Sleepless in Shenzhen

Everything Minded

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    Orhan Ayyüce
    Dec 30, '13 5:51 PM EST


    I am sympathetic to Shenzhen from its occupation. A port city like the one I grew up in. I feel like I know its tricks, talents and aura, even if I am wrong. I don't know Shenzhen that much face to face, I know something in her DNA, which makes me more relaxed about exploring it. 

    It would have been a shame but almost left Shenzhen without seeing its urban core. Just as I was climbing the stairs and say goodbye to Value Factory where I start to get used to hanging out, watching people and enjoying americanos made by local coffee baristas in training, I finally ran into someone I knew, Gregers Thomsen of Superpool from Istanbul who was there to ran a workshop for MoMA with Constantin Petcou of Rhizomatic and Translocal Cultures. They were going to explore the urban core and the arts district of Shenzen with two architecture students from Macau, the former Portuguese colony and Las Vegas of the East. I joined them and explored the city's metro and neighborhoods taking snapshots first and questioning later. Lucky me, going to an excursion with two urbanists and their students, everybody's first time in Shenzhen except one student who doesn't remember that much from his first visit years ago.

    To walk through the working class neighborhoods of Shenzhen is like walking into post communist style state prescribed capitalism. Its gentrification process was illustrative enough to draw parallel lines with other large and changing cities of the world. A gift (to some) and toxic (to some others) of neo-liberal globalism, if you need a reference.
    Streets were well kept, housing seem to be affordable and people were industrious with their micro economies the state allowed them to have. I have not seen the interior of a high rise apartment but people made plenty of public gathering spaces around them. There were no shortages of supermarkets and malls, restaurants for the residents and no one was homeless.

    We took breaks occasionally and discussed what Constantine practices. He insisted that I keep a copy of his most recent publication “Cultural Practices within and Across” which I am browsing now.

    “This book brings together a series of reflections and practices around issues of local and trans-local cultural production within different contexts in Europe, prompted through the agency of a collaborative and networked project : Rhyzom.
    All these cultures developed within local contexts are intrinsically related to political, economic, social and material aspects and to specific temporalities, spatialities, individual and collective histories and experiences. Like the whole Rhyzom project, the book is an attempt to create transversal links and connections within and across different local framings and to seize instances of the dynamic and complicated nature of notions of 'local' and 'culture' through multiple forms of practice, which address the critical condition of culture in contemporary society. In relations with 'local', 'trans-local', 'place' and 'culture', issues of conflict and contest, ecologies, politics and care practices, common and commonality, institutions and agencies are adressed.
    The book is written by architects, artists, activists, curators, cultural workers, educators, sociologists, geographers and residents living in different rural and urban areas in Europe and is addressed to anyone concerned with the relation between culture, subjectivity, space and politics today.”

    Shenzhen is in a semi tropical climate zone. It is covered by lush trees and shaded walks providing a very humane and interactive city life. Its metro system is well developed and efficient. Buildings are fairly new and city has a dense high rise photo identification like many global cities. It has a growing merchant class supported by high volume of service jobs. My impressions of Shenzhen are superficial and surface but its parallel positioning tells me besides the language, all other cultural values are merging as rapidly as the microchips of all sorts and containers of all sizes make it possible.

    The city's most recent prize is its Bao'an airport by European architects, Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas. I have not paid too much attention on arrival but on the way back I was able to appreciate its use of parametric technology in its design and simplicity as an airport where proud Chinese stop by and take pictures of a space, reflecting their ambitions to lead the world into 21 st century in their quite and unassumed ways. 

    If I can summarize the Chinese, my snapshot tells me they are capable and there is nothing they can't do.


    • eric chavkin

      "...merging as rapidly as the microchips of all sorts and containers of all sizes make it possible."  Nice parallel . Nice beginning  as well. ..Essay has an overall Wish You Were Here feel.

      Shine on Diamond. Happy New Year O

      Dec 31, 13 12:17 am

      Not sure why, but, while reading this post, I thought about the possibility of a virtual architectural biennale, some kind of online extravaganza. Webpages as venue for exhibits, lectures, discussions, touring. If I was the curator of the first such virtual architectural biennale the theme would be "How would you curate a virtual architectural biennale?"

      Perhaps I should just start a forum thread "How would you curate a virtual architectural biennale?" every two years and see what happens.

      Jan 1, 14 1:03 pm

      Great idea Quondam! If anybody, you could do it. You should curate and give it a theme.

