With 50 million people now living in the Pearl River Delta, the region serves as the economic and cultural engine of southern China. So the second Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture, which opened on December 4 and runs until February 27, offers an opportunity to see how this rapidly growing area views itself and how it wants others to view it on the world stage.

     As its name suggests, this event takes an expansive approach to the biennale game—spanning two cities and two disciplines and even crossing a (sort of) international border. (While Hong Kong is now part of China, you still need to show your passport and a separate visa to cross over.) In an increasingly connected world, examining cities in the larger context of their regions certainly makes sense, as does placing design within the wider prism of planning.

     The director of this biennale, Ou Ning, selected “City Mobilization” as his theme. A filmmaker, graphic designer, and curator—not an architect or planner—Ou emphasizes social activism and public engagement in his work. His own life story adds resonance to the sprawling event visitors experience in multiple locations in Shenzhen and a virgin site on landfill in Hong Kong harbor. As a young man he left China’s poor countryside to attend university in Shenzhen, a city just 10 years old when he arrived in 1989. His emergence as an important voice in the art and design scene echoes that of Shenzhen, a small fishing village that became a Special Economic Zone and then an instant city with 10 million people. More so than even the scale of change in China, the speed of it never ceases to amaze me. 

     “The design of contemporary cities is not only about the functional planning of streets and blocks and the arrangement of buildings, rather it is about the organization and coordination of the people living in and events occurring inside these cities and spaces,” writes Ou in his Foreword to the biennale catalogue. As had been done in previous iterations of the event (in 2005 when it was just the Shenzhen Biennale and in 2007 at the first bi-city collaboration), this year’s program combines installations by invited architects and academics with ones selected from submissions from the public. “This groundbreaking approach has torn down the professional barrier set up by traditional biennales, thus lending a democratic tinge to the entire SZHKB exhibition and enterprise,” says Ou in his Foreward.

     In the spirit of mobilizing the public, Ou placed some installations at a pair of shopping malls, in addition to the central site at Shenzhen’s Civic Center, a grossly oversized plaza with a wavy-roofed exhibition hall at one end. While you can argue whether most people will give the pieces more than a glance as they hurry to do their shopping or get a driver’s license, I think it’s always good to let people cross paths with art.

     Outdoors, the best installations include Liu Jiakun’s With The Wind (a seating area with a fabric roof suspended from bright red ballons bobbing in the air), Pei Zhu’s Urban Oasis (a spiraling bamboo shell that fuses modern forms with traditional materials), the Brazilian firm Triptyque’s engaging three-legged Creature, LOT-EK’s oddly beautiful pavilion made of compressed blocks of garbage, and The Bug Dome (a bamboo-cement-and-soil cocoon by the Taiwan-based group called Weak! Architects).

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Liu Jiakun used ballons in his piece With The Wind to suspend the structure.


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The Brazilian firm Triptyque had a hit with Creature.


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Pei Zhu's Urban Oasis sits in the main plaza of the Civic Center.


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Lot-ek created its installation from blocks of compressed garbage.


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The Bug Dome by Weak! Architects serves as a cocoon for talks and events.


     Inside the hall, my favorites were Ball Nogues’s Built To Wear (a dragon-like installation made of T-shirts, bras, pants, bikinis, and baby bibs donated by American Apparel and clipped to clothes lines), Leroy W. Demery, Jr.’s large photographs of Shenzhen in 1980, and KUU’s scheme for shared housing in Shenzhen, which uses naïve drawings to show a sophisticated approach to low-rise, high-density living.


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Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues created Built To Wear from garments.


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Photographs by Leroy W. Demery, Jr. show Shenzhen in 1980.


     An international team of curators (Wei Wei Shannon, Beatrice Galilee, Kayoko Ota, and Pauline J. Yao) and Taipei project coordinator Xu Yazhu brought together a wonderfully eclectic group of participants, while Liang Jingyu (of Approach Architecture Studio) tied everything together with a subtle exhibition design that allows each installation to speak for itself.

