The Shenzhen biennale perhaps surprisingly highlights the benefits of informal urban planning over centralised control. By Andrew Mackenzie.

Radical urban planning at the Shenzhen Biennale

The biennale’s gold medal winner, The National Pavilion of the Western Sahara, by Manuel Herz Architects.
Credit: Courtesy of 2015 UABB

At the risk of stating the obvious, cities are remade every day by the people who live in them. This is particularly noticeable when populations move and change. Whether it’s Huguenots, Cubans or the Dutch, migrant communities imprint something of their character on the buildings and cities to which they move. It is therefore not surprising that the ongoing flow of Chinese people into Australia raises the question: what impact will this have on our cities? Is “Asian urbanism”, as some describe it, going to change Melbourne or Sydney? Judging by the Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, the answer is probably not much, and that is a mixed blessing.

The biennale is entitled “Reliving the City”, and is the sixth biennale in Shenzhen, China’s most successful Special Economic Zone, otherwise known as the world’s factory. Largely located within a disused flour factory, the biennale’s location could not be more apposite as a place to explore urbanism. Having grown from a population of 300,000 to more than 12 million in a single generation, this is undoubtedly the world’s most concentrated urban experiment.

The American-Dutch writer, curator and theorist Aaron Betsky described the biennale as “intended as an opportunity to rethink Shenzhen and its rapid development, while also being a case study to reconsider more about how cities more broadly might be rethought”. The biennale’s overarching argument is both clear and potent: we have enough stuff. We do not need to build any more buildings or more cities. Rather we need to make better use of what we have. This in turn catalyses a series of related explorations, such as how to better use our natural resources and improve the social outcomes of urban densification. So far, so good.

But things unravel somewhat when you start to dig deeper into the curatorial layers. Betsky is joined by a curatorial team that includes Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner from the interdisciplinary design group Urban Think Tank, and Chinese architect and curator Doreen Heng Liu. This is where this strong single purpose of the biennale starts to get lost in a range of subthemes that diverge and fail to cohere. In addition, the degree to which the biennale properly engages with Shenzhen’s urbanism is limited by the fact that of the curators, only Heng Liu has any real depth of local knowledge.

Another problem, or perhaps question, arises, this time concerning what might be called the biennale’s metanarrative. The flour factory sits adjacent to a huge building site that is slowly emerging as a glamorous new marina sporting boutique retail, apartments, and recreation and leisure facilities. It is part of the wider property interests of the state-owned corporation China Merchants Group (CMG). CMG is also the biennale’s primary sponsor.

It is hard in this light not to see the biennale as anything other than emblematic of the intimate relationship between culture and property uplift. The participation of the Victoria and Albert Museum in the biennale, in advance of the opening of the new Shekou Design Museum in 2017 almost next door (in which the V&A and CMG are partners), reminds us of this connection, while their insistence that they are not just cashing in on their collection (as the Louvre has done in Abu Dhabi) has the feeling of protesting too much. But we’ll park the irony of a polemic against unsustainable development being funded by the region’s biggest developer of large buildings, in order to consider the biennale in detail and some of its better moments.

Sadly Betsky’s key curatorial contribution, an exhibition entitled Collage City 3D, is not one of them. The title deliberately references Collage City, the 1978 book by architectural historian Colin Rowe, which in the wake of the postwar tabula rasa attitude to the city advocated for urban centres as layered, iterative and complex. It was a treaty of sorts, underwritten by years of study and extensive research into urban patterns and the failed utopian models of modernity.

Here, by contrast, the endeavour is underwritten by sticky tape. A range of architects and artists were invited, says Betsky, “to go out and collect materials from Shenzhen that could be remade and rethought in such a way as to propose a new future for Shenzhen”. The shallowness with which this quest was met resulted in a series of exhibitions that almost exclusively understands collage in its literal sense. Plastic, steel, wood and fabric have been salvaged, reclaimed and transformed into a bowerbird array of rather shabby art installations.

I fully support Betsky’s larger project, which over the years has reframed architecture beyond simply building to be realised as a tool for understanding the city. He puts it more succinctly: “Architecture that is a manner of seeing and knowing our world.” It’s just that Collage City 3D does nothing of the sort. It fails almost comprehensively to engage with the deeper fabric of the city, by which of course I mean its human inhabitation.

Brillembourg and Klumpner on the other hand have delivered a more convincing exhibition, relating urbanism more intimately to human enterprise, through a practice that is variously labelled tactical urbanism, urban acupuncture or, as their section within the biennale is entitled, Radical Urbanism. It features some genuinely transformative architecture, from Western Sahara to the Gaza Strip, from Japan to Mexico.

In a brief tour, Brillembourg argues that this work reclaims the word radical from its bankrupt avant-garde past, on the basis that “none of this work is ideological. It may embrace utopian thinking, but is always tempered by an unflinching engagement with social reality.”

One example of radical urbanism is a research project into the large-scale apartment developments of Cairo, where it is now claimed up to 60 per cent of the city’s population lives in so-called informal housing. This idea of unregulated and unplanned development is one of the more engaging phenomena that this biennale throws a light upon.

Another exhibit entitled The National Pavilion of the Western Sahara reveals the ingenuity of those living in refugee encampments who are taking control of their lives and rebuilding communities while living under the harshest of conditions. This truly is radical urbanism.

The third main curatorial project is that of Doreen Heng Liu, which focuses on the local context of the Pearl River Delta, the larger region in which Shenzhen sits. Shenzhen is revealed as a city with a documented population at just over 12 million but with a real population that is thought to be closer to 22 million.

One research project into the urban villages of Shenzhen is salient. While the official history of Shenzhen describes it as little more than a sleepy fishing village before its economic transformation from 1980 on, here it is portrayed as a landscape that was alive with villages comprising more than 300,000 inhabitants. Over the years high-density development has crowded many of these urban villages out. But some remain, largely self-governed and significantly removed from state control. As an instance of “knowing our world”, this research presents a powerful counter to the central command paradigm of city planning that has left a dubious legacy since the ’50s.

Returning to the original question of Chinese influence on Australian cities, you only have to look at former planning minister Matthew Guy’s soulless legacy at Melbourne’s Fishermans Bend to see why Shenzhen-like density will never happen in Australia. But on the flip side, perhaps it is time that those who engage in the professionalised and politicised football of planning learnt a thing or two from the resilience and entrepreneurial spirit to be found in informal city-making in China and developing countries. Ironically, given China’s reputation for heavy-handed authority, this biennale exposes another side, that of light-handed and loose-fit urbanism. This aspect of Asian urbanism deserves a closer look here in the land of planning paralysis.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2015 as "Shenzhen meditation".

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Andrew Mackenzie is an architectural writer, publisher and consultant.