences: double decker train cars, the entire massive network of the underground city (some eateries quite appealing: 'champagne and hamburgers' under chandeliers, anyone?), bicycle homes in Ueno park, life rolled and packed onto the back, muji japan's 'window house', which is not quite pre-fab -- you provide the land, choose the plan, they build the compact white structure on-site for you.

Tokyo's restless movement is exhausting. a few minutes navigating Shibuya crossing (where you can watch yourself crossing the street on a realtime movietron) left me spinning and searching for coffee jelly in a non-smoking cafe. starbucks takes on a successful role here; as badly upholstered and poorly roasted as ever, it at least allows the solo'ist an affordable piece of real-estate. devoid enough of catering to a particular set, it attracts the gucci princesses and the pierced punkers alike. very highly patronized. another sanctuary is Macdonalds at midnight & beyond. most are 24 hour operations and provide resting ground for a few of the city's homeless, dubbed 'McRefugees.' the paper the other day cited Hong Kong's parallel and growing phenomena of the same.

the day i went to dine with my host-sisters there was another train suicide on the Tobu-Tojo line which backed up the morning commute1.5 hours. a major inconvenience (sic) and a major public gesture of 'screw the system' -- a 'quiet life of desperation' ended with a massive messy bang a la Anna Karenina. not uncommon. i couldn't stop thinking about was how scarred the driver must be.

navigation & open space
Tokyo has a few urban parks that defy penetration by rail and road, the most obvious of which is the imperial ground, the city-center sanctuary around which the Yamanote sen runs. there is also Ueno to the northeast, and Yoyogi-Meiji to the southwest. meandering from one station to the next by foot doesn't work as well here as in other cities; it's hard to receive adequate road directions that aren't given in relation to a station (especially if two stations' geographical adjacency is contradicted by a circuitous rail route in which you must use two different rail systems to travel a short distance). attempting to walk 2 km from Yoyogi to Yoyogi Hachiman (to find Maki's church) left me pleasantly lost in Meiji shrine's forested network of paths. the shrine itself is of sublime proportions, largely open-aired, and utilizing the most massive trees from Taiwan's virgin forests to create a true sense of timeless granduer. on a drizzling tuesday it was the best way to be lost. tired and damp i eventually relinquished control to the Odakyu line (a private, department-store related line; like others it radiates from its retail home and serves a residential area), backtracking the Yamanote in order to transfer and re-radiate.

a few words about Chiba-ken
...Tokyo's neighbor and dubbed the city's 'bread basket':
although development is encroaching the reflection of wet-rice cultivation remains a dominant landscape in the area around Sakura-shi. now is the time when the green blades of rice are barely beginning to poke through the still brown pools. these bodies of water are home to possibly the world's largest population of frogs which, at night, sing a nostalgic and deafening chorus. watching the Keisei line speed across a thin swath of land sandwiched by these rice paddies was nothing short of beautiful, the train's nighttime reflection on water a bright white ribbon of windows and tiny faces, heading home.

the developments out here: one was reminiscent of Singapore or HK, a series of non-descript blocks connected by a two-car monorail loop that radiates from the main Keisei line station. the other neighborhood is reminiscent of a u.s. suburb, with single family homes, two-car driveways, (albeit tightly packed and highly landscaped) and streetlights. purportedly at christmas there is a christmas light war that attracts onlookers from miles around, so much so that they've had to block the main residential street to prevent it from becoming a thoroughfare.

at the Roppongi Hills design store, i skimmed through the most recent a + u issue that focuses on 'recent projects' (70% of which are in Dubai). sleek, digital, grey-white object-towers that purportedly express the city's blank-slated, globally-focused, constructed-from-nothing nature felt already dated and left me wondering whether the physical manifestation of the 'space of flows' is really a sleek vector-like Hadid building. the flows that are creating Dubai seem to have less to do with physicality and more to do with banks and bytes. i walked away pondering how telecommuting and global-hop-scotching is affecting notions of the local, and whether the movers and shakers moving money and ideas will continue to inhabit said sleek and swoopy buildings or if it all might become so seamless as to someday defy any current notions of 'inhabitation' and building...