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by Christine Maria Kaiser

Urban Villages within the Megalopolis of Shenzhen: A (De)centralised Driver for Urban Change?

Art is shown in constructed spaces like museums, off spaces, private homes, or even in public spaces like squares or parks. But it always deals with the idea of showing and a scheduled timeframe in which the artworks can be seen. Nowadays, the venues for exhibitions get more and more (de)centralised and encompass a wider territory. The aspiration behind these developments is based on the common idea of improving conditions, showing potentials, and really starting to move things forward rather than just offering empty criticism. In the context of an architecture and urbanism biennial, it is more important than ever not just to show another model for utopias, but to really show what these approaches are able to transfer and do in real life. So, several questions arise: To what extent can a biennial change urban development trajectories? What are the novel elements introduced by the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (UABB) in Shenzhen in 2018? What role does the urban village Nantou Old Town take on as the setting of the UABB 2018? And how can we better gain an applied understanding of (de)centralised urban space?

Architectural intervention on site of the urban village and the UABB. Photo: Gianni Talamini.

Within the Cross Street Arena: Old warehouses before the restructure took place. Courtesy of UABB2017.

Within the Cross Street Arena: Common Meeting and exhibition spaces after the restructuring. Courtesy of UABB2017.

Urban interventions, wall paintings and daily life in parallel. Photo: Gianni Talamini.

Open space to use during and after the Biennial. Photo: Gianni Talamini.

Architecture intervention and a new coffee shop popping up during the Biennial. Photo: Gianni Talamini.

Since 2005, the urban biennial has grown to become a crucial part of Shenzhen’s image; by continually changing locations it addresses the rapid urbanization within the megalopolis, and within the context of the Pearl River Delta. The biennial is the only one worldwide focusing on urbanization and urban processes.

Since 2007, the Biennale has been co-organized with the neighbouring city of Hong Kong. They share the same concept, but their teams work independently. Nevertheless, the main focus is on Shenzhen and their immensely fast-growing cityscape.[1]

The UABB was initially founded by the Shenzhen government, with the aim of promoting the city as the mainland’s foremost city of creativity. The venues for the Biennale are always changing, depending on the curatorial concept and on the needs within the city as well: in Shenzhen, there are a lot of abandoned places like old factories or smaller communities, hidden behind the skyline of the newly built skyscrapers, and there are urban villages.

The Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (UABB) “Cities, Grow in Difference” (December 15, 2017—March 17, 2018) focused on the topic of the urban village. The excitement level was extremely high, as we are talking about a part of the city where people still live. This Biennale was confronted with dealing with a vibrant part of the city of Shenzhen, an urban village. So, the curators created spaces in the realms of urbanism, architecture, contemporary art, and the people of the city itself.

The 2018 edition was curated by Urbanus, an architecture company with offices in Shenzhen and Beijing, in particular its founders LIU Xiaodu and MENG Yan, and the internationally renowned art curator and artistic director of the MAXXI in Rome, HOU Hanru. One main venue at the centre of this examination was located in one of the approximately over 100 urban villages: in Nantou Old Town in the Nanshan district of Shenzhen. The idea of the centre gets blurred, since there is no longer one single centre as we know it from, for example, European city planning. The structure of a city is not what we are trained to know and keeps developing in multiple ways, and therefore multiple centres pop up. The idea of (de)centralising is not just inherent in the city itself, but within the idea of exhibition-making in this case as well. Nantou Old Town, as a specific urban village, serves not only as host of the exhibition with its old and renovated factory buildings, but it is in itself reconstructed and reconnected.

Renovated factories as exhibition venue and temporary installation by dutch designers MVRDV in the background. Photo: Gianni Talamini.

Old factory renovated for creative industries to rent during and after the Biennial. Photo: Gianni Talamini.

