Beyond Buildings


Instacity, Instaruin, Insta Arts District: Shenzen's OCT

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Thirty years ago, Shenzen barely existed. Now, it is old enough to host a renovated warehouse district. Long the staple of urban regeneration in North America and Europe, such areas use a strategy of gradual reuse, spearheaded by artists’ lofts and then galleries, to transform places of production into havens for consumption. The trend has now spread from its Ground Zero, Soho in New York, all the way to the instacities of Asia. The OCT District in Shenzen is a particular good, though perhaps overly planned,example.

In China, the arts warehouse districts have their origin in 798 Factory, a former munitions plant in what was then one of the capitol’s seedier districts. Starting in 1995, galleries followed a local art school that had reclaimed the site and began to set up shop there. Tearooms, bookstores, and then boutiques followed. By now, 798 Factory is a sprawling complex of several hundred galleries and stores. It has become so pricey that most of the more experimental venues have long since moved on to similar ventures elsewhere in Beijing. The trend caught on in just about every major Chinese city. The big difference here is that the projects do not start with artists who live or work there because the rent is cheap and they can have large lofts in which to work, but with developers who see these projects as easy ways to make money on derelict properties, perhaps in anticipation of tearing down the low-rise buildings for high-rise luxury towers.

Photo by Aaron Betsky

In Shenzen, that is rumored to be the fate of the OCT (Overseas Chinese District). Originally one of the earliest industrial developments on what was then rice fields in the middle of nowhere, this collection of former workshops and warehouses served as a duty-free entrepot in the scheme by which Hong Kong entrepreneurs kick-started the development of the Pearl River basin into what is now the world’s largest manufacturing region. This Ground Zero for China’s transformation now sits in the middle of more and more housing developments at the center of a large metropolis that is pushing its factories further and further into the periphery and even into mainland China and beyond.

Photo by Aaron Betsky

In 2003, a developer gained control of the area, imported the He Xiangning Fine Arts Museum—one of China’s oldest contemporary art museums, which is not saying much—as an “anchor tenant,” and hired the Shenzen-based firm Urbanus to plan for the renovation of the 150,000-square-foot area.

Urbanus has done their task with great skill. They have left the buildings alone as much as possible, focusing instead on connections and points of gathering. The interiors they have renovated are open and light, letting the power of the original concrete structures with their rectangular order remind us why Modernism was and is so exciting: it reveals the way we make things and revels in the open space that technology has opened up for us to live, work, or play. Where the firm had to add stairs, floors, or equipment, they have done so with simplicity and clarity.

Photo by Aaron Betsky

When they needed to add to the buildings, mainly because the structures needed exit stairs or equipment, they have used screens to create a second skin that makes what is new into a light addition, creating complexity and layers on top of the buildings.

At times, more was necessary. Urbanus’s largest intervention is a sloping and fractured plaza that moves up through several of the buildings. A spiraling ramp clad with translucent glass panels solves access in a manner that is not exactly functional, but gives a place to the new in terms of both form and function.

Photo by Aaron Betsky

It all works too well. Starbucks has arrived, as have various boutiques selling clothes and unnecessary bibelots. You might even think of Urbanus’s architecture as such luxury additions. In this case, however, the forms are more or less logical, beautiful, and make room for people to gather. A social life has grown up in OCT, and the architecture serves as its anchor and frame. I hope the area will have a long life of evolving into a district, though that is a lot to ask of a city that did not exist when these structures first sprang up.


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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.