People & the City
GLORY AND DREAM OF BUILDERS
When we try to place ourselves into the thriving image of Shenzhen’s urban construction, in order to observe, experience and evaluate the contributions that Shenzheners have made to the city in terms of urban planning, design, construction and other aspects over the past 40 years, an agreed-upon understanding is that buildings, as an integral part of the overall living environment, never exist in isolation. We believe that urban planners and architects must convey, deepen and enrich people’s ideal understanding and perception of urban architectural space. Such a standpoint has created a platform of social significance for us to assess and appreciate the architects who have been forming the city’s skyline and the cultural researchers who have been working on connecting the past, the present and the future over the past 40 years since China’s reform and opening up. Architects are also shouldered with other missions, including the self-realization of humankind and the maximization of technological advancement.
Let’s draw a coordinate system, with time and creation as its X and Y axes respectively, where convention and innovation are at the opposite two ends of the former, and nature and construction are at two opposite ends of the latter. It is only in this dynamic and flexible space that those features unique to Shenzhen can serve as a reference for others, as a pilot demonstration area of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Bing a model of China’s urbanization, place for social practice, and venue for innovative ideas, thoughts and systems since China’s reform and opening-up, Shenzhen is the ideal testing ground.
Within such an evaluation framework, we zoom in on a few groups of outstanding Shenzheners who are highly representative. From historical and geographical investigations to metaphysical discussions, these people, approaching from different angles, using different working methods, and acting in different social roles, focus on different aspects of urban construction to exchange views, brainstorm together and discuss in depth with each other. They are a group of people who have committed their youth, talent and wisdom to this unprecedented, rapid urbanization.
The cultural characteristics manifested through urban planning and architecture are diverse and complex. We hope to, through an interesting juxtaposition, find the connections linking the efforts of generations of Shenzheners, outline the conditions in which reflections and practices are conducted, and highlight the social context of architectural creations. All the efforts and attempts made during the difficult times will be respected, acknowledged and further tested.
Understanding the historical context of building Splendid China, Folk Culture Village and Window of the World is of great help in appreciating how Shenzhen realizes its cultural appeal through design and construction. The original intention of building the OCT (Overseas Chinese Town) theme parks, now a model in China’s tourism industry, is not one that can be quickly grasped by travelers 20 years later – especially those who travel around the world.
Dragon-boat regatta, Splendid China. Photo by Ouyang Yong
Ever since the birth of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ), the development of its tourism industry has been taken into consideration. According to the Shenzhen Atlas of Natural Resources and Economic Development published in 1985, Shenzhen was “adjacent to Hong Kong, a city with a highly developed tourism industry. Since its designation as an SEZ and the adoption of opening-up policies, Shenzhen has become more convenient for tourists to travel to than any other place in China, doubling the value of its not-so-unique mountains and waters. And its ever-changing cityscape also adds more charm to the tourism industry of the SEZ…" This thorough research report listed the “urban scenery tourism resource” as one of the top nine tourism resources of the SEZ in its initial stage.
Splendid China, opened in 1989, was the first theme park in China. It has significantly driven Shenzhen’s tourism and related industries ahead. Later, OCT went on to build the Folk Culture Village (1991) and the Window of the World (1994) within the 5-kilometer radius of Splendid China. From then on, theme parks have become a subfield and model in China’s tourism industry.
It is such a blessing for shenzhen to have architects who are able to view the city through the continuous spectrum where dots are connected from the past to the future.
In 1999, architect Meng Yan came back from New York to Shenzhen, and founded URBANUS with his partners Liu Xiaodu and Wang Hui. They embarked on an adventurous journey, in which he grew together with Shenzhen, the once fledgling and rough-around-the-edges city. When asked “why settle in Shenzhen” or “why stay in Shenzhen for 20 years”, questions that almost every visitor to URBANUS raises, Meng always attributes his choice to the fact that Shenzhen fits his original concept of an ideal city, though “serendipity” is also part of the story. Shenzhen has given them the opportunity to shape the city’s trajectory through architecture and design.
When talking about the urban renewal of Shenzhen, Meng noticed, with great subtlety, that OCT achieved transformation through renovating the eastern industrial zone. It became involved in contemporary art and subsequently changed the future directions of many branches of the company through art enlightenment. That is exactly what growth and making progress mean.
Facade of OCAT. Photo by Chen Jiu
In 2003, OCT began its renovation of the eastern industrial zone. Starting by reconstructing a factory warehouse into a Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT), OCT gradually transformed this area covering a total of 150,000 square meters, creating opportunities for this industrial zone to evolve and grow through design. Time has painted this place with creative cohesion and cultural richness. With the joint efforts of creative experts, OCT, the then Bureau of Urban Planning and other authorities, systems have been formed, standards have been set, and consensuses have been reached, making the area a creative cultural landmark in Shenzhen.