Once the urban village was agreed on by the officials and the curators as the theme, the question of which urban village would be the focus of the Biennale was raised. The choice fell on Nantou Old Town. On the one hand, because all the stakeholders agreed on it, and on the other hand Nantou Old Town is well preserved compared to other villages; it still has traditional elements and has a long history as it was founded over 1700 years ago. DU Juan, Associate Professor at Hong Kong University—one of the main experts on urban villages in Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta and co-curator of the documentary section within the Biennale exhibition—dated the earliest settlement of an urban village within the area of Shenzhen back to the 5th century.[3] Another distinguished expert who also took part in the 2018 UABB is Dr. Mary Ann O’Donnell.[4] O’Donnell is focusing on the process of urban change in Shenzhen;[5] she has lived and worked in Shenzhen for 20 years and can draw upon her own experience.[6] The UABB is located in the Pearl River Delta, the largest urbanised urban area of the world, which is continuing to grow and to change fast with a very high rate of immigrants. Shenzhen mostly consists of immigrants from all over China (out of c. twelve million inhabitants, eight million are migrants[7]). Shenzhen is one of the mega cities within the Pearl River Delta.

Prior to Shenzhen, there were villages all over the area, and they were the first settlements in the area.[8] After the announcement of the special economic zone in 1979, the City of Shenzhen began to encompass these villages. In the beginning, it was officially called the “rural-urban dual system,” and today these systems have grown together to form an urbanised village. Hence, “urban village” means a village within the city. Nowadays, the megalopolis of Shenzhen and the urban villages exist in symbiosis—one cannot live without the other. After the reclamation of Shenzhen as a special economic zone and the concomitant fast growth of the city in terms of its infrastructure and built environment, its economic rise was unstoppable.

Up to now, Shenzhen has best been known for its high-tech producing factories (Apple, Huawei, Diji, and a lot more), social media enterprises (such as Tencent) and e-business companies (such as Alibaba). But it recently started to become known for its cultural values as well, such as art and design places and the aforementioned UABB.

Evidently, culture is becoming an important part of the megalopolis, in relation to the city’s economic, social, and political changes. I would even argue further that culture significantly shapes and is affected by systems within the economic, social, and political spheres. The UABB is both an expression of contemporary culture and a crucial player in the transformation of the culture of Shenzhen. This cultural hype can be traced by just looking at the numbers of exhibitions held in Shenzhen, which are rising, and by the fact that the 2005 UABB had 80% participation from China and 20% internationally. In 2011, 40% of the participation was from China and 60% was international. The number of visitors and the media coverage are rising continuously as well.

Besides this cultural hype, the places for exhibiting move more and more outside of the built environment: it seems that conventional art spaces and unconventional sites such as an urban village in Shenzhen are becoming important stakeholders in the agenda-setting of the future of these organisations and respectively of this megalopolis, which is increasing their importance on a national and internationally connected scale. It becomes obvious that people no longer just want to live close to an eight-lane highway, as they were happy while they were working all hours of the day and night. Nowadays, people work less and earn more money, so they demand to live close to parks or quieter urban zones, like the urban villages. And here the potential to reinforce these villages comes in, rather than pulling them down and making space for more skyscrapers. Shenzhen promotes itself as a showpiece and a fast mover within China, and rumours say that Shenzhen is becoming the next Hong Kong. Hence, culture directly affects the economic values, the social interactions, and the political changes in the city.

Besides the UABB with its focus on architecture and urban processes, design and creativity are two of the publicly announced objectives of the city. In this regard, the promotion of cultural development was particularly spurred by the 12th and 13th Five-Year Plans (2011-2016 and 2016-2020). Hence, it looks like Shenzhen wants to open up this time on a cultural level to grow its economy on different scales. Another potential for economic growth is seen by focusing on design, architecture and urban processes. In terms of the UABB, there is a rethinking about how urban villages could transform to strengthen the city’s further development. Today, Shenzhen’s art and design scene is becoming an important stakeholder: 2017 was the inaugural year of the Shenzhen Design Society, China’s first and so far only museum dedicated to design (in collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London); Shenzhen was awarded City of Design by UNESCO in 2008. This is just to give the reader an idea of the complex situation and the growing cultural diversity that underlines the significance of the urban village as a topic and as an actual place for the UABB.

