Shenzhen, 40 kilometres north of Hong Kong on the Pearl River Delta, is an extraordinary city. Made a Special Economic Zone in 1980, the first in China, it has grown from a small fishing town to a metropolis of some ten million people. Beautifully executed with wide tree-lined streets and packed with ambitious skyscrapers, Shenzhen is an uncharacteristically polished emblem of China’s swift urban expansion – so, a fitting context to reflect on the state of contemporary architecture and urbanism.
The Shenzhen leg of the clunkily titled 2011 Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism / Architecture was curated by Terence Riley. (The Hong Kong exhibition, which I didn’t see, opened the week its counterpart closed and was both independently curated and funded, making the bi-city positioning somewhat misleading.) Titled ‘Architecture Creates Cities: Cities Create Architecture’, an innocuous truism which provided a broad-enough umbrella under which to operate, the biennale took place over three sites and included 26 exhibitions put together by 20 ‘project curators’. Riley himself adopted the position of ‘editor’ or ‘dean’, laying out a ‘constellation’, rather than authoring the biennale as a whole. This made putting forward any sort of polemic or curatorial position – to my mind one of the primary tasks of any large-scale exhibition – difficult to achieve.
Ironically, the architecture and planning of the main space in the OCT Loft district, a low-rise, middle-class area of Shenzhen, was a central problem. Twelve exhibitions, two of which were curated by Riley, ran across a row of ‘streets’ or corridors. By inviting so many curators to work under one roof, the range of topics addressed, geographies considered and forms of display was so vast as to lose any discernible thread. For example, a project proposing solutions to threats posed by climate change on the Pearl River Delta’s infrastructure was shown next to ‘Favela Painting’, a garish series of rooms looking at creative regeneration in South America.
Another issue was the problematic appropriation of Western exhibition histories. Occupying the main corridor of the industrial space, the title of ‘The Street’ was borrowed from ‘Strada Novissima’, Paulo Portoghesi’s landmark exhibition at the inaugural Venice Architecture Biennale in 1980, which included projects by Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Robert Venturi, amongst others. In Shenzhen, Riley selected 12 young architects from around the world to fabricate a series of facades, uneasily positioning his selection as the next generation to watch whilst creating a neat link between an iconic architectural display and his own. This comparison was made more uncomfortable by the choice to show a series of interviews with the school of 1980 on TV screens down the centre of ‘The Street’. The practitioners in ‘The Street’ are dealing with a vastly different set of architectural, political and economic contexts to those of ‘Strada Novissima’; as an appropriated exhibition format, ‘The Street’ felt misconceived.
‘Shenzhen Builds’, which included five projects currently being developed in the city, borrowed its title from two architecture exhibitions organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (where Riley was previously curator of architecture) in the 1940s (‘Stockholm Builds’, 1941, and ‘Brazil Builds’, 1943) – another jarring attempt to align the biennale with a Western canon of architectural exhibitions. ‘Shenzhen Builds’ did however provide an insight into the money, infrastructure and architectural muscle being poured into the city: OMA’s impressive SZ Stock Exchange, with its distinctive floating base, a case in point and a project which emphasized the impact the ‘Strada Novissima’ generation currently have in China.
Where the country’s bulging urban ambition was examined on its own terms, one was able to come to grips with the country’s potent mix of capitalist drive and state ideology. ‘Eight Urban Projects’, also in the main hall and curated by Jeffrey Johnson and Xianging Li, looked at a series of current plans for developments across the country. The most striking was the city of Zhongshan’s ‘New Information Industry District’, designed by Wu Zhiqiang/Shanghai Tongji Urban Planning and Design Institute, which consisted of a mind-boggling proposal for a series of floating corporate and residential settlements in Zhongshan. Here, the combination of China’s economic liberalism and nationalistic rhetoric was laid bare, and architecture and urban planning were shown to be complicit partners.
One needed to look to the biennale’s research-based elements in order to step outside of this bind. Curated by Rochelle Steiner and a team of researchers at the University of Southern California, ‘6 under 60’ was one notable exception. Examining the goals, developments and current statuses of six cities – Almere, Brasilia, Chandigarh, Gabrone, Las Vegas and Shenzhen – all formed or constructed since 1951, the exhibition comprised a series of touchscreens on which visitors could access information on each of the cities, drawing comparisons between population demographics, industrial growth and quality of life. Six films were projected on the walls, offering visual portraits of the cities that complimented the data presentation and created a far more immersive environment than the books on walls seen elsewhere. ‘6 Under 60’ also successfully placed Shenzhen within a global discussion on urbanism, addressing the different political and economic aspirations – as well as subsequent strains – on cities. Indeed, it highlighted the missing components from Riley’s axiomatic theme and resulting biennale: any discussion on urbanism and architecture should surely foreground the people, money and politics that are the driving force behind the world’s cities.