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Shenzhen

City of change

Shenzhen is growing at a spectacular rate, and leisure is at the heart of many of its new developments. Christopher DeWolf takes a look


Last February, when Tobias Berger took the stage at a Manila art fair to introduce the Old Bailey Galleries, a new contemporary art centre he runs in Hong Kong, the German curator gave the audience a bit of cultural and geographic context – starting not with Hong Kong but with Shenzhen, the Chinese mega-city just across the border from Hong Kong. “Shenzhen is the most exciting city in the world right now,” he enthused.

It’s easy to see why. While Hong Kong struggles with the same problems as any economically mature city, its sister city is growing at a spectacular rate. Home to an estimated 18 million people, Shenzhen is China’s richest city, with a per capita GDP of US$23,749 – higher than a number of European countries, including Portugal and the Czech Republic. And it’s as close as a city can get to being a blank slate. When it was founded as a Special Economic Zone in 1980, it was a rural backwater. Hong Kong investors and state owned enterprises opened factories, and migrants from across China soon flooded in to work. The seeds of China’s modern-day industrial revolution were planted in Shenzhen.

Now it has moved onto yet another stage of development. While suburban factories produce the world’s sophisticated electronics, the city centre has been taken over by service industries – especially tech firms such as Tencent, maker of China’s ubiquitous WeChat app, and market-leading drone makers DJI. A huge network of designers take advantage of open source hardware to create new products at an astonishing rate.

Vast projects are the norm in Shenzhen. Supertall skyscrapers are popping up in new business districts all over the city, like the 350-metre Hanking Center Tower, designed by US-based firm Morphosis, which topped out last December. Even public utilities are ambitious: Danish firms Gottlieb Paludan Architects and Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects have designed the world’s largest waste-to-energy plant for a site on the outskirts of Shenzhen – a circular structure that will be covered in 66,000 square metres of solar panels.

Leisure is front and centre in many of the new developments. “After such huge growth they’re now realising they need to improve it by focusing more on quality of life,” says Jacob van Rijs, a founding partner of Dutch firm MVRDV. In many cases, it’s private and state-owned developers that are leading the way; companies that once built factories and cookie-cutter housing estates are now building sophisticated lifestyle developments.

OCT Group is one example. In the mid-1980s, it developed a large swathe of land into a working-class industrial enclave; two decades later, it hired local firm Urbanus to convert one of its old factory zones into a creative hub called OCT Loft . With little money but lots of creative freedom, the architects focused most of their energy on the public spaces, replacing concrete with brick, planting trees and building steel canopies to provide shelter and a coherent visual identity. “When people came, they were surprised it was so raw,” says Urbanus co-founder Liu Xiaodu, who worked on the project with his partner, Meng Yan.

It turned out to be a hit – something completely unlike the giant shopping malls that were becoming common in Shenzhen in the 2000s. A few years after the initial renovation, OCT commissioned Urbanus to expand the cultural district, this time with a larger budget. It now spans 150,000 square metres, including design studios, bars and restaurants, shops and 3,000 square metres of exhibition space. The firm is now working on converting B10, a former industrial block, into yet another art hall, which will add 8,200 square metres of exhibition space to the district.

Another state-owned enterprise, China Merchants Group, is doing something similar in the former industrial district of Shekou. Pritzker-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki won a competition to create a cultural hub in the formerly industrial neighbourhood of Shekou that will house a new V&A gallery (see p116). Elsewhere in Shenzhen, MVRDV is working on an athletic centre and theatre (p114); Mecanoo, has designed a complex of three cultural centres and a book mall (p117), while KSP is designing a new art museum and library (p116).

Urbanus has finished the design for a neighbourhood sports and cultural centre, which stacks each of its facilities on top of one another in a Jenga-like tower, with outdoor public space in between. Meng Yan says it was a response to a brief that called for 38,000 square metres of floor space on a 5,700 square metre plot. “I realised it is a rare opportunity to develop a stacking hybrid building with vertically articulated public spaces,” he says

Most of these projects are enormous: Mecanoo’s cultural centres and book mall spans 99,000 square metres. KSP’s Shenzhen Art Museum and Library will contain 15,000 square metres of exhibition space – larger than London’s Tate Modern and New York’s Museum of Metropolitan Art, and about the same size as Hong Kong’s much-hyped M+ Museum.

Each project makes an effort to break up their structures into different volumes with plenty of public space in between. Reinsch says it’s a way to avoid creating yet another one of the overwhelming megastructures that are so common in Shenzhen. “For us, as architects, it’s not just about space, but about creating an environment for social interaction,” says Reinsch. “The scale in China can be a problem, because you don’t have human-scaled spaces. The challenge is to create spaces that make you feel comfortable, not lost.”

SHENZHEN: LOOKING AHEAD

Xili Sports and Cultural Centre
MVRDV

Jacob van Rijs
Jacob van Rijs
Jacob van Rijs,

Co-founder,

MVRDV


Last year, MVRDV won a competition to design a new 105,000square metre sports and cultural centre and theatre in the fast-developing neighbourhood of Xili in the western part of Shenzhen, on a riverside site located in between a metro station and a mountain park. “It connects the city to the mountains – if you want to go for a walk, you get out of that metro station and walk through this site,” says MVRDV co-founder Jacob van Rijs. The project is expected to break ground by the end of the year.

For van Rijs’ design team, the most natural solution for the space was to turn it into a ‘sports village’ with distinct venues linked by public space. Among the facilities are a theatre, a basketball and badminton arena, a multifunctional arena and a swimming pool. Each makes use of its rooftop space: the green roof of the theatre can be used as an outdoor cinema or amphitheatre, for instance, while the multifunctional arena is capped by a soccer pitch.