Surrounded by these changes, the urban villages with their relatively small five-story buildings are being submerged among the city’s skyscrapers. Thus, they form a hybrid between a city and a village as mentioned above: the urban villages are a crucial part of the city but at the same time an arrival point for migrants. The villages are not just special because of their size, but particularly because of their different legal jurisdiction. An urban village is not governed by the laws of the city but has its own village laws, even its own village police. We encounter a (de)centralised system within a system from a geographical, economic, legal, and social point of view. A resident of an urban village does not have residency in Shenzhen. Often these villages belong to one family. Some of these families have sold their villages for millions to real estate companies, who then pull everything down to build shopping malls or compounds as part of the new city. This makes easy and fast money on a short-term basis, but will this work in the long run as well? Others resist and work on developing concepts to transform their villages and take a more active part in the future of Shenzhen. This future is not just following one main idea, but consists of a multicultural process from the southern Chinese regions. Regarding the multicultural aspect, it is significant that urban villages function as arrival points for migrants. These migrants are not just manual workers, who come to the city to work in a factory, but also students, who come to the city to study, or young entrepreneurs who find work in one of the start-ups or create their own businesses.[9] The typology of migrants is diverse and therefore the demands that an urban village needs to fulfil are diverse, too. Hence, the task that all the curators shared as their common concept was not an easy one: What could the future of urban villages in Shenzhen be and how would it be possible to “curate” something vibrant as it is?

Open space between the venues and furniture design for multiple purpose. Photo: Gianni Talamini.

Entering Nantou Old Town, you feel the weight of the inhabitants’ gazes—it feels like the visitors themselves have become an attraction at the Biennale opening. For two years, I lived close to another urban village in Shenzhen and crossed the urban village every day, but I had never felt so exposed. So, I sensed the special atmosphere this curatorial approach instilled right from the beginning. Many conventional aspects and venues could be found but also some unconventional elements, such as the urban design interventions. Let’s start right at the beginning: How do you find the entrance to an exhibition in, or of, a village? An entrance to an urban village is framed by a huge entrance gate, which derives from times when the village was a single village and not yet part of the city of Shenzhen. This gate marks the starting point and from here leads to a series of renovated spaces, new village walking paths, public spaces, themed exhibitions, research presentations, and on-site exhibitions scattered throughout Nantou Old Town. The ancient gate was not the only sign of the entrance; the curators invited several artists and architects to build sculptures in the surrounding green space, right at the entrance. So, Yona Friedman created a sculpture: kids were using the metal shapes as a new playground and seemed to have fun with these unusual forms. From here, the exhibition path followed the main village street, which was marked either with signs or with remarkable reconstructed or individually painted pavilions lining the street and surrounded by daily markets and shops. These buildings were put in empty or unused spaces, which appeared in simple wooden shapes and hosted libraries or bookstores or small exhibitions curated by local curators about the history of the place; one contribution was an engaging game invented by the local art space Handshake 302. By following the road with its small pavilions, the path led to the main interventions and the main exhibition sites. In addition to the small one- or two-storey buildings, there were old factory buildings; the gates formerly dividing the village from the factory had been pulled down and the factories were basically renovated. One of these complexes provided space for the huge exhibition complex on three storeys on the topic of urban villages: Global South and Art: Making Cities. A second factory building was dedicated to small enterprises or studios or even just pop-up spaces for anything you could imagine within the sphere of architecture, design, and art. More than half of the space within the second factory building was still empty for the opening, and it would be interesting to see if and how that unused space during the opening is being used today. One of the most impressive parts was the regeneration of unused places; Urbanus tore down walls within the village and connected previously unconnected spaces. Some spaces were dedicated to leisure and kids play; other common places were nicely done with shades, so people could gather for playing or dancing while the sun beat down or during the monsoon-like rainfalls.

