Yomi Braester

University of Washington

Onscreen Futures: An Ethnography of the Design Firm yu+Co


Urban screens derive their function and significance from their specific locations in the city. Yet what does it mean to be in the city? What makes screens count as part of built environment? Are screens separate from other architectural and media elements that are then placed in the city? What allows citizens to acknowledge screens as part of the urban network and interact with them as such?

I address these questions by examining screens in real estate promotion and sales centers, using as my primary example the installation at the Ping An International Finance Centre in Shenzhen. At 115 storeys, the Ping An IFC is an emblem of Shenzhen’s development, and there are high stakes in its effective presentation to buyers, leasers, and municipal policymakers. The promotional exhibit (2016–18) was designed by yu+Co, a firm with offices in L.A., Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen. It includes multiple miniature models and video screens showcasing the building in a separate space, as well as areas containing model interior spaces and business meeting areas organized around smart screens built into the desks.

The exhibit presents a composite image of the built environment, raising questions about the symbiosis of screens, maquettes, moving walls, and other devices used in the exhibition area. We must also ask if and how the city provides a material space when the exhibit is confined to a sealed room. Do the screens and models literally reproduce the built environment? Are they mere renderings of a reality that exists outside them? Or can we understand them as transpositions of the city to a different symbolic order? Insofar as we may side with the last answer and conceive of the screen/city as a single multifaceted entity, what does it mean to claim that the multiple versions of the screen/city exist one within the other?

I explore these seemingly abstract questions in the context of the production and use of yu+Co’s exhibition spaces. I base my observations on multiple visits and conversations with yu+Co project managers, designers, and office head. Looking at the Ping An IFC exhibit together with other yu+Co projects, I offer an ethnography of the firm and how its designs are conceived and deployed.


Yomi Braester is Byron and Alice Lockwood Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Comparative Literature, Cinema and Media at the University of Washington in Seattle, as well as Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Beijing Film Academy. He is the co-editor of Journal of Chinese Cinemas and former president of the Association of Chinese and Comparative Literature. He has published extensively on modern Chinese literature, film, and visual culture. Among his books are Witness Against History: Literature, Film, and Public Discourse in Twentieth-Century China (2003) and Painting the City Red: Chinese Cinema and the Urban Contract (2010), which won the Joseph Levenson Book Prize, awarded by the Association of Asian Studies. His current book projects include Archives of the Future: New Media and the Reinvention of Public Space and Cinephilia Besieged: Viewing Communities and the Ethics of the Image in the People’s Republic of China, which is supported by a Guggenheim fellowship.