Shenzhen’s Strada Novissima
von Mi You | Dec 21, 2011

The Shenzhen part of the 2011 Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture opened on December 8. Chief curator Terence Riley chose "Architecture Creates Cities. Cities Create Architecture" as the biennial's motto. Here are some highlights and inquiries into the architecture and city complex.

Referencing "La Strada Novissima", or "Newest Street", curated by Paolo Portoghesi for the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennial, "The Street" occupies the center of the main exhibition site and could be seen as a centerpiece of Terence Riley's curatorial concept. The 1980 version involved 20 architects including Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Arata Isozaki and others. Each was asked to design a façade, which was constructed by scenic artists, behind which they displayed models, drawings and photographs of their work. There is a looming metaphor in the exhibition – that the idea and form of architecture retreat into the background, while the façade becomes the manifesto.

After 30 years, the specter of the metaphor still can be felt. The twelve participating architects from around the world were encouraged to design façades that are spatial and material rather than two dimensional. To this end they avoided scenographic techniques and went to great lengths to create something different, including planting typical local plants (embodying a statement of balancing nature and human development, Open Architecture, Beijing), installing a vast black balloon (celebrating the ambiguity in the understanding of space, but perhaps pinpointing at the same time the inflatable characteristics of architecture itself, MAD Architecture, Beijing), and hanging white tassels that sculpt the boundaries of a space (creating the sensation one is trespassing, Atelier Deshaus, Shanghai).

The attempt to escape from simply designing interesting façades seems to end up falling into the same trap. Maybe the hidden intention of the design mission is to stage ideas, and stage them smartly. Johnston Marklee (Los Angeles) uses reflection in the interior space to create a distorted panorama effect; Jürgen Mayer H. (Berlin) plays with the ambiguity of inside and outside space with pattern-like construction elements. Other than showcasing ideas, what could have been better here is some sentimental attachment, not to the strident claims of the heroic architect or designer, but to those who care for, occupy and adjust those spaces that were built in response to necessity and the desire to construct something better.

If "The Street" is an internalized façade, the public artwork "10,000-Flower Maze", created by John Bennett and Gustavo Bonevardi, is its opposite in every sense: An externalized non-space, it consists of numerous orange traffic cones laid out over the entire span of the enormous plaza in front of Shenzhen Civic Center in a pattern inspired by the mystical maze at the largely destroyed Old Summer Palace in Beijing. A typical political manifestation, the plaza sees few pedestrians on normal days. Now, with the striking presence of the safety cones in the plaza, the absence of people is all the more noticeable. It underlines the political implications of the space and, by appropriating the visual vocabulary of the urban environment, links the sense of contingency with a proclamation of the future. Unlike other public works at the biennial which clearly seek to engage the audience/public, "10,000-Flower Maze" plays with the beholder's psyche providing multiple contact points to its rather detached (sculpted) nature. The magnitude of the work combined with its metaphors will leave a mark on anyone who sees it and hopefully on the history of the Shenzhen Biennale.

On the lighter side, the biennial was more mobile this year, a natural way to engage with the urban environment. And "Then It Became a City", curated by David van der Leer, is an exhibition by videos artists and filmmakers on six cities (Chandigarh, Gaborone, Almere, Brasilia, Las Vegas, Shenzhen) under 60 years old – Shenzhen easily being the youngest. At the same time it takes the form of a bus tour exploring the landscape of Shenzhen.

There is beauty in the video artworks, in which poetry and irony are both used to answer the question of when new towns turn into cities. They become even more beautiful when screened for an unwitting audience on a bus with an undecided route. Interesting juxtapositions of means of mobility, aggregations of architecture and human faces emerge between the actual Shenzhen and the image of the city in the video. While the truth is that probably only the city residents can collectively proclaim whether or not a new town becomes a city, the answer for Shenzhen is not obvious, as shown in the video of patchworked images of Shenzhen by artist Wang Gongxin. Yet the exhibition does yield a secondary result – the bus tour itself transports the audience on board to a realm where both the real and the portrayed, consciousness and unconsciousness, everyday life and unending history exist, thus generating a very good feeling about the city. Shenzhen should consider including this bus tour as part of their city attractions.