      Jan 1, 14 2:10 pm

      Orhan, in thinking more about it, the idea of a virtual biennale kind of came to me because I realized that your last two posts about the Bi-City Biennale are being written (I assume) from Los Angeles. That got me thinking about how my virtual experience of the Bi-City Biennale through your posts is even more virtual than I first imagined. Eric (above) wrote your "essay has an overall Wish You Were Here feel," but you weren't even still there yourself. I don't know, it just seemed very inverted, paradoxical even.

      I still want to hear about your impressions, however. Because we're the same age, I'm especially interested in what it was like for an older gentleman traveling alone to such a 'foreign' place. Also, what exactly is a biennale these days? I get the sense they're mostly exhibits and part conference/convention and almost trade-fairish? Did you ever get the feeling that the Bi-City Biennale was a special event? How much are biennales also a 'machine' to help bulster the local ecomony?

      Did you fell like you were in a place that had a different governmental system than the one you are used to? (I ask because when I traveled through West and East Germany in May 1990 (the Wall had already come down, but they were still two separate states), whenever I was in the East (East Berlin, Potsdam) I found myself being oddly cautious because I wasn't quite sure if the 'rules' were the same.)

      Regarding a virtual biennale, I realize that it could never have the live event-ness of a real biennale, nor in any way be a 'machine' to bulster a local economy, but that lack of real place/time and ecomonic drive might just be the underlying theme of any virtual biennale. Also, inversion. Instead of "Wish you were here," it would be more like: let me (virtually) show you what's special about where I'm at, but, to be honest, I'm glad you're not here because if too many people came here, then the specialness would be lost.


      Jan 1, 14 8:26 pm

      Quondam, your first paragraph defines what I twisted as a writer. I like those kind of time-space-place abstractions.

      Instead of foreignness I first registered parallel recognitions (when you see Wall Mart sign from the taxi cab) and more I followed that parallel environment more I was capable of seeing a variety on the same global theme which I talk about in all three blogs.

      Your visualizations of biennales "these days" are very accurate. I only designated a special event category after seeing a biennale for the first time in my experience. And my thoughts are not too much different than yours.

      Almost all the most well known urban design and architecture biennales in the world (with the exception of Sao Paulo) have a Dutch instigation behind them. (Venice this year, IABR and now Shenzhen) some of them can be understood through my in depth interviews with George Brugmans last year. The question of gentrification came quite often in Shenzhen as the vicinity of the Value Factory is eyed for hi end housing development and in fact taken a start few years ago. They are building luxury condos in the area they call "Sea World" which is a theme park American style shopping area comlete with Wall Mart, 7-11 stores, Starbucks, KFC etc.. These are generic places not so much different than you may see in US and other countries.

      It is interesting you mention Berlin. The experience is precisely like you described. The minute you remind yourself you are in communist China you immediately start to recognize the rules which the Chinese people so well integrated into their existence that they no longer have that Hollywood red reading but social custom reality. I had a few odd moments when I realized tipping was not so cool.

      As for the biennales bolstering the local economy it is true to a certain extend but my conclusion is that biennales are there to "bolster" themselves and those in turn bolsters the discourse and exchange of ideas in architecture and urban design thinking.

      I believe the Virtual Biennale can accomplish a lot of interest and discussion if you can let it happen the way it wants to be with minimal set of rules or maximum set of rules which may be a way to go with the threat of trollers internet. Knowing your attention to detail the latter might be more suiting. Either way, the idea of you hosting the world's first Virtual Biennale sounds challenging and interesting for the participants. What would you achieve and how if you take on such a project? Would it be a process biennale (like Shenzhen) or set piece biennale (like Venice) ?

      Jan 2, 14 12:20 am

      Orhan, can you explain (the difference between) a process biennale and a set piece biennale? I can only second-guess what you mean.

      It's strange to realize that 1990 is now almost a quarter century ago, and how much the world has changed since then. It seems like one could say that the whole People's Republic of China has gentrified in that time. As have many other parts of the world. Are we living in an era of global gentrification?

      Beginning to wonder what virtually bolstering architecture architecture and urbanism biennalely might mean or what biennalely bolstering architecture and urbanism virtually might mean. Any thoughts, especially given your recent biennale experience?

      Also beginning to feel like we're finally conducting that interview, albeit the other way around. Could it be that Virtual Biennale 2014 has inadvertently already started and the ultimate theme and structure of this biennale will be figured out by continuing to kind of interview you (about Bi-City Biennale).

