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‘Shenzhen’s Biennale regurgitates Central Party concerns in a festival of restraint’

Dacheng flour factory shenzhen

The tenth offering of the UABB is a patrician approach to the ‘problem’ of urbanising China

Shenzhen Biennale is now in its 10th year. Over that time, it has earned a justifiable position of leadership as the only biennial forum, anywhere in the world, to be based exclusively on urbanism and urbanisation.

Situated in the Pearl River Delta, one of the fastest growing urban agglomerations in history, Shenzhen was home to 8.5 million people in 2005 (the time of the first Biennale), having risen from just 2 million a decade earlier. Now it has allegedly doubled again to over 15 million, including hidden migrant labour and the floating population. As such, the Biennale was originally created to provide a global opportunity to observe – from the frontline of China’s continuing urban transformation – the forces creating history in the south of China.

Co-organised by the city of Shenzhen and its neighbour Hong Kong, the clumsy official title – the Urbanism & Architecture Bi-City Biennale (UABB) – refers to those two cities having to deal with a mutually beneficial but tense interdependence. Hong Kong was reabsorbed into the Chinese nation as a special administrative region in 1997 after almost a century of British rule, causing China to invent the ‘two systems, one country’ model, ie, allowing capitalism to flourish in Hong Kong without disrupting the notionally communist Chinese mainland.

Indeed, Hong Kong has long been a means by which China could impress the world with its alleged economic and social leniency. But in recent years, its increasingly dirigiste interest in Hong Kong has forced many commentators to avert their gaze and satisfy themselves with the Shenzhen miracle instead. Here on the mainland, many millions have been lifted out of poverty and many millions more housed, as Shenzhen emerged as a regional powerhouse with distinctly Chinese characteristics. Hong Kong has taken more of a back seat in the last two Bi-City Biennales which have tended to showcase the acceptable face of Shenzhen as a microcosm of a more creatively attuned Chinese state.

‘Hidden within are some dark realities of slum residences, exploited and disenfranchised workers, but there is also a vitality to Shenzhen that deserves praise’

Anyone seriously interested in cities – in urban growth, population flows, urban development, regional planning, infrastructural logistics, contextual architecture and futurology – ought to take a look at this remarkable city, all the more remarkable for the fact that it seems to work. Admittedly, hidden within are some dark realities of slum residences, exploited and disenfranchised workers, but there is also a vitality to Shenzhen that deserves praise.

However, from the off, it was clear that praise was going to be in short supply at UABB2015. The brochure opened with David Harvey’s quote that ‘we have sleepwalked unknowingly into a full-blown “crisis of planetary urbanisation”’ clearly indicating that this was not going to be a barrel of laughs, but a quintessentially patrician approach to the ‘problem’ of urbanising China and of the need for China to learn restraint from the more advanced European gurus.

But ironically, nothing much happens in China without China’s tacit approval and all of the Biennales have been of-the-moment refractions of official development policy in south-east China. These are official for exploring possibilities, inventing scenarios and conducting experiments to help put Shenzhen on the map. In short, it could be said that UABB events represent contemporary Chinese state considerations using tame Western curators to interpret and broadcast the results to the world. This year the toy megaphone was handed to Aaron Betsky, dean of Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin.

In 2013, curator Ole Bouman had sold Shenzhen as a testbed of sustainable re-use; challenging the perception of China’s culture of ‘demolish and rebuild’ urbanisation. Instead of naff, cheap, ‘Made-in-China’ product quality, Bouman promoted the ‘symbolic transfer of culture from China to the world’.

Two years later, the contemporary discourse in Chinese government circles reflects a turn away from the centrality of GDP and growth. China is cutting overcapacity, shifting east-coast investment to central China and tackling ostentatious living by bloated officials. China’s think-tanks are even considering the socio-political consequences of scarcity in the future. So imagine how useful it is to have Western cultural commentators come and legitimate the narrative of austerity and the necessity of a painful transition to lower growth. Lo and behold, this Biennale regurgitates Central Party concerns in a festival of limits and restraint.

One display seeks to ‘amplify some of the inherently sustainable aspects of “impoverished” communities throughout the world’, another tells us that we already have a ‘critical mass of innovative products’, another sculpts a building ‘from 500 bags of garbage’. Yet another turns a rooftop into ‘a miniature Chinese society before consumption’, while another implores that ‘we can and must create a space for well-being from our very own garbage’. While China has over 200 million people in extreme poverty, we were told that ‘we have enough stuff … enough buildings, enough objects … [and] do not need to make or build anymore’. This Biennale of urbanism is ‘not about building’, says Betsky, ‘but about un-building’.

‘The second theme of UABB 2105 participants was an explicit assault on China itself, shocked by their realisation that it isn’t a democratic state’

Betsky revealed that he was a living testament to the over-consumptionist reality of China pointing to the gratuitous ‘excess’ he witnessed every morning in his overly ‘grandiose’ hotel room (‘real marble bathroom, huge ceilings … I’m grateful but when I think of the waste of resources, it’s criminal’). Presumably he slept guiltily on downy pillows.

If this condescension wasn’t enough (although tolerated by the authorities for their own internal political reasons), the second theme of UABB2105 participants was an explicit assault on China itself, shocked by their realisation that it isn’t a democratic state. Crimson Architectural Historians complained when their Radical Urbanism’s mural celebrating the Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors was covered up by shadowy security personnel … as if the Biennale displays were above such sanction. UABB2015 co-curator Alfredo Brillembourg announced that the show was about giving ‘power to the people to make their cities … and for people to take control’. Linda Vlassenrood of INTI proposes empowering unregistered migrant workers against ‘top-down’ planning. Tyree Guyton’s installation is called ‘Power to the People’. Challenging the authoritarian Chinese one-party state is fair enough, but it was done with such insensitive, juvenile naïveté that the Chinese participants seemed, at times, unwilling to engage.

In his book Great Leap Forward, written in 2001 (which gave rise to the first Biennale), Rem Koolhaas sought to disperse what he called the ‘cloud of unknowing’ that covered the developments in the Pearl River Delta. It was a region that had to be explored, researched and understood. Fifteen years later, Aaron Betsky with Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner have created a nepotistic love-in that seems to revel in unknowing. One curator, Andres Ruiz called for an ‘intergenerational (un)learning process’, for example.

In his lead essay in the brochure, Betsky notes that under the rubric of sustainability all architects have to ask themselves ‘when they are asked to design a new building, whether that is truly necessary’. Maybe the Chinese authorities preparing for UABB2017, legitimated by the relentless condemnation of unsustainable overindulgence, will signal their democratic commitment to Western resource-saving by calling the whole thing off.

Lead Image

Main entrance and Silo, Dacheng Flour Factory, Shekou, Shenzhen; Image Courtesy of 2015 UABB