Delirious Shanghai

Thoughts on China 2010-2013

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    Miracle City

    Evan Chakroff
    Jan 10, '12 8:51 PM EST

    [In December, I helped lead a tour of Architecture students through eastern China. The following few posts will be my brief impressions of the cities we visited. Today: Shenzhen.]

    Shenzhen’s short history is well known: In the accepted mythology, China’s Economic Miracle began here, with the establishment of the Special Economic Zone, that grand urban experiment with market capitalism. This auspicious tabula rasa – not even labeled on maps prior to the 1980s - was surely selected as much for its lack of historical baggage as for as its adjacency to booming Hong Kong. What better place to demonstrate the potential of the new China, free, finally, from imperialist aggressors, war, and the insanity of the Mao era? With no dynastic, imperial, republican, or communist fabric, Shenzhen was essentially a blank slate, free to be shaped into a modern – and specifically Chinese – city.

    And over the short thirty years of its existence, the city has indeed evolved into a modern marvel, both in terms of the breadth and quality of the city’s utilities and cultural amenities, but also in terms of historical Modernism: while post-war “towers-in-a-park” urban experiments in Europe and the US are now seen as failures of urban design, in China they have found new life, as the incredible population density makes such schemes both useful and necessary. There is no city in China more Modern than Shenzhen, and it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of the endeavor. Driving down wide, tree-lined boulevards (or sweeping above them on a highway flyover), the extent of the city is overwhelming. The metropolis seems to go on forever, an impression amplified by its linearity, stretching as it does along the narrow swath of land between the hills and the Hong Kong (SAR) border.

    It seems impossible that so much could be built so quick; the Party line reinforces this myth: thirty years ago: this was nothing. But of course, this is pure fantasy: the Pearl River Delta has been settled for thousands of years, and the notion that fertile land so close to a major port city would be unoccupied is simply insane. Numerous small villages peppered the region at the time of the establishment of the SEZ, and though many were surely (forcibly) relocated, others have survived and adapted: the “urban villages” of Shenzhen co-evolved with the modern city, and their dense pedestrian lanes, filled with activity (pool tables, majong players, street-side butcher shops, barbers) provide a fascinating counterpoint to the spectacular popular image of China’s miracle city. (Dafen “oil painting village” is a convenient example - as tourists are expected – but may not represent the urban phenomenon at its most authentic).

    Whether considering the aggregation of improvised high-rise districts, or the planned modernist homogeneity, the speed of construction is still striking, but Shenzhen’s age is misleading. Though it was built with unprecedented speed, the city did not emerge fully formed from the rice paddies: it developed in stages like any other: scattered agricultural villages gave way to rapid industrialization. Mass housing followed, as did civic amenities and entertainment venues. Shenzhen today is very clearly post-industrial: while Guangdong province remains an industrial powerhouse, Chinese manufacturing is gradually moving inland as second- and third-tier cities follow the SEZ’s economic model. In Shenzhen, a robust service economy is beginning to supplant industry both in importance and in physical space.

    The trajectory is exemplified by the OCT Loft project, a renovation of former plants and warehouses by local architects Urbanus. The old factory buildings seem ancient, with crumbling concrete and rusting steel, but this can be blamed more on poor materials and dismal air quality than on the ravages of time: the industrial sheds were built in the early 80s, and have decayed quickly. The architects used a light touch in the renovation, maintaining the older structures where possible, and making only minimal interventions (such as curating a series of murals, or inserting sculptural staircases or entry gates). The result is impressive, and forms one of the only truly comfortable, pedestrian-scale urban environments in Shenzhen (Compare to the impossibly-wide avenues of Futian, or the cramped conditions of any of the urban villages). It’s clear that this “new city” is already in need of restoration- a huge opportunity for urban reinvention.

    Urbanus architects are leading the pack in this – through a series of new public plazas that attempt to rethink the role of public space in China. In their Public Art Plaza, for example, the architects mutilate the ground plane, folding it up to enclose an art gallery, punching holes to provide light to underground parking, slashing the ground and pulling it up to form benches and planters. In short, through fissures and level changes, the architects have manipulated the space to the point that it would be impossible to hold any kind of mass rally, and created a public space that is strictly non-hierarchical. Compare this to the central Civic Square, as expansive as Tiananmen (though, granted, with more trees).

    While Shenzhen does have its moments of complexity, the majority of city remains homogenous, punctuated by (admittedly) spectacular feats of architecture, from the monolithic stock exchange (by OMA), to the Vanke Center (Steven Holl), to the odd and anachronistic Eiffel Tower and Louvre Pyramid anchoring the Happy Valley amusement park. Ultimately, though, Shenzhen, is more interesting as an idea and an economic model than as a built environment, though the potential to reshape the city is clearly demonstrated in smart new projects by young local architects.

    [Cross-posted to the author's website: Many more photos from Shenzhen, in the author's Flickr set: Architecture by City: Shenzhen.]

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