As scarcity of natural resources, social fragmentation and environmental depletion impact upon the political agendas of our era, nowhere are these issues more relevant than in the South China region of the Pearl River Delta (PRD – sometimes known as ‘the World’s Factory’). In an area the size of Switzerland, the region houses a population of more than 40 million inhabitants and counting. Within this burgeoning megalopolis, the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB) – initiated by the city of Shenzhen in 2005 and co-organized by neighbouring Hong Kong since 2007 – aims to give a boost to the cultural industry of the region. It does so not just by marketing Shenzen’s 30-year-old urban miracle but by questioning the very effects of ‘Made in China’ exceptionalism. The 2015 edition of the UABB, titled ‘Re-Living the City’, asks if contemporary architectural and urban-planning practices can let go of the ethos of ‘building the new’ to begin to collectively ‘reuse, rethink and reimagine what we already have’.
The biennale’s three core sections – ‘Collage City 3D’, ‘Radical Urbanism’ and ‘PRD 2.0’ – were assembled, respectively, by historian Aaron Betsky, Urban Think Tank duo Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner and Shenzhen-based architect Doreen Liu Heng. These occupy three floors of a defunct flour factory complex from the 1980s, repurposed for the exhibition by Liu’s office NODE. The resonances among the sections, however, are often muted by their spatial segregation and the overabundance of infographic pastiche.
For ‘Collage City 3D’, Betsky invited 12 international studios to create site-specific three-dimensional collages of things Shenzhen-made. Many of the installations percolate with the debris of the everyday, while others are more poetically crafted, such as Jimenez Lai’s Lost & Found (all works 2015), which looks at the formal correspondences between architectural building blocks and brightly coloured plastic goods fabricated in, or transiting through, Shenzhen. The result is a precisely choreographed urban landscape laid upon a lighted plinth that echoes Shenzhen’s OMA-designed stock exchange. In Topotek1’s collaboration with composer Rebecca Saunders, Cacophony Collage, 1,000 music boxes turn perceived sonic dissonance into individualized polyphony as visitors manually charge each mechanism to create personalized ‘variations’. Co-curator Renny Ramakers’s Social City, an online platform combining user-centred urban research and professional insight, is meant to empower citizens’ rights to the city and its collaborative making. Mark van der Net’s soft data visualizations, which capture the online transactions from Shenzhen and Hong Kong, lend the project atmospheric mystique.
‘Radical Urbanism’ traces informal programmes from 20 design and architecture firms across the globe, whose practices present alternative solutions to top-down urbanism. These include: ETH Zurich’s investigations of Cairo’s illegal concrete-and-bricks infills built along its ring roads; Forensic Architecture’s theoretical and aesthetic questions around the architecture of conflict in both built and visual environments; and The National Pavilion of Western Sahara by Manuel Hertz Architects, which features a study of unique design tooling, from architecture to mobility, emerging from the transient conditions in refugee camps on the southern border of Algeria.
‘PRD 2.0: Balance Is More’ advocates for a recalibration of natural, human and technological resources in envisioning alternative futures for cities experiencing rapid urbanization, for which the PRD provides ample fieldwork. This is presented across three main bodies of work. The first elucidates decades-long research around the planning of the region and its unique formations such as urban villages, offering insight into studies from local practitioners like architect and historian Juan Du, MAP Office and the Asia Megacity Lab of Columbia University. These are complemented by contemporary cases from around the PRD, celebrating its capacity for self-adaptation and grassroots innovation.
Despite a wealth of documentation, the more nuanced presentations reside in the more modestly scaled collateral and ‘thematic pavilions’. ‘Unidentified Acts of Design’, curated by Luisa Mengoni and Brendan Cormier of the V&A, unearths objects and stories from Shenzhen’s rich manufacturing tradition – from digital knitting factories to drones, open-source hardware companies, and digital platforms. Now. There: Scenes from the Post-Geographic City, a three-dimensional zine curated by Mimi Zeiger and Tim Durfee, invites designers to visualize a city undefined by physical or geo-locatable connotations but one which acknowledges that in the ‘hybrid alliance between online systems and offline spaces’ we already inhabit as interactive users a ‘secondary urbanism of data storage’ – a pervasive and marketable spatial formation.
Considering the overload of demographic, geographical and economic data produced across the PRD, and for a city like Shenzhen, which is booming with financial and social capital in innovation-lead start-ups (not to mention its resourceful industrial habitat), the biennale offers an oddly analogue, DIY experience, both in its display and conceptualization.
Beatrice Leanza is a cultural strategist and design critic based in Beijing. She is the former creative director of Beijing Design Week (2013–16), chief curator of the ongoing research project ‘Across Chinese Cities’, featured at the Venice Architecture Biennale (2014, 2016 and 2018 editions) and co-founder of The Global School, China’s first independent institute for design and creative research.
First published in Issue 177