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Cultural Evolution: Inside The Shenzhen Biennale

Two biennales, one in Shenzhen and the other in equally vibrant Shanghai, attracted architects from countries worldwide to explore themes of urbanism, urbanisation, architecture and contemporary art

The ride from Massimiliano Fuksas’s new Terminal 3 building into the sprawling metropolis of Shenzhen took me past a metro station called Window of the World: a massive theme park containing scaled replicas of some of the most famous cultural landmarks worldwide. And after only a couple of days in Guangdong Province, it soon became clear that Shenzhen now wishes to draw back the curtains and display its own cultural ambitions on the world’s stage.

Shenzhen is the place where China’s capitalist transformation began and now that it has industrialised, urbanised and capitalised that investment, the next tick-box on the road to an acceptable modern metropolis is ‘culture’. For the Chinese authorities, it is as pragmatic as that. We’ve done infrastructure, economic growth, employment and housing, they seem to be saying, now we need a bit of culture in the mix. For five years, Shenzhen has been UNESCO-designated as China’s ‘City of Design’ and now – fighting off the upstart artistic pretensions of Sichuan’s Chengdu – it is making a claim to be the creative centre of one of the most dynamic countries in the world.

From 11 December 2013 to 28 February 2014, the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism / Architecture is attracting the great and the good to southern China. This is the world’s only biennale dedicated exclusively to the themes of urbanism and urbanisation and is held jointly by Shenzhen and Hong Kong (even though the cooperative ambitions of the two cities were more on paper than in reality). With the apt theme of Urban Borders, the Biennale seeks to explore and promote urban innovation on neglected sites.


The derelict factory prior to its transformation into ‘The Value Factory’. Photo: Zeus Photography

Undoubtedly, a city of 15 million that didn’t exist 20 years ago has more claim than most to understand what urban innovation means. Even though the theme of the Biennale sought to ‘discover margins of urban space’, the brute realities of rapid urban growth on these marginalised lands and their occupants were only really explored at fringe events, like those organised by Sinophile ethnographer Mary Ann O’Donnell. Her work explores Baishizhou (580,000m2 of poor local and migrant workers’ housing) which is to be demolished to make way for 5.5 million m2 of high end accommodation. Her exhibitions do not reject the inevitability of these urban upgrades, but rather they record the unintended consequences of the loss of these ‘urban villages’. Many have long been the incubators in which migrant workers have ‘transformed themselves into urbanites and citizens’.

The main Biennale is located in two grim, ex-industrial areas. In the first – a derelict ferry warehouse – Tongji professor Li Xiangning was the curator for the ‘academic venue’. Here exhibitions and events explore intelligent and meaningful, weak and woolly interpretations of what a city means today. Li contemporaneously curated the much less glitzy Shanghai Biennial of Architecture and Contemporary Art on the Shanghai West Bund (which ended on 19 December 2013). Set in the former Shanghai Cement Plant (recently bought by DreamWorks, the Hollywood film studio), the Shanghai Biennale had a much less laboured agenda: simply to display the built works of Contemporary Chinese Architecture that have matured since 2000. It focused on cutting-edge architecture and avant-garde artists and, as such, was a smaller, neater and more straightforward showcase than the Shenzhen Biennale. However, Shenzhen has plenty of useful exhibits too, like the Timeline Documentary section where architects from 14 different cities present essays and images of  ‘urban border’ case studies, from Detroit to Mexico City, Beijing to Singapore.


A dance performance takes place on the now exposed Glass Factory floor piers

The second key site in Shenzhen comprises the empty shells of the Guangdong Float Glass Factory. This sprawling collection of deserted buildings covering over 4 hectares has been refurbished to be the centrepiece of the Biennale experience. Here, just like the architecture-lite Magna Centre in Rotherham, much of this site impresses simply because such gargantuan heavy industrial spaces are often iconic examples of human ingenuity. They are symbols of manufacturing (before the euphemism ‘creativity’ was invented). The site’s impressive scale (and a tight budget and tighter timescale) seems to have excused the curatorial team from doing much work at all. But as a political statement, simply by not demolishing these buildings China has stuck two fingers up to the European chattering classes and challenged their hackneyed label of Chinese tabula rasa ‘urban irresponsibility’.

In fact, the Glass Factory project seems to be an ongoing commercial refurbishment commission to create post-industrial workspaces for local ‘creatives’ – an Oriental Shoreditch – and by hosting the Biennale, installing exhibitions and holding debates and workshops, it has been a useful way of claiming it to be something more than it is.

Unquestionably, there are some interesting architectural interventions in the fabric of the buildings: glazed cutaway floors, simple staircases and well-crafted handrails that have been installed lightly in order to enhance rather than transform the industrial aesthetic. Three main silos have been left untouched to allow visitors to experience their echoing emptiness. These have cleverly achieved simple results with very little effort. 

One of the more impressive sculptural displays, for example, was created by removing the suspended floor to reveal the undercroft support walls. These concrete sentinels have dramatic visual power partly because of their tantalising resemblance to the Terracotta Warriors, but they are also strikingly reminiscent of Antony Gormley’s Allotment II (1996)


Simple architectural interventions enhance rather than transform. Photo: Zeus Photography


In general, the products, practices and professional organisations on display – from the Berlage Institute, MoMA New York and OMA – came a poor second to the venue. These corporate showcases were merely pawns to sell the city: and for the city to show that leading Western institutions were desperately eager to get into China. The man who invited them was Ole Bouman (the ex-director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute) whose appointment as UABB Creative Director was a masterstroke for his ability to sell ethereal Chinese creativity using the ostentatious language of the West. As a consequence, he has certainly increased the influence that this Biennale has had over all previous events. His ability to come up with a narrative where none really existed was quite impressive. The client must think that he has been worth every penny.

Standing in the Glass Factory that used to send its products straight from the production line onto the neighbouring ferries, he post-rationaised that its revamp ‘symbolises the transfer of culture from China to the world … the re-purposing of an industrial building reflects on a country evolving from mass production to creating value through quality’. If the site had been a steelworks, a car plant, a new-build, the message would undoubtedly have been the same, although perhaps less convincing. Where else in China would you hear of ‘urban fringes, brink groups, and non-mainstream lifestyles’?

Unsurprisingly, China has learned many of its presentational pretensions from the West. An influential UK government report, Measuring the Value of Culture, written in 2010 argues for ‘a pragmatic approach’ to culture based on ‘cost benefit analysis’, ‘economic valuation methods’ and something called ‘choice modelling’. Is it a coincidence that Bouman renamed the glass production site, The Value Factory; and that Premier Li Keqiang talks of ‘cultural prosperity’ rather than culture, per se?

In spite of that, it is still a fascinating event. And because of China’s inherent economic and social dynamism, it has managed to produce some very challenging exhibitions, urban interventions and has engaged in a genuine debate … almost in spite of itself.

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