As the only biennale requiring an international visa to cross from one side to the other, the architecture and urbanism event hosted every two years by Shenzhen and Hong Kong inevitably addresses the issue of boundaries. And since the curators for the 2013 edition come from far-flung places—Holland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and China—it’s logical for visitors to think of this year’s overall theme, “Urban Borders,” in global terms. But urbanism—like politics—ends up being local, a point made by a group of protesters at the opening of the Hong Kong portion of the biennale. More about that at the end of this story.

Two anchors of the Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong and Shenzhen offer distinct but complementary forms of urban development. Once a colony of Britain and now a “special administrative region” of China, Hong Kong straddles both sides of a magnificent harbor and has long served as one of the busiest ports in the world. Shenzhen represents a different kind of urban condition, having grown from a fishing village with about 30,000 residents in 1980 to a mega-city of more than 10.5 million today. Established as a “special economic zone” by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979, Shenzhen has flourished as a cheap manufacturing center for exporters based in Hong Kong. Now it is moving beyond its industrial roots to become something much more complex, opening a shiny new stock exchange building by OMA in October and a huge airport terminal by Studio Fuksas in November.

With a much larger budget provided by the city and a major sponsor (the China Merchant Group), the Shenzhen portion of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture—as the exhibition, now in its fifth edition, is formally known—delivers a bigger wow than its Hong Kong counterpart. It sprawls along the Shekou Port area of the city, occupying a pair of venues: one an abandoned glass factory complex and the other a decommissioned warehouse next to a still-active ferry terminal linking the city to Hong Kong.

Ole Bouman, the former director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, oversaw the factory site—maintaining the raw power of the old buildings while making a series of skillful insertions that allow the muscular architecture to be seen in a new light. He brought in Doreen Heng Liu (Node Architecture & Urbanism) to design an ethereal restaurant raised on slender steel columns above an existing concrete structure and Guangzhou-based O-office Architects to transform a cluster of attached concrete silos into a vertiginous installation in which glass-covered cutouts in the floors offer staggered views down and through eight stories. Gordon Matta-Clark would have appreciated the way O-office revealed both the building’s strength and its vulnerability by slicing out all those rectangles.

The centerpiece of the factory complex, though, is the enormous Machine Hall, which Bouman and his curatorial team (Jorn Konijn, Liu Lei, Vivian Zuidhof, Miao Zhang, and Kangshuo Tang) stripped to its structural bones and energized with a haunting installation of lights, sounds, water, and hardly anything else. You enter the steel-framed building and encounter a giant wall of LEDs spelling out in red letters a manifesto for converting Shenzhen’s industrial past into a new kind of creative enterprise. Then you walk through a threshold in the middle of the LED wall and get an expansive view of the 465,000-square-foot building’s main space. FangCheng Design brilliantly transformed the massive Machine Hall into a dimly lit installation taking advantage of a broad set of amphitheater steps at one end and rows of concrete blocks at the other. Originally bases for columns that are now gone, the blocks betray a military rigor that makes you think of the Terra-Cotta Soldiers transferred to the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Narrow channels of water run at the feet of the blocks and a central axis of lights directs your gaze forward along pathways between them. Adding to the sensory experience is a subtle soundtrack of percussive noises and echoes blending with the sound of running water. A number of big-name museums and institutions—such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria & Albert, MAXXI, MIT, and Columbia University—have installations tucked in rooms around the perimeter of the hall, but it is the giant space itself that takes your breath away.

As important as the physical transformation of the factory complex, says Bouman, is the programming that will happen over the course of the biennale: seminars, talks, debates, exhibitions, and performances. Instead of the panes of glass once manufactured there, the facility now produces 21st-century cultural activities, adding a new kind of value to Shenzhen’s economy. So, Bouman dubbed it the Value Factory.

China Merchant Group, which provided much of the funding for the Shenzhen half of the biennale, owns a large swath of land just beyond the glass factory site and has hired OMA to create a master plan for the area. Bouman hopes that the Value Factory will serve as a kind of laboratory for what could be done there. “This biennale is unique in its possibility of leaving a real mark on the city and serving as a piece of active urbanism,” he says.

About a mile down the road from the Value Factory, a team of curators led by Jeffrey Johnson of Columbia University and Li Xiangning of Tongji University has converted a 40,000-square-foot warehouse near the ferry into a set of installations and exhibitions focused on the theme “Crossing Urban Boundaries.” More didactic in content, it serves as a perfect complement to Bouman’s jaw-dropping presentation. Given a plain-vanilla building, Johnson and Li animated it with a 55-foot-long timeline in a tunnel-like structure running at an angle from the entry, a set of video pods raised on steel legs, national and regional rooms, and lots of individual displays by a broad range of architects, artists, and scholars. It looks and feels like what we expect a biennale to be, but has been assembled with intelligence and care.

“We looked at borders in their contemporary context and asked how they can be redefined in the future,” says Johnson. Fourteen emerging architects from around the world—selected by curator Zoe Alexandra Florence—contributed case studies on their home cities, including Beijing; Ceuta, Spain; Mexico City; Moscow; Paris; Hong Kong; Shenzhen; Detroit; and New York.

While many of the displays in the warehouse examine borders in the geographical or political sense, others look at social distinctions or other more variable demarcations. For example Yang Xiaodi and Yin Yujun of Projective Architecture Office, focus on the unmarked boundaries separating wealthier areas from nearby poorer parts of town. And Li Juchuan’s atmospheric video Southern Highway takes viewers on a car ride from Guangzhou to Shenzhen, a trip that touches on generational and class distinctions and might have been undertaken by a young Jim Jarmusch, if he had been Chinese.