Article By Adam Snow Frampton, architect and Principal of ONLY IF, a New York City-based design practice for architecture and urbanism.
The recent glut of art and architecture biennales seems to correspond with these international exhibitions' increasing irrelevancy, with little distinguishing them from a glorified trade show. Fortunately, the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture (UABB) in Shenzhen, China, is taking the biennale to the next level. That's especially true with this year's iteration, which opened on December 6 and runs through February 28. With the theme “Urban Border,” the biennale explores how the place's outskirts, brink groups, and fringe lifestyles can illuminate new ways of designing, growing, and understanding cities.
In this vein, the Biennale has taken a former glass factory and an abandoned warehouse near the Shekou Ferry Terminal, transforming them into UABB's main exhibition venues: the Value Factory—curated by Ole Bouman—and the Border Warehouse—curated by Jeffrey Johnson and Li Xiangning.
I had a chance to sit down with Jeffrey to discuss the ambition behind this biennale and its broader impact.
Opening at the Border Warehouse
Adam Frampton: How did you get involved in the biennale?
Jeffrey Johnson: I’ve been involved in the past two biennales, one as a participant in 2009, and then, working with [Li] Xiangning, we were curators for “8 Urban Projects” in 2011. Xiangning and I decided to do this biennale together, so from the beginning we came in as a team.
Entrance Building and Restaurant under construction in November 2013
Can you explain the premise of the Border Warehouse?
The way that we approached it, it becomes like a warehouse, a document for expressing the multitude of approaches, ideas, research, etc. on the idea of urban borders. The site is next to the Ferry Terminal, with its direct link to Hong Kong. ... Obviously it’s quite symbolic. It was a customs warehouse from its beginning in the early 1980s. Shezhen has a lot of leftover industrial architecture and warehouses, and so one big question is how to transform, and how to rethink the next phase of Shenzhen’s development. The biennale could prove to be very critical in Shekou and Shenzhen’s development.
Entrance Building and Restaurant (Architect: Doreen Heng Liu / NODE (Nansha Original DEsign))
In the last 15 years, all over the world, art and architecture biennales are multiplying. How is this one unique?
First and foremost, what makes the Shenzhen and Hong Kong biennale unique, from its inception, is the focus on the urban. So even though architecture plays an important part in the biennale, it deals with issues that focus on urbanization. On the level of content and focus, I think that’s a very important aspect. Therefore it sets itself apart by not just displaying architectural projects and proposals, but also thinking about the relationship to the city, and when we talk about architecture, it’s architecture to the city.
Secondly, the biennale can be a productive catalyst in the way that it integrates the energy from the event into rethinking parts of the city. Maybe from the outside, for someone visiting the exhibition, this may not seem unique, but I think it’s unique in terms of the role that the biennale can play locally; connecting the dialog to help reconstruct an area of the city, or the way the city thinks about its position globally.
A spiral ramp, wrapped around a smokestack, links the Entrance Building and Machine Hall at Venue A
That’s fascinating, because usually biennales are measured by their impact on architectural discourse, but in this biennale, the ambition is to have a real impact on the city itself. That’s also linked to its funding by the China Merchant’s Group.
The biennale here in Shenzhen is actually organized by the Shenzhen Planning Bureau, which is one of the most ambitious in the world, and has the benefit of being in a city that is 30 years young. They utilize the biennale for an ongoing dialog with Hong Kong until 2047 and beyond, and they know this is a very critical site to think about issues related to the city.
They’re also using the biennale as a catalyst for change in the city itself. The Planning Bureau links itself with a sponsor, generally a government-owned developer, so for this year, China Merchant’s Group is the sponsor. They developed most of the Shekou area. CMG agreed to sponsor and pay for the renovation of the buildings, and also the funding for the biennale itself. In turn, they get incentives from the Planning Bureau and city for future development. So I think one of the ideas is getting rights to the factory and the warehouse, then it can become part of [China Merchant’s Group’s] initiative of reconceiving Shekou.
In the past, the Overseas Chinese Group, a government-owned developer, has been a sponsor. It’s a new development model, where an enlightened developer finds the value in promoting cultural events. And in turn, with long-term commitments, they can then create quite a vital location for creative industries. We see that success with OCT [Overseas Chinese Town, Shenzhen], where in the past they had the biennale. And now we’re moving to a different developer, and I think they have similar ideas.
I’ve been doing a lot of research on the museum boom here in China, and what you see is this notion of cultural real estate development. It’s the same idea. A private developer will be given incentives, such as additional area for development, rights for property, etc. if they agree to build a cultural institution. It’s a win-win situation. The more committed the developer is, the more they benefit because of property values, and future development of their land. It’s a unique model. And in some ways, it’s not stigmatized, or anything in that sense, mixing capitalistic and cultural motivations. OCT is developing a similar model in different cities, where they build a gallery/museum as part of a real estate development, so again I think the biennale is one part of this kind of development. And when they work, they work really well.
Fragments of industrial ruins were preserved at Venue A
One might think there would be a conflict of interest of a large real estate developer coming in and sponsoring a cultural event; that they would simply use it as a marketing device. But as a participant, I can say that somehow the biennale is insulated. ... Is that because they recognize that the credibility of the event would be undermined?
I think so, and that’s why I say, to make this work, the developer has to be committed but enlightened to that fact—that ... you have to allow freedom to enable the different voices to speak about these different issues and topics. In a number of these examples, where the museum is given enough freedom and enough support, they actually make some of the best museums in China. If the developer is committed to contemporary art, etc., whatever it may be, and support for that, and they bring in good people, I think it cultivates the energy and discussion, which happens within their project. But certainly, they use it for promotional effects, and marketing, and things like that, but that’s fair enough. Why not be proud of what you’re doing if you’re truly committed to that?
Opening Ceremony in the Machine Hall, with the Queen of Belgium in attendance
So could the Shekou area become a future cultural hub like OCT? Can the biennale also claim to be a catalyst for that?
You can’t say the biennale was the only catalyst there. They have a great gallery and museum there. Overseas Chinese Group is also committed, they use the biennale as an opportunity. ... Obviously OCT is expanding into the second phase with more exhibition space, so it’s working, and the biennale’s part of that. I think for Shekou, the UABB is the beginning point, an initial generator.
Interior of the Silos in December. (Architect: Jianxiang He / O Office, Guangzhou)
All photos by the author.