The thesis of the 2015 Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture, which I co-curated and which opened last December, was that we need to “re-live” our cities. We need to bring them alive through architecture. What we need—more than new office buildings, homes, apartments, factories, or vanity cultural projects—is to reuse and rethink what we already have. We need to do so in a way that lets us take charge of the human-made world we inhabit.
The section for which I was mainly responsible, Collage City 3D, consists of a dozen installations created by architects, artists, and designers from around the world. I asked them to come to Shenzhen, to gather materials, forms, and ideas from there and the Pearl River Delta con-urbanization of which the city is part, and then to make a site-specific installation that would propose new ways of living there. I asked them to use found materials and to create the installations collaboratively.
What the makers came up with was beautiful and largely to the point, but I underestimated how embedded the idea is among architects that what you design is the result of an idea that you have in your head—an order and a grid, an abstract form, or a philosophical position—which you then make real by finding and fitting materials, usually of an abstract and standard form, into that notion. Similarly, architects do not play very well together, and each of the 12 took the space we assigned to them as his or her own territory, even if they did collaborate in sharing materials and other resources.
The project that came closest to what I had had in mind was also a late entry (that we added because the firm Snarkitecture bowed out a month before the opening). I asked Italian architect Francesco Delogu to fill in; he in turn collaborated with the artist Maria Cristina Finucci, and in the end it was two students, Giovanni Vimercati and David Tantimonaco, who did most of the work. They showed up with nothing but a vague idea, which changed as soon as they arrived. Running and bicycling around Shenzhen, they collected trash, toys, books, and clothes, and then stuffed everything into crates. These they stacked up to make a wall with a nook lined with books, their covers turned in so that it became a quiet place of wonder and puzzlement where you could not learn one thing, but could only speculate.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Berlin-based firm Topotek1 was entranced by the global character of Shenzhen. They collected hundreds of little music boxes and then attached them to walls, inviting people to turn the little handles to create a cacophony of Western and Chinese melodies.
Jimenez Lai—born in Taiwan, raised in Canada, and currently working in Los Angeles—bought toys made in Shenzhen in the U.S., then “brought them back home” by shipping them on site. He designed a light box that you could read as a model of the main floor of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange (an OMA-designed building), and placed the toys in that bright container, turning it into a landscape in which these brightly colored fantasy animals and forms disported themselves.
Another interesting take was that of Langarita-Navarro, architects working out of Madrid. They toured offices in Shenzhen and became fascinated how these generic spaces, which were the same as what you would find anywhere in the world, became both specific and generic in another manner because the users always added plants and streamers hanging from the fluorescent lights. The architects dutifully brought in plants, and hung shiny mylar from the ceiling grid. They made the argument that this was the “soft space” or tissue that represents human lives within the abstractions and grids of the modern city.
Most of the other exhibitors played on the idea of home. Local architect Feng Feng collected beer cartons (from local beer, of course) to make an enclosure, a bed, a desk, and a chair. You can book a stay there on AirBnB. Tyree Guyton of the Heidelberg Project in Detroit made a home that referred both to the work he does in the U.S. and offered images of what it means to be home.
Taken together, these projects did offer new ways in which Shenzhen could be inhabited, and did make you aware of aspects of the city you might not have noticed. Whether they constructed the kind of collage that could withstand the dullness and oppressive grids of the Pearl River Delta, I am not sure. In the end, the exhibit is a pleasurable labyrinth of images and forms, one that is worth exploring (through Feb. 28) and that, in at least one case (that of Feng Feng) you can inhabit.