2009 Shenzhen Architecture & Urbanism Biennale

What the ‘City Mobilization’ theme is really talking about is mobilizing citizens. To date, China’s astonishing wave of urbanization has mobilized the mines and cement factories of the world, the mice of a thousand architects, and the labour of tens of millions of Chinese construction workers. Least apparent however has been the voices of the new wave-borne urbanites. It’s a profound gap which is starting at last to receive some attention.

Post-Olympics China is now moving beyond naked awe at raw development, and is becoming more critical. There is a sense that too much architecture happening everywhere all at once has allowed itself to fall out of touch, and that it now needs to get over buildings, and engage with people. Most obviously in the Biennale, this surfaces as a lot of non-architecture. Almost half the participants — chief curator Ou Ning included — are not architects, and their contributions — ranging from outdoor screenings to short stories and barbecues — are driven by the curatorial directive to “communicate with the public”. Not only space, but also food, pets, taxi drivers, washing lines and traffic sounds all become integral parts of the urban architecture through a larger social and even spiritual understanding. These are “spiritually fragile times”, Ou Ning notes. Architectural design, by itself, is too easily dominated by state power or the profit-interests of a privileged elite. The appropriate response is therefore to refind and embrace the human dimension.

Interaction and participation are corresponding prominent among the exhibitions and installations, which are scattered across town in public spaces, and include a bamboo dome for readings and events, shady spaces for people to gather and sit, and swings, trampolines and spinning roundabouts for fun. At their best these are beautifully refreshingly eloquently obvious. At their worst, they are nothing new masquerading in spurious theory-speak as sublime discoveries. Guiltiest of all in this direction is a precious shallow water pool, which invites us to “play” as we are — infuriatingly — informed how water “creates ripples … splashes, makes sounds, reflects” and, ultimately, presents a “dynamic game tool”. Hilariously, directly beside this careful artwork, a leak in the ceiling created a rival but uncommissioned pool — that is, until someone came along and stuck a bucket underneath.

But while no child of Shenzhen ever needed an architect to teach them to play in a puddle, its architects, planners and municipal government badly needed to teach themselves this lesson. Effectively founded in 1979, Shenzhen is the world’s youngest megacity. Yet riding around, one cannot help but be struck by how old Shenzhen looks: how shabby and dilapidated its buildings, how poor the quality of its squares, how lacking it is, for all its programmatic highways, in soft or civil infrastructure, and indeed, how little fun is had in any of its public spaces. Thus the Biennale — puddles, playpens and all — is a breath of youth and fresh air, and a bold attempt from Ou Ning to “inject new ideas into Shenzhen on its 30th birthday”.

His injection could not be better placed. For the first time, the Biennale’s main venue is the Shenzhen Civic Centre — an aggressively oversized building located in the city’s central but lifeless government-fabricated heart. Thanks to Ou Ning’s intervention, the area has been thronged with visitors: not only art and architecture students, but also families drawn in by the playful interactive thrust. In particular, the open air works have transformed the vast but predominantly empty Civic Square into a bustling social destination. That a formerly inert piece of the urban tissue has been activated by the Biennale is a testament to its mobilizing power. Moreover, this is mobilization taking place right at the focal point of the Shenzhen Municipal Government.

Government buildings across China are fronted by large austere squares, which serve the hard design purpose of framing power, and pointedly do little to make themselves usable as public space. They are supposed to be empty, in a way which relates back to an idea of government much closer to that of higher authority than public servant. Thus the repossession of such a space in Shenzhen by people chiefly for the purpose of enjoying themselves stages a subtle but very tangible urban coup.

That the Shenzhen government agreed to the Biennale’s use of its space gave Ou Ning a big surprise. He knew however when initially pitching that he had a couple of powerful arguments on his side. Firstly, the 30th anniversary of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone obliged the government to do something impressive with itself this year. Secondly, earlier in 2009 Shenzhen had applied for and won the UNESCO status of “City of Design”. Consequently the government was unusually keen to support architecture culture and to advance its status as a global design capital. These two factors, along with a sympathetic Vice Mayor, gave Ou Ning a unique leveraging position, and one which allowed him to extend a spatial concept into the highly sensitive political arena.

Mobilization and public space have a fraught political history in China, where the last big outing they had was during the Cultural Revolution. For ten chaotic and disastrous years, the masses were mobilized in an expression of the will of the leadership. Now in 2009, with this Biennale, Ou Ning very consciously takes the same principle of mobilization (“dongyuan”), and looks to suggest a new meaning: people mobilizing in an expression of their own interests. Rather than for political struggle, people come into the government square because they actually want to. It marks the advent of a citizen politics, in which people participate for themselves, not for the state.

The seed for this ulterior political model has in fact long been urbanization itself, which has mobilized the Chinese people into negotiations with the government (i.e. protests) over land use and compensation issues. Ou Ning describes this as “the great process of China today”. But as China’s cities become more sophisticated, the genius of the Biennale is to develop this process from the realm of protecting immediate interests to that of inspiring new desires. What Ou Ning and his sparklingly engaging contributors demonstrate is that space can be used not only to defend your rights, but also to come out and have fun.



Adrian Hornsby