It Takes a Village

Exploring globalisation through the urban village at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism / Architecture

A village is likely the last image that comes to mind when you think of Shenzhen — the Chinese megalopolis just across the border from Hong Kong that, since its inception as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in 1979, has seen its population explode from 300,000 residents to estimates of between 18 and 20 million today. Where yesterday stood rice patties and fallow fields today soar skyscrapers of proportions only known to Chinese megacities. Yet it’s the unlikely location of an urban village that’s at the heart of this year’s Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism / Architecture, which kicked off last month runs through next spring.

Centred around Nantou Old Town, the Shenzhen Biennale, now in its 7th edition, looks to ‘explore and reflect on urban development within a globalised context’. Pre-SEZ, what is now Shenzhen was composed of some 2000 rural villages, but today only 300 remain as the city has grown and filled in around them. The biennale sought to highlight this juxtaposition while staging a discussion around the preservation and contemporary relevance of these urban village.

The Biennale’s theme Cities, Grow in Difference thus invokes a vision for urban development marked by diversity, inclusiveness and coexistence, which it explores through three concurrent sections: Global South, Urban Village and Art Making City. A series of urban research projects from locations as diverse as Havana, Sao Paulo and Narobi, sets the stage in Global South for exploring the opportunities and vitality of poor southern cities and making the imploring argument that the world simply cannot afford to ignore ‘the South’ any longer.

The core of the biennale is made up of the Urban Village with contributions by notables such as Shenzhen-based anthropologist Mary Ann O’Donnell whose work explores the unique urban experience and conditions of the city, an international roster of urban street-life photographers, and Winy Maas’s Dutch firm MVRDV, whose colourful (W)EGO installation anchors the central plaza with a vision of what participatory and flexible urban living of the future may look like — a Tetris-like configuration of living quarters.

New to this year’s Biennale is the Art Making City component, which brought together urban designers, architects and researchers with artists to explore unorthodox city-making approaches. Undoubtedly the highlight amongst these is the site-specific Fire Foodies Club installation by Japanese firm Atelier Bow Wow in collaboration with Tsukamoto Lab. Inspired by the urban village’s vibrant street life, the installation responds with a trio of dramatic and towering six-metre steel cooking hoods that hover above miniature street furniture, which can be playfully arranged in circles, benches or all variety of sinuous configurations.

In addition to the man venue in Nantou Old Town, five sub-venues spread across the city further entice visitors to explore Shenzhen’s lesser-known corners, while a series of talks and forums encourage us all to engage with the ever-evolving realities of urbanisation. Visit the Biennale website for full location and programme details, and also consider visiting the lesser-half of the bi-city arrangement — Hong Kong’s own under-resourced showing, details here.

Text / Jessica Vahrenkamp