This article provides a critical review of the 2017 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/ Architecture (hereafter: UABB), which opened to the public inside the Nantou Historic Urban Village in Shenzhen on December 15th 2017. The UABB has been taking place since 2005, and was originally conceived by the urban planning department of the Shenzhen Municipal Government, with a changing curatorial team each two years. This year marked the 7th edition, curated by locally based architects Xiaodu LIU and Yan MENG with artist/critic Hanru HOU.
Considering the dramatic increase in architectural Biennales that have been sprouting up all around the world over the past two decades (from a total of 5 in the 20th century, to over 25, and counting, that have been initiated since the start of the 21st century), this review places the 2017 UABB in a larger framework of the development of the concept of architectural biennales. It continues Tzonis’ (2014) questioning of what the role is today for Biennales of Architecture, ‘apart from offering a unique opportunity to architects to exchange ideas’.
This is particularly relevant considering the starting point of the UABB, claimed by its organizers to be conceived not as an archetypical ‘state-of-the-art-showcase’ type of Architectural Biennale, but initiated to showcase social, urban and architectural implementations directly related to the rapid urbanization process of its immediate context.
The paper is set up in three parts. Firstly, a general overview of the origin, intention and rise of Biennales worldwide. Secondly, the development of the UABB in the Shenzhen context, from 2005-2017. Thirdly, a review of the current 2017 UABB’s setup, curatorial approach and implementation. It ends with a conclusion that reflects the positioning of the 2017 UABB in the world of Architectural Biennales.
Introduction: the origin, intention and rise of Biennales world wide
Since the start of the 21st century, there has been a dramatic increase in Architectural Biennales sprouting up all around the world. In the past two decades over 25 new Architectural Biennales, have been initiated, up from only a handful that existed at the turn of the century, which were all started in the second half of 20th century, one in Venice, Europe, the others mostly in South America (in Brazil, Argentina and Chile). Architecture biennales, triennales, design weeks and other recurring events have surely become a vital part of the culture of contemporary architecture. So what is the intention of a Biennale?
When we trace back the origin of the Biennale concept, the word itself is rather meaningless. It simply means an event occurring every other year. More than a technical description however, the word has, as Tzonis puts it, ‘assumed institutional significance, as a recurrent happening or gathering, mostly international, mostly, but not exclusively, cultural’.
The first Biennale was held in Venice, Italy in 1895, and is considered the mother of all Biennales today (Zhang, 2014). The program and structure of the first Venice Biennale had strong political importance, as it ‘mobilized the aura of Venetian culture’ as part of the unification of Italy. The first edition of 1895 was opened by the Italian King and Queen. Besides the political importance in forming a cultural identity, the Biennale also contains a strong economic motif, as the Biennale was also created to promote market opportunities for European contemporary art and meant to attract tourists. Over time now the Venice Biennale has become the de facto vane of western contemporary art, merging commercial success with tourist attractions while maintaining its character as a serious cultural platform.
From 1980 onward the Venice Architecture Biennale started being independent of the Venice Biennale as a separate event, with the same format. The Art Biennale now takes place in the uneven years, and the Architecture Biennale in the even years. Since then, it has gradually given Venice a say in the architecture world, similar to its say in the art world.
Following this emerging of the Venice Architecture Biennale with such an influential position, attracting state-of-the-art thinkers and practitioners, the event also became a great commercial success for the city and its organizers. Attracting over 250,000 tourists that would come specifically for the Biennale, paying for hotel rooms, food, merchandise and entrance tickets. Prompting curator Rem Koolhaas of the 2014 edition to ‘for the first time extend the opening to six months instead of three months’, turning it into ‘something that is not just visited by professionals only’, adding ‘events, seminars, lectures and performances’.
Perhaps the explosion of new Biennales can be explained because other cities in the world witnessed the emerging success of the Venice Biennale as a leading international platform, and observed its potential to transform disused urban areas, like Venice’s Arsenale, into commercial and cultural generators that spread their influence over the wider urban area. In this sense the political motif is still the leading factor; it can push the image of the host city, transform its cultural identity, just like the original intention of the first Biennale in Venice.