Strong works from the more academic parts of the biennial are hard to come by, with Counterpart Cities: Climate Change and Co-Operative Action in Shenzhen and Hong Kong being a stellar exception. Organized by the University of Hong Kong and curated by Jonathan Solomon and Dorothy Tang, the exhibition brings together six design teams from both cities to research and propose collaborative responses to the systemic challenges of climate change in the region, which include extreme periods of drought and rain, threatening the steady provision of water for the two cities; escalated storm surges and rising sea levels, endangering the economic productivity of their ports; and increased flood frequency, especially along the Shenzhen River. These challenges reveal the interdependencies between Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Architect Doreen Heng LIU has produced a blueprint for a future sewage facility near the Shenzhen and Hong Kong border, where what she calls the "i-infrastructure" updates the water infrastructure for better community use. CSCEC International's "Mobile Culture, Creative Community" combines the port's transportation advantages with exports of cultural products, and celebrates this marriage of culture and capital in a landmark high-rise on the coastline.

In the course of China's rapid urbanization, public participation in urban planning has never been an active element. It only makes sense for Shenzhen, China's most remarkable and youngest mega-city, to change this. In an attempt to improve the public's understanding of the urban environment, the Urban Design Division of the Urban Planning, Land & Resources Commission of Shenzhen Municipality organized a space called QianHai Workshop, where the public could review the master plan for a new development that is to be Shenzhen's future Manhattan. In a bid for active participation, people were asked to vote on certain future visions: "What is the ideal price range for housing?", "What means of transportation will you choose with regard to emission levels?" etc. The design of the space probably went too far in an attempt to be public-friendly, with the colorful installations appealing to the children the most. Do biennial organizers ask what the public want? They might be more interested in the decision-making process than in the final appearance itself. They certainly want to be involved, not face a separation forced onto an architecture biennial that can only define itself by its difference.

If we do not consider public participation for the sake of public participation, Ghana ThinkTank: Developing the First World, curated by John Ewing, shows a very interesting dynamic. It is a network of think tanks in developing countries devising solutions for the problems of industrialized nations. Problems are gathered from the public in cities in the developed world and then sent to the think tanks for analysis; the solutions are implemented in the original community and the feedback evaluated. An unpolished but eye-catching installation at the biennial groups together think tank projects from around the world and invites visitors to submit their own problems and help implement solutions.

In the Mobius-strip-like puzzle of the biennial motto "Architecture Creates Cities. Cities Create Architecture", it is a good exercise to view the exhibits asking where man stands in relation to this Mobius strip, where the qualities of life are, etc. As self-sufficient as the strip looks, it will be the substance around it that keeps it spinning.

“Ultra Light Village“ by Wei Chun Yu, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Structure of the “Ultra Light Village“, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Installation by Studio Up from Zagreb, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Play with reflections by Studio Up, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Exhibits of the exhibition „Ultra Light Village“ by Terence Riley, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Installation by Amateur Architecture Studio from Hangzhou, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Red umbrella by Obra Architects from the United States, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Also children enjoyed the event – it would be nice to fly like a plane, photo © Ruoyu Chen
The Serbian Think Tank, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Figures out of neon lamps, photo © Ruoyu Chen
And then it became a city ... Almere
And then it became a city ... Chandigarh, Tracing Bylanes
And then it became a city ... Shenzhen, A circle is drawn A city is born
“10.000 Flower Maze“ by John Bennett and Gustavo Bonevardi, photo © Ruoyu Chen
View on the large place close to the Shenzhen Civic Centers, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Traffic cones geometrically arranged, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Ordered in rows or circles, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Examining gazes by a visitor, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Flaneurs in the exhibition „The Street“, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Stone on stone, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Green-blue fanned, photo © Ruoyu Chen
“Facade of Countenance” by J. Mayer H. Architects, photo © Ruoyu Chen
Visitors view the installation by J. Mayer H. Architects, photo © Ruoyu Chen
“And then it became a city“ is an exhibition by video-artists and film-makers about six towns, which was presented in buses, photo © Mi You
And then it became a city ... Brasilia
And then it became a city ... Gabarone, When a Village Grows Up
And then it became a city ... Las Vegas