THE 16-YEAR HISTORY OF UABB:
URBAN INTERVENTION AND POETIC CONSTRUCTION
Edit: Editorial Office
Source: 1. Zhang Yuxing, Urban Exhibition Intervention and Poetic Construction;
2. Xiang Linfei, After the Show: Reviewing UABB(Shenzhen) in a Decade;
3. UABB WeChat official account; 4. UABB website http://www.szhkbiennale.org.cn/.
The year 2005 marked the 25th anniversary of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. As the first special economic zone (SEZ) that China established to implement its reform and opening-up policy, Shenzhen has experienced rapid development for over two decades. Its rocket-like economic growth and population aggregation show the world the incredibly fast “Shenzhen Speed”. Faced with the sharply changing urban landscape, the planning management authority of the city began to think about the quality of urban construction and realized that it needed a platform to communicate with professionals and interact with the public. Meanwhile, Shenzhen proposed the strategy of “creating a cultural city” in 2004, deciding to build itself into a city of design, where the cultural industry would serve as a pillar of the SEZ economy. In this transformative context, the 2005 (1st) Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture was initiated by the Shenzhen Municipal Planning Bureau on a proposal by Meng Jianmin and Zhang Yuxing.
In 2007, the second edition of the event was renamed “Bi-city Biennale Urbanism\Architecture (UABB)”, with the joining of the neighboring city Hong Kong. Following the naming
and operating mechanisms that are commonly used in art and architecture biennales, UABB proceeds from the big picture of the unprecedented, rapid urbanization in China, sets its eyes on the theme of city and urbanization, and strives to provide the young city of Shenzhen with a platform for cross- cultural communication.
As the world’s only biennale with the name containing the term “Urbanism\ Architecture” and the fixed theme of “city”, UABB has so far exhibited more than 1,800 pieces of excellent works from all over the world and held over 900 events, attracting some 1.9 million visitors. It, therefore, provides a window through which people can peek at how urbanization, including human settlements and modern buildings, has played out in Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and other cities in China and even the entire world, by making full use of diverse exhibition forms, such as urban site revitalization, architectural scene reconstruction, architectural modeling, architectural photography, product design, video installation, live theater, public art, urban problem research, dialogue with experts, and public participation.
Urban Intervention and Inspiration
The role of biennales in invigorating urban development as an intervening factor is recognized by almost every hosting city. UABB is no exception. From the very beginning, it formulated a longstanding strategy to make “exhibition interventions”.
First, UABB has a fixed theme on “city\architecture\urbanization”. One
of the most important differences between UABB and other exhibitions lies in the former’s unique “city- oriented strategy”. The core of the strategy is to collect various kinds of real problems facing the world in urban architecture, living environment, and other domains of development, ponder over these problems with cross-border mindsets and methods and display the resulting reflections and possible solutions. Some typical examples of the challenges under discussion are urban villages, spontaneous cities, urban expiration and regeneration, rise and decline of public spaces, urban- rural relations, and agriculture, global climate and environment. The inspiring research programs, propositions, and discussions provoked by the aforesaid strategy altogether amount to meaningful explorations for the direction in which urbanization and architecture will develop in Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and other cities in China and even the world.
Second, UABB bases itself on the “joint construction strategy of twin cities: Shenzhen and Hong Kong”. Given their geographical proximity and prominent urban challenges, Shenzhen and Hong Kong have since 2007 co-hosted the urbanism\architecture biennale on the same theme yet in two places. Interacting like twin cities, they have jointly planned a number of exhibitions and academic activities to engage their citizens in discussions about urban issues.
Third, UABB ingeniously leverages exhibition venues to revitalize specific urban areas and communities in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Since the first edition, the event has consciously established a strategy that exhibition venues would be devised flexibly enough to intervene in the places where they are located and cause changes there. Therefore, the site selection by each of the previous UABB editions is a testament to the event’s emphasis on intervening in, reusing, redefining specific urban spaces (such as empty plants, municipal squares, parks, and streets).
The first and second editions of UABB chose to locate their main venues in idle plants in the southern and northern areas of the OCT-LOFT Creative Culture Park, respectively. Despite the short duration of three months, either of the two events proved to be a catalyst for change: creative people started to work, spend money, and live there. Their arrival has made the entire area a place where design houses and creative studios are concentrated and various art activities like exhibitions abound. The two editions, therefore, become a typical case of UABB’s catalyzing role in the revitalization of urban areas.