However, unlike the more political, cultural process of the Venice Art Biennale as a display of international diverse artist with various themes and styles that is still strong after more than a century, the genealogy of the Venice Architecture Biennale as an institution is evolving its identity world-wide toward a promoter of ‘star’ architecture, with ‘star names’ that draw the crowds. Yes, perhaps the economic dependence on a popular Biennale in Venice is now so strong that it might be ‘tired of being a window for new ideas’.(Zhang, 2014)
Now, with this ‘star Biennale’ as the main commercial and tourist attractor, and the explosion of other Biennales trying to follow this success-formula, with bold statements and star-chitect attractors, some claiming to even ‘Make New History’ (the theme of the inaugural Chicago Biennale in 2016), what can the UABB add to this field?
Claimed by its organizers to be conceived not as an archetypical ‘state-of-the-art-showcase’ type of Architectural Biennale, but initiated to showcase social, urban and architectural implementations directly related to the rapid urbanization process of its immediate context. Could this format provide a possibility to address the ‘real concerns of architecture in a globalizing world’?
Introducing UABB: a window showcasing urban change
Initiated in 2005 by the Shenzhen Municipal People’s Government, and later co-organized by the two neighboring cities of Shenzhen and Hong Kong, the UABB situates itself within the regional context of the rapidly urbanizing Pearl River Delta. It has a continuing, set central theme that addresses urbanism and urbanization, meant to emphasize the beliefs of the organizers that ‘architecture belongs to cities and the discussions should be made within the context of cities’.
The UABB adopts the general name and mechanism of an Architectural Biennale, but claims its inception is divergent from being merely an architecture showcase, focusing on the ‘macroscopic background of unprecedented rapid urbanization in China and issues of urban and urbanization’(Wikipedia), a window showcasing urban change.
When looking at how the UABB developed from this original starting point, it is striking to see that the idea of showcasing urban change is followed through very literally into the integration of the Biennale’s location into the related urban context. It changes location with almost every edition, in which the process of urban development in the respective location is central to the main exhibition theme. In fact, for most of the editions (like in 2005/07, 2013, 2015 and the current 2017 edition), the Biennale curatorial team was actively involved in the transformation of the area in which the UABB was taking place.
The first UABB for instance was held in the OCT-LOFT area in 2005, which was renovated from a 1980s industrial factory toward an office and housing development. Curated by Yung-ho Chang, the exhibition explored the ideas and concepts related to urban development in Shenzhen, particularly focusing on the OCT-Loft area and on urban villages. Similarly, the 2013 edition, themed ‘Urban Border’ curated by Ole Bouman, Xingning LI, and Jeffrey Johnson, transformed two neglected industrial sites in the Shekou area. The former Guangdong float glass factory was turned into a ‘Value Factory’, and an old warehouse in the Shekou Terminal zone into a ‘Border Warehouse’. These areas became the main venue and testimonies to the urban transformation process in itself. For the 2017 edition, the curatorial team selected the Nantou Old Town, a historic village dating back 1700 years in history to the Jin Dynasty, now embedded in the modern urban fabric of Shenzhen. It was chosen partially to defy popular belief that Shenzhen is a city with a history of ‘only forty years’, being created as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in 1980. During this process of urban development, the ancient town has gradually morphed with the urbanization process of the village which is again encircled by the city. More importantly though, like the previous editions, Nantou was selected because of the potential to showcase urban change, and to utilize UABB as a platform to participate in this change.
Chief-curator Yan MENG stated during the opening that ‘through the UABB we want to integrate a new layer of fabric here (in Nantou ed.) that will enable the local residents to gradually improve and update their environment’ adding that ‘we hope through renovation for exhibition spaces, architecture and art interventions, and organized events to bring an alternative experimental opportunity for the regeneration of the Nantou Old town and the renovation of urban villages in general’.
