China's urban landscapes take on new meaning for New York architect

China's museum boom is the focus of a study headed by a New York-based architect who studies rapid urbanisation on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 5:40am

New York architect Jeffrey Johnson first visited China in the spring of 2006 with a group of students he was teaching at the graduate school of architecture, planning and preservation (GSAPP) at Columbia University. The trip took them to Shanghai and then a small town with historic buildings on the outskirts of Ningbo. Since that first and entirely new experience of China, Johnson has kept coming back each year, bringing students during the summer to conduct research on the nation's rapid urbanisation. In 2009, when the China Megacities Lab was formed at GSAPP to focus on issues related to China's changing urban landscape, Johnson became its director. Early this year, Johnson was appointed the co-curator of the Shenzhen part of the 5th Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture, which will open in December in Shekou.

What was your first impression of Chinese cities?

My first impression of Shanghai was by night. I was amazed by what I saw. It was quite spectacular, especially the blue lights that highlighted the elevated highways that cut through the density of the city. What I now feel after numerous visits to China is that Shanghai is the city probably most like New York. However, at the time, it was an entirely new experience.

What project did you focus on during the trip?

The studio project was in a small town just outside of Ningbo. It was an historic site with many historic courtyard buildings. It was also the location of a huge defunct cement factory and stone quarry. The project was to consider how to capitalise on its architectural history yet plan for future growth. The town suffers, as many similar ones do, because most of the young people have left to find employment in the city. This experience was much different than that of Shanghai.

What is your recent project at China Megacities Lab?

Our latest project is about the museum boom in China. We started last summer with a team of students cataloguing and analysing as many museums as possible. We focused mostly on contemporary art museums because we feel they, in a way, best represent the contemporary culture. So the focus of the research is not only to assess the condition of the museum booms but also the forces, the ambitions and the motivations behind as well.

What did you find from the project?

We found unique models that exist here in China. For example, the private developers for various interests and reasons would develop a museum as part of their planned residential block. They get incentives from the government to construct the cultural institution as part of the development and in exchange they get an additional area to build. These private museums also have the autonomy in developing their own content and their own curatorial programming. The museum development and the real estate development happen to coincide. It's not like in a typical central business district or government centre where you have these institutionalised structures, but now they get embedded more into the residential fabrics of cities. The hope is that there can be new models and paradigms on the museums in China that can be exported and can give us clues of what might be a future model of museums for other places.

What is the theme of the upcoming Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture?

Our theme this year is urban border. It is a critical topic, not only in architectural boundaries through the history of cities but in a contemporary sense between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. With the loosening of the regulations for crossing the border and the final opening of the border at 2047, it's going to be a very interesting and vital topic for conversation between architects in Hong Kong and Shenzhen for the next decades about how to plan that as the border opens completely between the two sides.

How many exhibitors have been invited?

We have two teams. Each team has its own venue as the site for their exhibition. Venue A is a former float glass factory and is curated by Ole Bouman, former director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute; venue B is an old warehouse at the Shekou ferry terminal between Shekou and Hong Kong and is co-curated by Li Xiangning, a professor of architecture from Shanghai's Tongji University, and me. At venue A, their concept is like a platform for events and the creation of contents. At venue B, we have over 30 different participants. Each exhibit is curated by people who then invite other architects.

Are there any Hong Kong participants?

The biennale has a Shenzhen side and a Hong Kong side. The Hong Kong side will have their own venue in Hong Kong. Our themes are the same but we are two independent organisations.

What will be your team's next research project?

If I have to suggest one topic to the team, it would have to do with the continued growth of infrastructural networks around China, the movement of population and how that changes urban landscape in China. In the Pearl River Delta and Hong Kong, it is already being conceived almost as a city in itself. The whole district has been connected in high-speed rail to airports and different cities. If you multiply that and expand on that, connect to China, and obviously those things all connect to the world. It's changed the way we think about cities.