'Creating Places'

Karin Higa of the Japanese American National Museum (foreground) and UCLA's Vinit Mukhija talk about how urban architecture makes and preserves identities in Los Angeles and Asia. (Photo by Margaretta Soehendro)

At the first "Asia in LA" program, architects, urban designers, and faculty members discuss the relationships between cosmopolitanism in a global city and particular locales.

This congregation saw themselves not only in a Japanese imperialist sense, looking to ancient Asia and North Africa, but also trying to forge a new identity that was not linked to what might be Orientalist tropes.

"When we are creating places, how do you know to create places based on experiences that are collective, and how do you argue your own experience could represent that collective … experience?" asked Qingyun Ma, dean of USC's School of Architecture and founder of MADA s.p.a.m., an architecture firm in Shanghai, China.

These questions came up in various forms at a program sponsored by the UCLA Asia Institute, held on campus in Tom Bradley International Hall on Nov. 8, 2008. In describing their projects and research, each of the seven speakers at the inaugural "Asia in LA" event shared a perspective on urban design, the use of urban space, and the construction and preservation of identity in Pacific Rim cities. The Asia in LA series will take up additional topics in culture, business, and technology in later programs.

Karin Higa, senior curator of art for the Japanese American National Museum, said that Japanese Americans of the prewar 20th century had a "much bolder, ambitious and broader sense of a Japanese American identity." She used the original Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist temple in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo as an example of the sensibility. Built in 1925, the temple resembles a pyramid and has Egyptian motifs; its only explicit Asian touch is an archway that is a replica from a temple in Kyoto.

"This congregation saw themselves not only in a Japanese imperialist sense, looking to ancient Asia and North Africa, but also trying to forge a new identity that was not linked to what might be Orientalist tropes," Higa said.

Bennett Peji, founder of Bennett Peji Design in San Diego, discussed combining Mexican and Filipino design elements in one section of San Diego's Filipino Village to show the connection between the two cultures.

"It's probably true in many communities--it's certainly true in San Diego--that the Filipino community and the Mexican community don't often interact and partner on things because they don't know how much they have in common," Peji said.

Edmund Ong, former chief of architecture of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, talked about the importance of utilizing international architects for the Yerba Buena Center public development project in downtown San Francisco.

"I really believed that bringing to San Francisco outside architects would bring to the project and to the people a different set of experiences and from that, different perspectives and perceptions of the city," Ong said.

Alice Kimm, partner of John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects in Los Angeles, discussed how her firm's designers reconciled local issues and clients' needs with their own creative aspirations in six projects in South Korea and metropolitan Los Angeles area.

"While our general attitude to local context and culture remains as it ever was, our belief really is there is no such thing as pure design, devoid of contextual or cultural references. For us that would be sort of an impossibility. All of these influences do mean our techniques are evolving and so the way we express things formally is evolving," Kimm said.

Regarding cities in Asia, Vinit Mukhija, associate professor of urban planning at UCLA, talked about redevelopment plans for Dharavi, an infamous slum of Mumbai, India. Mukhija conducted his doctoral research on the neighborhood 10 years ago. Dharavi has become prime real estate because of its location at the center of the metropolitan's railway system. According to Mukhija, Dharavi's residents do not seem to oppose the idea of redevelopment, but they mount protests in order to retain control in the process, following a change in a rule requiring consent from residents.

"For many people, it is a slum. It has overcrowded housing conditions. It has inadequate infrastructure, and it has poor sanitation... But Dharavi is also a manufacturing village. It's not just a slum for people who live there," Mukhija said.

Hitoshi Abe, chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture, described the issues he faced in creating a home for the sculptures owned by a private client amid a rural landscape near Shiogama, Japan. The result was the iconic Kanno Museum of Art, an irregular, dimpled box containing eight sculptures by Western artists.

"The decision we made was not to create such a universal white box. Instead we tried to create a very, very unique landscape so that you have to come here to enjoy the sculptures within that strong environment. To create a very particular, unique 'placeness' to attract people to come here," Abe said.

Lisa Kim Davis, an assistant professor in UCLA's geography department, and Tritia Toyota, an adjunct professor of Asian American studies at UCLA and former KCBS news anchor, moderated the discussions.

Published: Wednesday, November 26, 2008