Urbanus states that they based this Biennale on “multiple perspectives, including historical research, in-depth observation, on-site intervention and future imagination.” This develops into key questions for me: Can urban change be a driver that can in turn change an economy and society and bring about a shift in thinking and acting? Can urban change be a cause or is it just a result? Hence, the objective is not just to show some art pieces or architectural models or crazy design stuff. The objectives, according to the curators, are “Diversity, Coexistence, and Inclusiveness.” [10] These ambitions sound megalomaniacal but seem to have a realistic and intrinsic approach. The Urban Village section is a curatorial attempt that goes beyond a simple exhibition. Nantou Old Town serves as a pilot project for the research done and shows a hands-on approach.

Entrance gate to the urban village and the UABB venue. Photo: Gianni Talamini.

Entrance to the Urban Village and the UABB venues. Photo: Gianni Talamini.

Urban Village in the Futian area of Shenzhen. Photo: Gianni Talamini

The curators’ idea of what their curatorial work should become is ambitiously formulated: “It [the urban village] will become a hybrid of an exhibition and reality, and of dream and utopia. It is a factory, a laboratory, a workshop, a library, a gallery, a playground, and theme park, and it is also a window into the future.”[11]

Rather bottom-up than top-down in this case, Urbanus opens up their research-based exhibition with a view to the longer term: “Urban curation, in contrast to the current urban renewal process, is a long-term strategy for the incremental improvement of urban spaces and the quality of urban life.”[12]

Furthermore, Urbanus asks the most important questions of their investigation: “In a time of a new social environment, with the rise of booming new economic models and innovative entrepreneurship, are there new chances or possibilities for urban villages in the future? Is it possible to achieve a new balance between spatial regeneration and social reconstruction?” [13]

There is not one answer, but a speculative practical and hands-on curatorial approach that works with the cause and not just with the outcome when it comes to rethinking what to do with already built structures. The objective is not just this specific exhibition, but rather the idea to open up our eyes for new potential spatial developments that could lead to wider changes in society. This extremely special curatorial framework makes it possible to create “space” for change.

The crowded streets of the urban village. Photo: Gianni Talamini.

Nantou Old Town is a place where people still live, where street markets still sell fruits and vegetables, and little stores sell soft drinks and snacks, a place where people from the countryside arrive without citizenship and make their way into big city life. A place where migrants settle, and different cultures create a new common one. Within the show, these places become urban utopias and try to take on real-life issues and a place where these utopias reveal a potential for an organically future with a strong past. An urban village functions as a centre within multiple centres in the cityscape.

Some aspects of this curatorial approach are positive, with some new propositions and some critical aspects to name. So, to what extent is this biennial able to change urban development trajectories? Through intervening directly in urban space while redesigning parts of it; by proposing visions throughout the content exhibited; by bringing international attention and therefore debate on governmental development plans. Here, culture is used to preserve urban villages of Shenzhen’s historical and architectural heritage by bringing international attention to them. Hence, new places that have been put in place and can be used by the locals during the Biennale as performance places and after the Biennale as community places for what Chinese people love most: dancing or gymnastics al fresco. Further on, an old factory building was renovated, and the spaces are now starting to be occupied by creatives (painters, designers, artists, inventors, etc.). There is still a lot of empty space, and only time will tell if this will work, but it creates an inviting atmosphere. A more critical point is that the UABB is not very different from many other attempts to use cultural industry for urban regeneration. It contributes to a possible gentrification process and the resulting relocation of low-income migrants. So, biennials used forgotten space for their shows, but none of them really intervenes within the space, which is still populated. Herein we could find something encouraging for curatorial work.

