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Urbanism and Architecture at the Shenzhen & Hong Kong Biennale

Shenzhen is not Venice but it does have an architectural biennale

Shenzhen is not Venice. It’s much newer, much bigger, and, since its designation as a Special Economic Zone in 1980, expanding at a furious pace. It’s now some kind of phantasmagoria of rapid development. Like Venice, however, Shenzhen does have an architectural biennale.

To be precise, it’s the primary site for the Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture. As in the case of the Venice Architecture Biennale, visitors to Shenzhen inevitably draw connections between the various exhibitions/installations and the more complex reality of the urban condition surrounding the designated biennale sites.

The biennale has stretched this year by inviting, for the first time, a foreigner to serve as chief curator (previous curators were Yung Ho Chang in 2005, Qingyun Ma in 2007, and Ou Ning in 2009). This year is the turn of Terence Riley, former Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and subsequently director of the Miami Art Museum. Riley, who is also an architect, has chosen as his theme: ‘Architecture creates cities. Cities create architecture.’ Almost a palindrome, this phrase sets the scene for a lively mix of urban analyses and visions, both local and international.

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Most of the action is centred in the Overseas Chinese Town, where – amid Brutalist housing slabs and agreeably lush planting – several sheds have over recent years been appropriated for cultural activity. Near Starbucks, two of these sheds have been allocated to half-a-dozen foreign ‘pavilions’. Austria presents public housing in the context of Viennese history. Chile investigates, post-earthquake, concepts of shelter.

Seaside shacks from Bahrain, a hit at the Venice Architecture Biennale last year, have migrated here to the other side of the world. And the Netherlands Architecture Institute corrals proposals from Dutch and Chinese architects for dense, low-income youth housing.

A short stroll away is Riley’s signature contribution, where a larger shed, or rather an accumulation of sheds, is organised about an invented streetscape that consciously echoes the famous Strada Novissima conjured up by Paolo Portoghesi for the Venice Architecture Biennale in 1980.

That temporary ‘street’ is best remembered today for its stylistically knowing facades, often seen as a template for 1980s Postmodernism. Riley’s idea is to ask 12 young contemporary practices to occupy and exploit a virtual cube of Chinese space in an experimental, communicative way, six to either side of an axial promenade.

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On one side are Aranda\Lasch (New York), Hashim Sarkis Studios (Beirut and Harvard), Johnston Marklee (Los Angeles), SPBR (São Paulo), MAD (Beijing) and Fake Industries Architectural Agonism (New York and Barcelona). Directly opposite this sextet are Jürgen Mayer H. (Berlin), OPEN Architecture (Beijing), Mass Studies (Seoul), SO-IL (New York), Alejandro Aravena (Santiago) and Atelier Deshaus (Shanghai).

An appropriately global mix, some erect porous facades whereas others open the envelope up to allow the street seep and flow. Only Johnston Marklee and Fake appear to acknowledge Venice three decades ago. This surely reflects the growing internationalisation of architecture and marks a move away from old Eurocentric views. In Shenzhen, several participants contrive to open up and expand space.

At least five of the installations utilise mirrored or highly reflective surfaces, with Johnston Marklee and MAD offering unexpected panoramas, or panopticons, and SO-IL and OPEN Architecture multiplying nature (green marble, tropical plants) ad infinitum. Johnston Marklee, SPBR, MAD, Open Architecture and Mass Studies include mini-retrospectives, this ambition on the part of the Asian architects related perhaps to their training with Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl and OMA respectively.

To either side of these interior pavilions are informative exhibitions on major proposals for China by the likes of OMA, Holl, Field Operations and David Chipperfield; and on significant projects currently on site in Shenzhen by Coop Himmelb(l)au, Yung Ho Chang, OMA and Massimiliano Fuksas. Beyond these, in a more distant orbit, are exhibits about planning along the South China coast, favelas in Rio de Janeiro, and six cities (including, of course, Shenzhen), born in the last 60 years.

Downtown, in front of the vast Shenzhen Civic Center, six other young practices have pop-up pavilions. MOS and OBRA (both New York), Clavel Arquitectos (Murcia), Studio Up (Zagreb), Amateur Architecture Studio (Hangzhou) and Wei Chun Yu (Changsha) appear penalised due to dramatic differences in scale and resources.

Nevertheless, their structures see rambunctious use being out in the public realm. Out there, too, is the siding and mechanical equipment that signal major construction projects: OMA’s Stock Exchange and the site for Yung Ho Chang’s media tower. Architects in the Shenzhen spotlight are already winning projects from the Venice generation.

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