Beyond Buildings


BOOM Goes Shenzhen: The Architecture of Growth

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Ever since Rem Koolhaas rediscovered Otto Neurath and the notion that you can communicate statistical information in graphic forms that have more power than tables, students everywhere have delighted in stacking numbers and names on top of each other, creating virtual Lincoln log homes and dynamic diagonals of information to justify their buildings. They have been aided and abetted by graphic design firms such as Bruce Mau and 2x4, themselves often allied with Koolhaas’ OMA, and by publications ranging from the wired (Wired) to the nerdy (anything published by Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning). Behind them all lurks perhaps the most important self-published book design has seen in the last fifty years, Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

How refreshing it was then to see a completely new and sensuous take on the idea of communicating statistics. I found it at the Shenzhen Biennale, which, I am sorry to say, just closed (I was there for the final events). It was BOOM! Shenzhen, an installation by Mary Ann O’Donnell, an American who has been living in Shenzhen long enough that one native told me her Chinese was better than that of some of her fellow panelists.


Of course she has a great subject matter. A little over thirty years ago, Shenzhen was a collection of fishing villages and orchards near the border with Hong Kong. Today, when you take the municipal railroad from the urban knot of Kowloon towards the border, you find yourself seemingly descending into the countryside, before you glide into a sleepy border crossing station. After customs, you suddenly emerge in the middle of a crowd of signs and skyscrapers, the first of a range of Edge City nodes that run twenty miles or more West along the central axis of what is now a city of over twelve million inhabitants. What started out as a free trade zone whose factories fed Hong Kong’s trading houses has now become a city in its own right, complete with signature buildings and even an arts district in a reclaimed “old” factory district–the site for the Biennale.

What O’Donnell did was to make this development not only clear, but also strangely beautiful. Her central object was a tornado of translucent plastic bits, whose base represented the population in 1979, and whose top, looming over you in the small room it occupied, showed the current population. Like a force of nature, but one in this case of a human-made plasticity, it seemed out of control, and yet, lit from inside, it also resembled a chandelier you might want to hang in your living room.

O’Donnell used a similar play of attraction and terror in two back-lit photographs of bits of flowers, leaves and stems, occluded to recall traditional Chinese landscape paintings. One represented the amount of nature in Shenzhen in 1979, the other the current allotment, which seems spread out through the many boulevards and pocket parks that separate the city’s cookie-cutter developments.

A “House of Cards” evoked the games people play with real estate development, leading the city through various booms and busts, each more speculative than the next. A video game uses the speed of infrastructure, including the high-speed train that currently connects the city to Guangzhou and will soon reach to Beijing, to excite and frighten.

BOOM! Encapsulated and heightened the sense I have – and I do not think I am alone in this — that places such as Shenzhen are endlessly fascinating, horrible in terms of their social and environmental consequences, and exhilarating in a beauty that comes from the very fact of such a thing appearing in this manner. It does, on other words, what architecture in Shenzhen should, but, as far as I was able to see in a very brief visit, is not yet, doing: to condense, articulate in spatial and visual ways, and critically reshape its site. I hope to see more of O’Donnell’s efforts, and of projects like the Shenzhen Biennale, in the future. Whether we will want to see more Shenzhens is another question.

Postscript:  To all the commenters who misread, misinterpreted and just slammed my posting on the design of the Eisenhower Memorial, I would be glad to engage in dialog the moment you identify yourselves.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.