In 2009, the third edition of UABB had its main venue located in the Shenzhen Civic Square, which is also the seat of the Shenzhen Municipal Government. The curators exhibited public artworks and organized art activities within the initially empty municipal square. The revitalized space, in turn, attracted and expanded the participation of the public to continue and magnify the social value of the public artworks and the square.
In 2011, the fourth edition of UABB was also located in the Shenzhen Civic Square. A temporary art installation called “Wanhuazhen”, consisting of 4,000 traffic cones, was displayed on the square as not just a tribute to the ancient garden in the same name but also an outlook for the future. On the upper-level plaza of the square were a series of works about the “Ultra Lightweight Village”. A total of six structures were erected to offer a unique, innovative answer to the question about building sustainability and utility. The installation of the “Ultra Lightweight Village” works managed to transform the square from a memorial space into a functional space with great potential.
In 2013, the fifth edition of UABB was housed in the discarded factory of the former Guangdong Float Glass Factory at Shekou Industrial Zone and in the old warehouse of Shekou Ferry Terminal. The two venues were connected by a green lane with shuttle bus services available. The site selection and design aimed to transform and reuse the idle factories at the Shekou Industrial Zone. Specifically, the “Value Factory” project by Ole Bouman purposefully took curation as a means of urban renewal to exhibit the abandoned Shekou Float Glass Factory upon its transformation. The success in the curation project directly affected the way China Merchants Shekou Industrial Zone Holdings Co., Ltd. looked at and treated another project, the idle property of Dacheng Flour Mill. The project owner made a U-turn. Inspired by the UABB practice, it gave up the original demolition plan and organized an architects’ workshop to renovate the discarded buildings instead.
In 2015, the 6th edition of UABB located its main venue in the former Dacheng Flour Mill and Warehouse No.8 at Shekou, Shenzhen. Dacheng Flour Mill, established in 1980, used to be a benchmark and a testbed for Shenzhen’s business openness and progress. It ceased operation in 2010, as Shekou commenced its industrial upgrading and transformation. After being silent for an extended period of time, the flour mill re-entered the public’s sight as another industrial space selected by UABB for renovation. Designers tried their best to preserve or restore the original appearance of the industrial site and turned the discarded complex into an immersive exhibit. The sub-venue of the sixth UABB was situated in the Xipu New Residence, a featured folk house in Guangdong. Centered on the core concept of “shared housing”, the exhibition mainly aimed to rejuvenate the traditional folk building in the center of Longgang District, Shenzhen.
In 2017, the 7th edition of UABB themed “Cities, Grow in Difference” took place in the Nantou Old Town, which provided an alternative opportunity for refitting a building complex that consisted of an ancient town, an urban village, and old plants. The biennale was also the first of its kind held in an urban village all over the world. The exhibition venue was divided into three parts by exhibition content: factory buildings, the ancient town, and Nanmen Park, where a series of exhibition spaces were created with artworks on display. The intervention in these spaces through artworks, therefore, provided new possibilities for the future development of the Nantou Old Town. Sub-venues at the Qingshui River Industrial Station of Luohu District were adapted to display the practices in different areas. Dameisha Village in Yantian, Jingkou Community in Guangming, Shangwei Village in Longhua, and Qianzhen School in Longhua – all of these places rolled out independent themed exhibitions and some of them even made a series of micro-renovations to local buildings.
In 2019, the 8th edition of UABB addressed the ever-evolving relations between urban space and technological innovation from different perspectives. The two main venues were located at Futian High-speed Railway Station and Shenzhen Museum of Contemporary Art and Urban Planning. There were also nine sub-venues of different types, from the Guanlan Ancient Market (a special site with historical significance) and Dapeng Fortress to many strongholds at the forefront of urban development (like Guangming Could Valley and Qianhai Cooperation Zone). These sub- venues, a full traverse from west to east of Shenzhen, covered various types of functional buildings and spaces, which came in the highest number throughout the history of UABB and set good examples for exploring the more diverse and pioneering urban practice. Besides, these venue sites were closely linked together to form a city-wide network.
