Shenzhen, China’s test bed for ideas, shares a new vision for cities - but it’s a work in progress

Curator’s public denunciation of part of international architectural showcase shines light on disconnect between visions for future and commercial realities in a young city that’s still being built

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 1:10pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 1:59pm

It was an irregular start for one of the biggest events in Shenzhen’s cultural calendar. The day before the opening of the fifth Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture, held jointly with Hong Kong, an American curator, in a packed press conference at the municipal offices, denounced a major element of the government-led showcase as a complete shambles.

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Aaron Betsky said the restoration of traditional Hakka houses in the Longgang area had been hijacked by the sponsor, Vanke, and turned into a theme park. The programme’s curatorial team had nothing to do with what is described in the press release as the affiliated venue, he said.

“Longgang is the opposite of what we do and I encourage you not to go there,” he said as Xu Chongguang, deputy secretary general of the Shenzhen government, sat beside him.

Betsky continued, after the nervous titters died down, saying he had issues with other aspects of the biennale. For example, the curators thought it a shame the main venue – a former flour factory in Shekou – would be demolished after an exhibition intended to focus on sustainability and imaginative urban design, he said. This forced Xu to jump in, explaining that only part of the factory was going to be knocked down.

Shenzhen still misses layers of ambiguity and interconnectedness that make a real city. There are lots of skyscrapers but the palette needs to be extended
Alfredo Brillembourg, curator

Deviations from carefully worded scripts at government press conferences are rare, but perhaps the ad lib comments were an apt reflection of Shenzhen’s unique nature: China’s test bed for economic reform is also a city where the private sector and grass roots have been more free to dance to their own tune.

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Indeed, the theme of this edition of the Shenzhen biennale is “reliving the city”, including how cities always need organic, bottom-up activities to make it real.

“Shenzhen still misses layers of ambiguity and interconnectedness that make a real city. There are lots of skyscrapers but the palette needs to be extended,” said Alfredo Brillembourg, another curator.

The biennale is a cultural event that takes place in Hong Kong and Shenzhen every other year and, since its inauguration in 2007, has provided a rare platform for architects and designers to openly share their vision of what the future Pearl River Delta can be like.

This year, the Shenzhen government has again chosen the Shekou district as the event’s main venue. A team led by Guangzhou-born architect Doreen Liu Heng spent about seven months turning the former Dacheng Flour Factory – empty since 2010 – into an exhibition venue.

The space is less dramatic than the cavernous glass factory nearby that hosted the 2013 edition. Nonetheless, its exposed concrete, broken windows and metal staircases beg to be explored. Apart from the main factory building, where the main exhibits are spread over three levels, visitors can roam freely around the grounds, including the cathedral-like innards of the vacant silos. As Xu pointed out, the event is not just a platform for serious, academic discussion. It is also a family-friendly “carnival”.

The displays are a mix of the whimsical and the serious. On the ground floor, Rob Voerman’s Shenzhen Entropy is a hut/workshop partly constructed out of recycled cardboard. With its coloured glass windows and a dark, intimate interior, the cross between Barcelona’s Sagrada Família and a hovel is a powerful homage to the makeshift villages that house Shenzhen’s huge communities of migrant workers.

Nearby, nets suspend dozens of glass spheres from the ceiling, with live carp swimming inside. Symbiotic Village, as the work by Hood Design is called, is meant to signify the symbiosis between man and nature, even if one feels quite sorry for the fish.

Next door, Madrid architects Langarita Navarro have created the ideal office space, one filled with huge pot plants rather than the usual, rather pathetic miniature evergreens that are semi-hidden in modern offices. The light fittings are beautiful, wave-patterned works of art made out of boring, standard steel fluorescent lamp holders.

Upstairs, Dalang Fever is a project headed by the Dutch International New Town Institute to advocate the inclusion of residents’ voices in a neighbourhood in Shenzhen that is home to 500,000 people, a majority of them migrants. The exhibition features a Styrofoam model of an empty hotel in Dalang that could be turned into a community centre.

The team from the V&A Gallery in Shekou’s future design museum has put together a display which includes video interviews with the unsung heroes of Shenzhen’s creative economy, from makers of counterfeit, or shanzai mobile phones, to artists in the Dafen Oil Painting Village who aspire to creating original artwork one day.

For three months, the former flour factory becomes a factory of ideas for clever development that doesn’t just require the pouring of concrete. There are 75 exhibitors, and plenty of discussions and workshops scheduled. But how much of what is said and shown will be taken on board by developers in Shenzhen?

Shekou, the site of the biennale, is the very symbol of the official China dream of switching from a low-value-added, export-oriented manufacturing economy to an ideas-driven, service-led economy.

The country has the potential to engineer a low-carbon-footprint future, but for now the focus is still on construction and very much on domestic consumption.

Just beyond the flour factory lies the massive construction site for the future Prince Bay Cruise Terminal. On the other side, Shekou’s main landlord, China Merchants Group, has a gleaming, new exhibition centre within which it is showing off plans to integrate Shekou with the Qianhai free-trade zone, where a shopping mall has just opened selling Hong Kong brands. Across the road from the factory, a high-end car dealer has Lamborghinis on display.

The central parts of Shenzhen are also awash with extravagant, vainglorious statements of China’s new wealth, such as the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, designed by Dutch architects OMA – whose founders include Rem Koolhaas, architect of the CCTV headquarters in Beijing – and the strangely empty Civic Centre.

“People’s desires have no limit, but the Pearl River Delta have limited space and resources. Only a balanced approach will give us a better future,” said Liu.

Xu, the government official, said the government was listening. “The flour factory, or the glass factory, are only 20 to 30 years old. We need to come up with fresh ideas for how we utilise buildings that are not old, and not new. Ours is a very young city,” he said. “It is also a city that is open to new ideas.”