      Perhaps you already mentioned it and I missed it, or perhaps you plan to post about it soon, but, in any case, what architectural/urbanism exhibit(s)/idea(s) presented at Bi-City Biennale made the biggest impression on you?

      Jan 2, 14 6:19 pm

      Quondam I will post this and let Mark Wigley answer some of your questions in perhaps vague terms but Shenzhen specific. I just ran into this video today.

      Jan 3, 14 1:41 am

      I have to say, all three of your articles in this series were really sappy and badly-researched (SZX is in Bao'an, there is no place called "Boa"; also, where did you get "3.5 million 'Shenzeners'"?  A wikipedia search and/or basic observation of your surroundings puts the figure at around 12 million... and there's no "Sea World©" in Shenzhen... there's a metro stop called Sea World...). Your commentary on the built environment here (especially in this piece) really glosses over the drastic quality problems in nearly all of the showpiece (and non-showpiece) building projects that have been slapped together over the past decade. You were here for how long, and didn't notice any of this? I will really have to question everything I read from you and the other editors from this site from now on...

      Jan 3, 14 3:38 am

      According to Wikipedia Shenzhen's city core population is 3.5 million as I wrote.

      I corrected Boa to Bao'an, my mistake and thank you for calling it. For three days of visiting your beautiful city this can happen specially you are taking notes in a personal "diary." As to personal attack on my writing, great, join the small club of anonymous literary critics.

      You sound really angry as a copy editor.. Here, take this quarter and put it in a washing machine.

      Jan 3, 14 4:32 am

      Did Studio X produce any results? Is the Studio still there working?

      Jan 3, 14 12:35 pm

      Quondam, I did not really followed what Studio X produced in Shenzhen. I was there only couple of days and have not followed (or could not) every pop up event. I included M Wigley's snippet because I saw it yesterday and it was conducted in front of the Warehouse venue near the ferry terminal to Hong Kong. Btw, that video has been highly condemned by people seem to know him better than I do. I like its premise of Studio X looking at current global cities, but it is entirely another thing to follow up as an outsider. If they were to set up a workshop in Los Angeles I would attend it.

      Biggest impression of the Bi City Biennale for me was actually attending a highly anticipated opening of a biennale where I saw all kinds of architects, urbanists and journalists scaling each other and trying to add extra meaning or elaborate on their advocations and create content. People came in did their thing and left next day, much like it would happen in a virtual forum with a themed discussion thread.

      Of course, minus the vermins like the fake "Shenzhener" above, who came in throw some of his inner dirt and left. I suspect he is one of my chronic haters here from the way it is written. A fox news defamer wanna be. He is wrong on everything he accuses me of not proofing except the spelling of the airport. 

      My initial idea was to write about gentrification of the area where the biennale was taking a place. But later I found out that the biennale itself did not have anything to do with it other than allowing some developer sponsors to display their projects. That is pretty common everywhere. You might remember a big art show taking a place in Los Angeles, Temporary Contemporary called  "1965-1975: RECONSIDERING THE OBJECT OF ART" when it was protested by a group of artists for accepting money from Philip Morris, a major producer of cancer causing cigarettes.

      Jan 3, 14 5:27 pm

      With "set piece" I meant representative pieces of architecture as in drawings, models of buildings already built or designed or under construction/slated. Versus, generation of ideas in architecture and urban design before any of that happens.

      Jan 5, 14 9:57 pm

      I really don't know Wigley, but fourteen years ago, he and I had a mostly private conversation over lunch (we both have a schizophrenic brother), and the next evening I sat next to him at a Zengelis/Gigantis Thankgiving dinner party. Plus we talked about bidding at eBay in the car that was giving me a ride back to my hotel--he was slightly upset by usually being outbid on items he wanted, and I teased him that I got that item. As I'm thinking back to those conversations, it's kind of refreshing how much I'm able to remember about them. I started our first conversation by telling him that (because I knew he too was going to be at the conference) I decided to read something written by him in case I might meet him. I read "Untitled: The Housing of Gender." I told him I had to stop reading it because it was making me uncomfortably question too many things about my own 'housing' and 'gender'. He broadly smiled in agreement because I seem to have gotten exactly what the essay was about. And from there we just started talking about all kinds of stuff.


      In terms of set-piece or process, I'd say multiple choice as in:

      column A

      column B

      column C


      The setting in the video reminded me of being in Australia--something about the light and the view in the background. Perhaps roughly the same distance from the Equator.

      Jan 6, 14 9:48 pm

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Archinect Senior Editor Orhan Ayyuce is blogging his thoughts, impressions and provocations.

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