UABB is not just an exhibition but also a kind of action and intervention. Committed to refurbishing old urban areas, its previous editions gave an impetus to the revival, rebirth, or renewal of these areas. Never confined to the boundaries of exhibition, the event has been able to drive and simulate urban development.
Boundary Crossing and Poetic Construction
When asked to compare UABB with Venice Biennale, Ole Bouman, one of the curators of the Fifth UABB in 2013, said Venice as one of the oldest cities in the world could only show what has happened on the planet, which became one of its major limitations to a large extent. By contrast, Shenzhen has an open mind that dares to experiment.
It is a city that belongs to “actors”. Here, people can challenge the well- established game rules and try to change the world by participating in UABB. It is such an open, adventurous, young city that attracts its residents from all walks of life and a flood of foreign people worldwide to get involved in UABB and keep breathing new life into the event.
UABB is a complete novice and a marginal existence in the arena of international biennales. When it comes to the exhibition strategy, it chooses a new venue site for each edition. After putting the spotlight on a venue, the biennale immediately steered its attention towards another marginal space.
With respect to exhibition methods, UABB has emphasized the public nature of the exhibition since its inception. It tries to remove the barrier between professionals and the public, in the hopes that citizens can take an active part in the event. So, the image of wandering and playing around in the city may quite fit the spirit and poetic temperament inherent in UABB.
In 2005, the first UABB used a slogan- based guidebook to spark a dialogue between professionals and the public. The exhibition content was divided and distributed into nine “towns”, such as the shopping mall, university town, food palace, cinema, and entertainment center. The life-like presentation was intended to narrow the psychological distance with visitors.
In 2011, the fourth UABB especially designed a “street” exhibition. Inspired by the “Main Street” concept Paul Podogueci had proposed in curating the Venice Architecture Biennale, the event invited 12 architects to design the installations and facades of the exhibition street, where artists and musicians could be seen wandering and performing randomly. When visitors walked along the street, they would feel as casual as in a daily living space.
The curatorial team took “Art Intervening in the City” as a highlight of the 7th UABB in 2017. At the opening ceremony held in the Nantou Old Town, director Li Ning made full use of many buildings and spaces in the urban village--walls, windows, balconies, and roofs--to present an extraordinary performance. The public drama titled “the Chorus of All Living Beings”
was so fascinating that spectators crowded balconies and windows of the surrounding buildings. The ubiquitous murals, dances, and performance art, and other forms of activity directly intervened in urban life, and interacted with local residents, thus giving rise
to an urban life system that was more vibrant, creative, inclusive, and democratic.
In 2019, the 8th UABB paid attention to the most cutting-edge technological changes, with the theme of “Urban Interactions”. The exhibition consisted of two sections. One was called “Eyes of the City”, co-curated by Carlo Ratti and the South China-Torino Collaboration Lab. Following the principle of “open- source curation”, the exhibition section brought together and presented the viewpoints of many disciplines, revealed various changes in technology, and prompted designers to respond to new technologies. The other section was “Ascending City”, which was curated by a team headed by Meng Jianmin and Fabio Cavallucci. The team gathered a number of well-known architects, artists, filmmakers, writers, and museum researchers from different countries and disciplines, to envision and discuss the future in a brand-new and profound way from multiple dimensions. Compared with the previous editions, this UABB involved the most comprehensive scope of disciplines and the most diversified perspectives. Activities both inside and outside the exhibition venues indeed echoed the eternal theme of “Urban Interactions”, revealing the numerous impacts of digital technology on urban life.
In an age where the world abounds with various biennials, the young UABB is more focused on tapping deep into the local market. It takes exhibitions as a means of research, experiment, and display to catalyze changes in Shenzhen and to intervene in urban development. In the process, the event also makes it possible for the rapidly developing city to realize global participation, joint building, and co-existence.
From the first edition themed “City, Open Door!” to the eighth edition themed “Urban Interactions”, UABB has made various explorations and practices, all of which can be seen as a yet-to-be-tapped reservoir. It, therefore, plays a pivotal role in a number of areas, such as joint development of Shenzhen and Hong Kong, industrial upgrading of the Pearl River Delta, inspirations for new urban development and regional cooperation, and sustainable development of cities worldwide in the future. UABB is expected to continue inspiring our imagination of urbanization, human settlements, innovation, and the future in Shenzhen, an ever-changing city in the era.