URBANUS adopted the practice of replacing and filling, starting with the currently available structures and moving on with renovation and creation. A new interconnected public space and facilities then took shape gradually. URBANUS also moved its office into the creative park, which, according to Meng, is a way of reshaping itself.
OCT-LOFT Site Plan ©URBANUS
In August, the Nantou Ancient Town, another urban renovation project, was unveiled. The 1,700-year-old historic town was reborn with a brand new look. Nantou Ancient Town, also known as Xin’an Old City, had served the coastal areas of Guangdong as the administrative center, coastal defense post, marine transportation hub and foreign trade distribution center in its history. It is one of the birthplaces of the history and culture of Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau. In October 2019, the Nantou Ancient Town Preservation and Regeneration Project officially kicked off. It followed the principle of ‘micro-renovation’ to maintain and revive the ancient culture at the local level. The project implementer has renovated the houses and buildings inside the old town to preserve their centuries-long local traits and embed the modern aesthetic elements into its texture. The renewed Nantou Ancient Town comprises four functional areas featuring historical heritage, art and cultural experience, urban life and cultural creativity, respectively. It is a successful exploration and validation of the ‘old town approach’ to urban village regeneration as well as another innovative example of such efforts.
Five Sections of Nantou Ancient Town Source: WeChat Official Account of Nantou Ancient Town
Cities shall be developed with its memory undiminished, and people shall thrive with their bond with their homeplace undisrupted. In this ‘museum of history’ offering a panoramic, immersive experience, people can discover delicious food, visit exhibitions and experience the place with fun and joy. The ancient town, thus, has re-emerged as a charming cultural and innovation landmark of the greater bay area.
Nantou Ancient Town Source: WeChat Official Account of Nantou Ancient Town
Memorial Archway of Nantou Ancient Town Source: WeChat Official Account of Nantou Ancient Town
Night View of Nantou Ancient Town (Before and After). Source: WeChat Official Account of Nantou Ancient Town
Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB)
Contemporary buildings and space born from collisions of ideas have merged into cultural communities. The “adventures” taken by architects are the highlights of an era, and their unique features have inspired increasing thoughts about the future.
To some extent, these thoughts, together with the rise of art galleries and the emerging art events, have catalyzed the birth of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). In 2005, UABB initiated its discussion on contemporary urban development under the theme, “City, Open Door!”, in a 12,000-square-meter crude former factory sitting in OCAT in the south area of OCT-LOFT. It was a tribute to old architecture and the memory of the city.
UABB is the first exhibition that is based exclusively on the set themes of urbanism and urbanization. Co-organized by the two neighboring and closely interacting cities of Shenzhen and Hong Kong, UABB situates itself within the regional context of the rapidly urbanizing Pearl River Delta, concerns itself with globally common urban issues, and extensively communicates and interacts with the wider public using expressions of contemporary visual culture. UABB has been held eight times up to now, and is clearly engaged in international and avant-garde dimensions, as well as discourses, of public interest.
2005 UABB: City, Open Door! Source: https://finance.qq.com
2005 UABB: City, Open Door! Source: https://finance.qq.com
Thirty years ago, Nan Zhaoxu, who was then teaching at a university in Shanxi Province, decided to come down to Shenzhen. Over the past three decades, based on his idea of “local care and action”, he has done two things:
“First, I have read all the files on shenzhen, from 1949 till now, to understand my city chronologically. Moreover, I have literally measured every inch of shenzhen, every mountain, every body of water, and every corner of shenzhen by foot. I have walked around the mountains, in the city, along the coastlines and in the valleys over and over again, doing field research and documentation.”
Sunrise over the Mangrove Forest. Photo by Mo Xiaoliang
Black-faced Spoonbills at Shenzhen Bay. Photo by Gong Mi
Such a way of dealing with reality has influenced and touched many Shenzheners who are willing to read Nan’s books and follow his instructions to observe and feel the natural beauty of Shenzhen. Books by Nan, such as Notes of Landscape in Shenzhen, Behind the Old Files of Shenzhen, History Illustrated Record and A General History of Shenzhen, have offered a nature-related, historical perspective that people turn to for reference when building and shaping the budding city of Shenzhen.
Notes of Landscape in Shenzhen (book cover), written by Nan Zhaoxu
Over the past four decades, Shenzhen has embraced many people who have dived deep into their creativity to construct spaces and form the culture that lies at the heart of this pioneering city. They have led the thinking about urban intervention from the city’s viewpoint with their concrete actions and have been creating and shaping the place through transformation. From traveling all over Shenzhen by foot doing field research and documentation, to calling on people to “rediscover Shenzhen”; from exploring alone to proposing the “Tourism + Real Estate” business model, it is them, the Shenzheners, who have created a diverse, rich and vibrant ecology of art and culture for Shenzhen.
Text/Fan Lin, Xu Chunhong