UABB 2017: Cities, Grow in Difference: Starting from Urban Villages
As for the chosen theme for the 2017 edition, the English title ‘Cities, Grow in Difference’ actually is intended to also express the diversified interpretation of a single element. It is perhaps not fully clear, or grammatically correct, but that is exactly how the curators want us to look at the Biennale and its urban village context. Urban villages, like Nantou, cover about one-sixth of the total land area of Shenzhen, and house approximately nine million of the over twenty million people in Shenzhen. With their dense urbanization pattern and limited land area, these urban villages together accommodate 45% of the population with 16.7% of the space.(Meng, Liu, Zhu, 2017) The curators aim to use this reality to force us as visitors to reconsider our view on what a city could be. Comparing to the diversity of a “jungle grown out of diversity, with different species and ways of looking at it”, the theme is meant to stress the importance of diversity, differences, hybridity, and embedded resistance in our conception of a city.
The theme fundamentally aims to signify a recognition and inclusion of things of different origins, status and values at social, cultural and spatial levels. It is conceived as a revolt against the mainstream ‘centralist’ view on urban development and architecture. Instead it aims to respect regional diversity, and the balance of the urban ecosystem, starting from a human point of view. The curators state that they wish to ‘oppose purity (…) advocate hybridity (…) resist orthodox modern political-spatial vision and its aesthetics and (…) revise the single-minded ‘progressive’ view of history’. No lack of ambition here. By using the UABB as a window to the hybrid urban ecosystem of Nantou, they aim to showcase this model as an alternative model for the contemporary city, where the ‘imagination, free minds, and passion for the creation of the city dwell and reside’(Meng, Liu, Zhu, 2017).
Now, (how) is this achieved? For this I will outline several main strategies and exhibition elements that are real, physical implementations of the ambitions.
- Showcasing a comprehensive mechanisms of the Nantou urbanization process.
Throughout the exhibition, the catalogue, the curatorial process and the opening ceremonies, all parties where involved in the urbanization process, equally given a voice. The local community, architects, artists, the local government, developers, etc. By showcasing not only the result or successes of the process, but also the mechanisms of this urbanization process, and by being open about the difficulties of the existing conditions, the 2017 UABB provides a comprehensive model for review and debate. One section of the main venue is dedicated to a very elaborate review of the construction economics, urban development, living conditions and materialization of the existing Nantou urban village for instance, see image 6.
- Archi-punctural interventions in the Nantou urban fabric.
Secondly, a series of ‘archi-punctural’ interventions are placed at strategic locations in the Nantou Old Town. Regenerating dilapidated or illegal community facilities, based upon the desires of the local community, and within the concept of the long-term development plan, these new interventions were designed to be hosting venues for the 2017 UABB, and simultaneously serve the community needs, see image 7.
- A public ‘pop-up’ library with curated, in depth, rare background reading was created. Inside the main exhibition venue, which in itself was a renovated factory building, the library was assigned a generous space with books, research and documentation, from China and abroad related to urban villages and related urbanization topics, see image 8.
- Art & Architecture together; with art as a social critic. Somehow returning to the integration of society, politics, art and architecture, as with the original Venice Biennale, artists and specially commissioned works were introduced to historical buildings, industrial plants, market stalls, and even ordinary rental apartments. These were selected to evoke ‘reflections on the significance of urban villages, the city, and public spaces’. See image 9.
- Non-architectural public events as part of showcasing urban life. In addition to the typical debates, forums and discussions with architects, urban designers, and other professionals, an alternative event list was made that integrates the local community to non-professional visitors. See image 10.
- Curatorial process as statement.
By being very open about the strong positioning of the curators, and by being allowed a platform to express this, the exhibition itself in the words of the curators ‘forms an alternative space of resistance against authoritarian planning, allowing the marginalized spaces and neglected voices of communities to emerge’.
