Guangzhou-based O-office Architects is in the process of converting 18 former factory buildings on a 20-acre site into artists’ studios, hotels, a conference center, and more.

In China’s booming Pearl River Delta, the former Honghua Printing and Dyeing Factory—long vacant and overgrown—has recently been rebranded as iD TOWN art district. Guangzhou-based O-office Architects is in the process of converting its 18 buildings on a 20-acre site into artists’ studios, hotels, a conference center, and more. On January 11, the exhibition Organism opened iD TOWN to the public and inaugurated its gallery space in the first renovated building in what is expected to be a 15–20 year project.

The factory, located one hour east of downtown Shenzhen, opened in 1989, closed to bankruptcy in 2001, and lay abandoned for a decade while the subtropical sun and rain crept in. O-office is taking an atypical approach to its reuse. In a country where renovations tend to whitewash buildings’ history, the firm is leaving the factory largely intact.

For the new gallery design, O-office decided that the immense size of the former dying building that contains it did not have an especially human scale. And so within the 550-foot-long structure, the architects inserted six small white boxes—one for each Organism artist—in a loose line. An undulating black box stands at the head of this line and is used as a cafe, multipurpose room, and office. Views between the gallery buildings look onto old rough walls and columns of the factory.

O-office (O is an intentionally ambiguous character that can be read as a letter, a number, or even an exclamation) is providing master planning, architecture, and landscaping services for iD TOWN, its most complex renovation commission to date. Partners He Jianxiang and Jiang Ying had worked for big firms on large-scale new buildings in both Europe and China. But when they founded their own firm six years ago, they decided to take a different approach. “We chose to work at a slower speed and on a smaller scale,” says He. “We work with independent clients and with renovation projects to have more time to think.”

O-office’s own renovated workplace is a showpiece for its design attitude. Located on the top floor of the former Canton Beer Factory its bare brick walls, metal doors, and chain-link fencing create a surprisingly homey effect. The reuse of square holes in its concrete floor, where grain was once loaded into silos, exemplifies the architects’ thoughtful design. Some of the holes are topped with low glass tables that hold architectural models while allowing views 100 feet down. These views may have influenced O-office’s recent installation at the Shenzhen Biennale (see “Exhibition Review: Shenzhen Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture”). Other holes contain boxes planted with local saplings to form half an indoor allée. At iD TOWN, a similar half allée of trees set in metal and concrete frames humanizes what used to be an industrial-size space between buildings.

The next components to be constructed at iD TOWN are a landscaped entrance, a museum, a seafood restaurant, and a youth hostel. It is difficult to know how much of O-office’s master plan will be built, and how well it will fit in with its eclectic neighbors: the massive Yantian Port, recreational beaches, clusters of new residential towers, and picturesque hills. ID TOWN’s general manager, Liang Tian, notes that the site is conveniently located on the way from downtown Shenzhen to the Dapeng Peninsula tourist area. The city, he says, lacks spaces for fine arts, and he and iD TOWN’s developer, the MJH Group, hope the project will fill this void. If nothing else, O-office’s work at iD TOWN fills the abandoned factory with potential.