     Ou also organized an intriguing project called Odyssey: Architecture and Literature, which paired nine fiction writers with nine buildings representing the new China. A catalogue brings together drawings and photographs of the buildings (Steven Holl and Li Hu’s Linked Hybrid in Shenzhen, Urbanus’ Urban Tulou in Nanhai, Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House, Wang Shu’s Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Zhang Lei’s Slit House in Nanjing, Qingyun Ma’s Father’s House outside of Xian, Zhu Xiaofeng Dashawan Beach Facility in Lianyungang, Liu Jiakun’s Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum in Chengdu, and Zhang Ke and Standard Architecture’s Yaluntzangpu Boat Terminal in Tibet) with stories inspired by them.

     In Hong Kong, chief curator Marisa Yiu along with co-curators Alan Lo, Eric Schuldenfrei, and Frank Yu, took a very different approach than their counterparts north of the border. Working with a much tighter budget, they emphasized the spontaneous and ephemeral nature of the event and invited the public to participate under the title BYOB: Bring Your Own Biennale. They ran a public competition called BYOBench and displayed the winners on the biennale site, the scruffy landfill property that will be the future home of the West Kowloon Cultural District. They organized a BYOBarbeque and asked people to Bring Your Own Booth. And over the course of three months, they are unleashing an impressive string of events such as outdoor film screenings, talks, fashion shoots, and a conversation between Rem Koolhaas, Rocco Yim, and someone from Foster + Partners—the three firms short-listed to design the cultural district.

     “We wanted to engage the public in a wave of creative activism,” states Yiu. “The idea was to focus on process and initiate collaborations between designers and members of the local community.” So she invited Meta4 Design Forum (MDFA) to work with school children to create Eco Farm-Green Pixel where vegetables and flowers grow in a series of concentric circles made of egg-crate planters. During the run of the biennale, the kids will water and care for the plants, then pick the vegetables to take home and eat. 


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Egg-crate planters are the key elements in Eco Farm-Green Pixel by Meta4.


     A different kind of collaboration happened with the installation farmScape, a plywood dia-grid containing tiny plots of soil that people can “rent” to grow their own flowers. The floating grid, which hovers a couple of feet off the ground in some places, was designed by Hong Kong architect William Lim and a group of recent Cornell graduates in New York who call themselves Umami-Utilities and include Lim’s son Kevin.


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William Lim and Umami-Utilities collaborated on farmScape.


     The centerpiece of the Hong Kong biennale is a barrel-vaulted pavilion designed by Shigeru Ban and constructed with paper tubes. Its simple form anchors the entire site and serves as a landmark visible across the harbor from Hong Kong Island. Other installations that grabbed my attention were nArchitect’s Pocket Fence, which plays with notions of boundaries and enclosures, and Douglas Young’s West Kowloon Walled City, which echoes the form of an infamous enclave that the Hong Kong authorities tore down in 1993. Although not inhabited by the crooks, prostitutes, unregulated shopkeepers, and unlicensed doctors that made the original Walled City notorious, Young’s version does include battered old toilets and plumbing fixtures on the outside in a nod to Marcel Duchamp and the modern metropolis’s ever-pressing need to handle waste.

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Shigeru Ban's main pavilion acts as a landmark for the Biennale and overlooks the harbor.

blog post photoDouglas Young's West Kowloon Walled City offered a sly nod to Marcel Duchamp.

     The two halves of this bi-city biennale play off each other well. They both address themes of ecology and urbanism, but the Hong Kong sibling speaks in a casual, let’s-have-fun manner while its bigger brother in Shenzhen addresses us in a weightier dialogue of ideas. These approaches represent a striking role reversal, since Shenzhen is the new city on the block and Hong Kong the older place. As intriguing as this twin-city strategy is, though, I can’t help but wonder if something is missing—namely, Guangzhou, the third city in the Pearl River Delta. With Zaha’s opera house set to open in 2010 and major projects by Wilkinson Eyre, SOM, and MAD under way, I think it’s time to include Guangzhou in a tri-city biennale in 2011.

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A Bird's Nest ashtray comes in handy at a Shenzhen hotel.