- Giving broader context to a local question
By carefully selecting a variety of participants from outside Shenzhen, the notion of ‘urban diversity’ was stretched and given a broader comparative context, making it relevant to the larger architectural discourse. Highlights included the showcasing of Liu Jiakun’s Urban Yard, which deals with the same idea of the ‘urban jungle’, and a section on ‘the Global South’, which brings together experts and proposals on other urban environments from around the world. Throughout the curatorial preparations the curators went around in forums in and outside of China to get feedback during the process.
- Careful documentation of process and result.
The publication that accompanies the 2017 UABB is a carefully crafted written statement, not just an exhibition catalogue. Instead, more than 2/3 of the book talks about the curatorial process, urban assessments, historic development and community collaboration.
Conclusion: Urban Curation: The beginning of a long-term plan.
When advocating ‘radical alternatives’, there is no stronger message than doing what you say, then to document the process, test it, use it, open it up for visitors and the professional community to assess and debate. This requires courage, strong belief in your ideals and support. It also requires to be vulnerable to possibly criticism. Having said so, we should be grateful to the organizers and curators of the 2017 UABB for providing this opportunity.
We can conclude that the 2017 UABB was implanted as an:
- intervention type Biennale,
- based on the life and needs of the local community,
- connecting urbanism with art and architecture, through a
- non-static site, with the
- UABB as a tool for transforming urban space.
Local Nantou government leader Renmin ZHOU sees the UABB as a tool to ‘showcase values and principles to the citizens as a means of opening their view and educate them through the process’ in which curator Hou Hanru adds that ‘considering gentrification is the luxurious indulgence of intellectuals’, and that instead, ‘through the UABB we want to integrate a new layer of fabric here (in Nantou ed.) that will enable the local residents to gradually improve and update their environment’, Yan MENG concluded.
Cities in themselves are the biggest exhibition venues that lead future transformations. The 2017 UABB has presented itself as a platform for continuous discussion on the most pressing urban issues, and as a laboratory for actual improvement of urban architecture and daily life.
Alexander Tzonis (2014) stated that if a ‘Biennale of Architecture is going to play a leading role in the future, not as an anti-modern institution but as an ‘Angelus Novus’ (Eagleton, 2009) of the happiness to come, it has to stand for ‘cultural, social, technological and environmental quality and equity’.
As the author and reviewer, I believe this future can be seen in Shenzhen at the 2017 UABB. Urban curation can be a strategy for the incremental improvement of urban spaces and the quality of urban life, embedded in a long-term plan.
Bibliography (books and papers)
Koolhaas, Rem. “Introduction,” in Fundamentals? Venice Architecture Biennale 2014, ed. By L. Zhang, World Architecture, Tsinghua University, 2014, pp. 30-32
Meng, Yan; Liu, Xiaodu; Zhu, Ye, eds. Cities Grow in Difference. Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/ Architecture, 2017 UABB (Shenzhen), 2017.
Tzonis, Alexander. “Putting on a Pretty Face,” in Fundamentals? Venice Architecture Biennale 2014, ed. By L. Zhang, World Architecture, Tsinghua University, 2014, pp. 24-27
Zhang, Li. “From the Editor,” in Fundamentals? Venice Architecture Biennale 2014, ed. By L. Zhang, World Architecture, Tsinghua University, 2014, pp. 10
Abourezk, Alya. “The ultimate guide to the world’s architecture and design biennials,” 2017. As accessed online at:
Han, Shuang. “2017 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture opens this week in Shenzhen,” 2017. As accessed online at: https://www.archdaily.com/884976/2017-bi-city-biennale-of-urbanism-architecture-opens-this-week-in-shenzhen
Eagleton, Terry. “Walking the Dead”, 2009. As accessed online at: https://www.newstatesman.com/ideas/2009/11/past-benjamin-future-obama
Part of the research for this paper included an extensive on-site review of the 2017 UABB, conducted by the author between December 13th-17th 2017, including, but not limited to, interviews with participants and curators, media discussions and press conferences. Thanks to Simon Henstra for assisting in the making of the maps and timeline.