Hence, if we take a closer look at the novel elements introduced by the UABB and their curators, we can see that urban design is not an end in itself—it contributes to an amelioration of a public open space provision and impressively shows that content coincides with the context; the urban village hosts a self-mirroring exhibition about urban villages. It is a highly problematic context, with its active urban area and in the middle of questions to demolish these urban villages to achieve homogenous modernisation. Therefore, the UABB challenges these plans and provides a different scenario for the future.

What remains is not a unification of single art pieces, architecture models, or urban planning utopias, but a real-time scenario of restructuring not just a building but what urban processes and in this case “urban curation” could lead to. Every city has its “urban villages,” highly specific in their own contexts, mostly (de)centralized, and kind of waiting to rediscover their potential. The Nantou Old Town pilot project, curated by LIU Xiaodu, MENG Yan, and HOU Hanru is an extraordinary example of rich theory-based research that evolved into a real-time project. The future is already there, manifested in the spaces surrounding us, and architecture, urban planning, and contemporary art are the main drivers for pushing these ideas and evoking change.

The UABB opened on December 15, 2017 and closed on March 13, 2018.

http://en.szhkbiennale.org; http://www.urbanus.com.cn; http://en.szhkbiennale.org/exhibits/vanuesA.aspx?id=10000639

Shapes of a new future. Photo: Gianni Talamini.

The bridge which connects Hong Kong and Shenzhen; with a view over Shenzhen. Photo: Gianni Talamini

The old village in the front and the new skyline in the back. Photo: Gianni Talamini.

Christine Maria Kaiser is currently engaging in her PhD at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong. Her qualitative research focuses on the contemporary art spaces of Shenzhen and today's curatorial and artistic practices.

Her scientific background is influenced by her studies of sociology at the University of Konstanz and her postgraduate studies in curating at the Zurich University of the Arts. She is a high profile project coordinator and exhibition manager on topics of contemporary art, urban mobility and architecture.

She gained extraordinary experience by working in the most prestigious German art institutions Museum of Modern Art (Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt a. Main, Germany) and Institute for Foreign Affairs (ifa - Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart, Germany), as well as in international projects.


[1] Today, Shenzhen counts approx. fifteen million inhabitants. The last empirical data collection by census in 2010 counted around ten million inhabitants; please see here further details: https://www.ceicdata.com/en/china/population-prefecture-level-city--by-census/population-census-guangdong-shenzhen.

[2] Doug Saunders, Arrival City - The Final Migration and Our Next World (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011).

[3] Du Juan, INTI Conference Lecture on "Planning from the Bottom Up,” 2015, accessed Sept. 13, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8vYsD5aal8.

[4] Mary Ann O ‘Donnell has been recording urban change since 2005 on her blog: www.shenzhennoted.com.

[5] Please see for further information: https://vimeo.com/search?q=Shenzhen+book+of+changes

[6] Mary Ann O’Donnell, Learning from Shenzhen: China’s Post-Mao Experiment from Special Zone to Model City (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[7] Z. Cheng, J. Chen, M. Wang, Urban China in the New Era: Market Reforms, Current State, and the Road Forward (Berlin: Springer Verlag, 2014).

[8] Juan DU estimates about 2000 villages existed prior to the announcement of the Special Economic Zone IN: Du Juan, INTI Conference Lecture on "Planning from the Bottom Up,” 2015, accessed Sept. 13, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8vYsD5aal8.

[9] The second generation of migrant workers is now settled within the city, and 60% are looking for non-agricultural jobs. For further information, see: Cheng, et al., Urban China in the New Era: Market Reforms, Current State, and the Road Forward.

[10] http://www.urbanus.com.cn/uabb/uabb2017/about-the-structure-and-sections/urban-village/?lang=en

[11] http://www.urbanus.com.cn/writings/urban-village/?lang=en

[12] http://www.urbanus.com.cn/projects/nantou-old-town/?lang=en

[13] http://www.urbanus.com.cn/writings/urban-village/?lang=en


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Issue 41

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by Ronald Kolb, Camille Regli, Dorothee Richter

by Heike Biechteler

by Ella Krivanek

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