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USC Price students examine Tokyo in flux

Cristy Lytalby Cristy Lytal
USC Price students visit the Ise Grand Shrine as part of an international planning studio. (Photo/Michael McDermott)
Photo: USC Price students visit the Ise Grand Shrine as part of an international planning studio. (Photo/Michael McDermott)

The 11 graduate students in the USC Price School of Public Policy’s recent international planning studio examined Tokyo as a city in flux, changing minute to minute, day to day, week to week.

“Cities like Tokyo do not have an easily decipherable urban form like European and American ones, leading many to read them superficially as being chaotic and disorganized,” said Vinayak Bharne, faculty member at USC Price and the USC School of Architecture, who led the studio. “The fact is they have their own sophisticated orders and workings that we do not understand. My intention was to encourage students to look at cities beyond form, as events in time, as phenomena in flux.”

Bharne, a former Asia-Pacific Development Commission Traveling Scholar to Japan, is currently writing a book on the Japanese built environment titled Zen Spaces in Neon Places. Last year, he released two books — The Emerging Asian City: Concomitant Urbanities & Urbanisms and Rediscovering the Hindu Temple: The Sacred Architecture and Urbanism of India — and this studio continued his ongoing examination of urbanism in the Asian world.

During the planning studio, students viewed Tokyo through three lenses: theoretical, experiential and interventional. This instigated “multiple ways of getting to the breadth of the city, through multiple methods, with multiple intentions, toward multiple consequences,” Bharne said.

Before the trip to Japan, each student chose a book or paper on Tokyo to articulate positions and theories on the city. Once in Tokyo, they captured the city via different media, from analytical mapping and digital modeling to interviews and video documentation, while also identifying opportunities for strategic interventions in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. They also gained a broader sense of the country by visiting other destinations, including the Ise Grand Shrine and the historic capital of Kyoto.

Master of Planning (MPL) student Michael McDermott took a look at the Japanese rail system as well as the flamboyant signage near transit hubs.

“Anyone in the world can learn from their rail system,” he said. “From the minute detail to the sheer magnitude, it’s just a fantastic system. For instance, the railcar operators will bow as they enter and exit each car as a sign of respect for the system itself and their job and the passengers. It was a wonderful experience to be part of that.”

MPL student Winnie Fong studied Tokyo’s “love hotels,” which offer short-stay rooms for the purpose of sexual activity.

“Usually, these hotels are very gaudy in nature,” she said. “At first, I thought, is it kind of seedy? But really, married people go there; young people who are dating go there; everyone uses it. My findings were that it’s part of their culture so it just blends in with the city landscape.”

Having reached this conclusion, Fong proposed a very different intervention: improving the local bike share program.

Master of Public Policy/MPL student Jeffrey Khau delved deeper into the shadows with an exploration of nightlife, the sex trade, graffiti culture and the yakuza.

“Gangs there are very well-organized — they wear suits and have shareholder meetings, and it’s actually like a corporation because they own stocks and stuff,” he said. “And so organized crime in Japan is a big part of their economy. One of my big questions was: Should planning consider organized crime or should it marginalize people who are in organized crime?”

His intervention suggested celebrating the Shibuya district’s graffiti art by displaying it on a high-definition TV screen under a freeway underpass.

Other student projects addressed a wide array of topics, including festivals, fashion, youth rebellion and the improvement of Shibuya’s canals. The students’ work will be posted on a website currently under construction, which also will feature findings from Bharne’s fall 2012 planning studio in Banaras, India.

“Both these studios were conceived to teach students that urbanism is a plural discipline, that there is no one-shoe-fits-all approach to understanding and transforming cities,” Bharne said. “Cities are different not only because of their histories but also their extant administrative and social structures as well as their expectations and aspirations. The process of negotiating one’s biases on what a good city ought to be, versus engaging with a specific city on its own terms, is what urbanism is ultimately all about.”

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