The site’s emphasis on connectivity is best represented by its most unusual feature: an elevated running track that threads through the site, connecting each of the buildings. “The ribbon ties it together,” says van Rijs. “It frames the public space and the buildings, but it will also be a fun thing. We had to make sure the slopes of the running track were not too steep so they could be used by everyone. It’s about keeping people happy and healthy, and bringing people of all backgrounds together in one building.”

MVRDV’s Xili Sports and Cultural Centre features a theatre-amphitheatre, a basketball-badminton arena, a multifunctional arena and a pool / Image: MVRDV
MVRDV’s Xili Sports and Cultural Centre features a theatre-amphitheatre, a basketball-badminton arena, a multifunctional arena and a pool Image: MVRDV

Shenzhen Sea World Cultural Arts Centre

Maki and Associates

China’s first major design museum – called Design Society – is the centrepiece of an ambitious plan by state-owned China Merchants Group to transform the portside industrial district of Shekou into an upscale residential, business and entertainment district. Run by Dutch architect Ole Bouman in collaboration with London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the Maki and Associates-designed Design Society museum is part of a new cultural complex, also designed by Fumihiko Maki. It is slated to open later this year.

Along with the museum and its exhibition spaces, the complex will include a 350-seat auditorium, a restaurant and a multi-purpose hall.

Located near a waterfront park, the complex has three projecting structures and a large external staircase that threads through the development. “The structures are sort of an homage to the surrounding context – we call it the trilogy of city, park and ocean,” says Yasuko Okuyama, the project’s lead architect. Each volume is positioned to take advantage of sweeping views around the development, while channelling visitors into the three public plazas within it. “We wanted to have some kind of open space that does not intrude with our project design; what we call a ma in Japanese terms, which means a mitigator or an intermediary space.”

Next to the cultural complex is Sea World, an entertainment district known for the Minghua, a ship purchased from the French government in 1973 that’s now filled with bars and restaurants. Okuyama says her team wanted to reflect the area’s nautical theme by cladding the complex in materials that evoke an ocean liner: white granite for the podium, white aluminium for the three volumes. Each internal plaza has a different character; one is clad in red stucco, another in green granite, and another with reflective ceramic tiles.

Design Society is a collaboration with the V&A
Design Society is a collaboration with the V&A

Shenzhen Art Museum and Library

KSP Jürgen Engel Architekten

Johannes Reinsch
Johannes Reinsch
Johannes Reinsch,

Partner,

KSP


When KSP partner Johannes Reinsch first started visiting China, he noticed its vast, sprawling cities had a lot of space – but most of it was designed to encourage you to buy something. “At the moment, a lot of public spaces in China have this very commercial aspect to them,” he says. “It’s tiring. You want space where you don’t always have pressure on you.”

In 2015, his team entered a competition to design an art museum and library for a 74,000 square metre site in Shenzhen’s outlying Longhua district, and they jumped at the chance to create what Reinsch calls “an urban cultural axis” that links the complex to the adjacent neighbourhood with a sheltered plaza. The entire structure is elevated on a stone podium, giving it sweeping views of the surrounding area, with a grand staircase that Reinsch expects will be a popular place to sit.

KSP took a deliberately minimalist approach to the cultural complex. “But we didn’t want it to be too brutal,” says Reinsch, so they clad the entire structure in glass to give it an ethereal appearance. Most of the glass is matte and protected by a layer of opaque inner walls in order to prevent the building from becoming a greenhouse in Shenzhen’s hot, sunny summers. “Our approach is not just to make a shape and have the client pay the air conditioning bill,” says Reinsch.

Inside the art museum, a series of terraces lead visitors to the exhibition spaces, each of which open onto a vast central atrium. The library, which sits across the plaza, is focused around a reading room with space for 1,000 people – an acknowledgement that 21st century libraries function less as repositories of books than as peaceful public spaces for study and contemplation. The complex is currently under construction.

Art Museum and Library / Image: ksp
Art Museum and Library Image: ksp

Three Cultural Centers and One Book Mall

Mecanoo

Friso van der Steen
Friso van der Steen
Friso van der Steen,

Director of International Projects,

Mecanoo


“Size can be intimidating but, like with everything, you get used to it,” says Friso van der Steen, Mecanoo’s director of international projects. The brief called for a public art museum, science museum, youth centre and a book mall – a kind of large-format bookstore interspersed with smaller retail spaces. The site fell between a large plaza and a high-density residential area, so the challenge was to design something that wouldn’t sever the link between the two. “That’s why we wanted to break up our volumes from the beginning,” he says. “We shaped them into arches and rounded volumes so they would act as an opening between the square and the residential development.”

Each component was designed as a separate structure clad in red aluminium panels. “We wanted it to look like a seamless skin, with windows sliced through it in diagonal stripes, supplemented by the occasional large window,” he says. Each panel is slightly different in order to accommodate the building’s form, whose triangular gaps resemble a house of cards. The angled edges aren’t entirely aesthetic: they shelter the public spaces between each volume from the harsh summer sun and rain.

Compared to the sleek, metallic exterior, “the interiors are totally different,” says van der Steen. Narrow cuts in the façade flood the interior with diffuse natural light. A palette of raw concrete and wood reveal the structure of the load-bearing façade and 40-metre core, which creates a large amount of unobstructed open space inside each volume. “We didn’t want to hide the building’s structure and make an empty shape,” he says. “You can really appreciate the construction.” The project is on track to be completed next year.

The four aluminium-clad sculpted forms that make up the complex will create shaded spaces that can host a series of public events
The four aluminium-clad sculpted forms that make up the complex will create shaded spaces that can host a series of public events
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