Nantou, A City Or A Village?

For a long time, Shenzhen has been portrayed, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unwittingly, as a young city with a history of only three decades. The myth of how a “small fishing village” has miraculously grown overnight into a modern metropolis is still prevailing in mainstream media and widely persists in the public imagination. The myth is followed by a curse, haunting this Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for many years, that it is a city with no origin, no history or culture.

In truth however, the Nantou Old Town in the Nanshan District of Shenzhen was founded as a city over 1,700 years ago during the Jin Dynasty, and it served as the political, economic and military center for the Shenzhen-Hong Kong area during the Ming and Qing dynasties, governing a vast area that included modern day Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macao.

In the early Qing Dynasty, the Nantou Fortress was destroyed and abandoned in an evacuation known as “Jin Hai Qian Jie” (Sea Ban and Frontier Shift). It was later restored for use up until the early years following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, when the government of Bao’an County was relocated to another site. From that time on, Nantou became a quiet village surrounded by an old city wall, its history as a city for over 1,700 years fading from memory. In the following decades, with the growth of its economy and population, the village expanded out from the confinement of its ancient wall. The historical buildings inside and outside the city wall were demolished and new buildings built. The Old Town continued to disappear as the village grew.

After the establishment of the Shenzhen SEZ in the 1980s, urbanization was first dominated by government and state-owned enterprises, followed by a top-down process of implementation by developers that guided by urban planning. Like other villages surrounded by sprawling urban development, Nantou Village experienced a bottom-up and haphazard self-urbanization process in contrast to the planned urbanization around it.

Nantou, Old Town Preservation or Urban Village Regeneration?

Today, Nantou Village represents a symbiosis of an old town of nearly two thousand year’s history and a modern urbanized village. It exists in between a city and a village, and yet it is neither a city nor a village when history intertwines with reality. Underneath the current hustle and bustle of urban reality, hidden clues of spatial and historical memory can still be found.

At the beginning of 2016, when the design and research team of Urbanus started to be involved in the Nantou Preservation and Regeneration Project, we found that rather than the contradiction between historical heritage protection and urban village regeneration, the most critical problem that has been hindering Nantou’s future is how to define and position both its historical and its contemporary heritage; this is the fundamental question that decides its future destiny.

We did numerous case studies regarding historic renovation, both in China and abroad, and studied the evolution of theories on historic preservation. We concluded that only by respecting the authenticity of the history and cherishing the cultural layers and historical traces of each period of time can we shape a timelessly dynamic urban community rooted in local history and culture. We see today’s Nantou not as an old historic town in the traditional sense, but as a historical heritage town, which carries on the history and culture of nearly two thousand years, and which preserves the spatial, social and cultural heritage of Shenzhen across every historical period. It is the only precious sample of Shenzhen’s urban culture that displays both  historical relics alongside a full record of China’s rapid urbanization over the last three decades.

City as Exhibition Venue and Exhibition as Practice

Following the urban design strategy of preservation and regeneration while locating exhibition spaces for UABB, we sought to reconstruct a public open space system in Nantou. Serving as an exhibition route, this system consists of both architectural spaces and outdoor venues. The exhibition venues are in five zones from north to south and extending out toward east and west: A. Factory Zone, B. Cross Road Zone, C. Southern Gate Zone, D. Historic Buildings Zone, and Chunjing Street Zone. The whole exhibition spatial narrative is formed with the following seven interlocking themes, like the structure of Chinese literature or drama.

Introduction: Southern Gate Park

The archway to Nantou Old Town can be seen when approaching westward from Shennan Avenue after passing Nanhai Avenue. Guan Di Temple is to the east, while the Nantou Museum, on the site of the former Bao’an County government built in 1950, is not far to the west. To its north is the excavation site of the moat from the Eastern Jin Dynasty.

We believe, however, that visual restoration will not help restore the Old Town.  Only when urban regeneration is seen as an effort to tackle complex urban problems can we find a balance between history and reality, and between spatial heritage and humanistic lifestyle.

We hope to establish a connection between the existing cultural sites outside of the Southern Gate and to introduce a new interactive experience in the Park, recreating the spatial prelude before entering the Old Town:

walking through the archway of Nantou Old Town, a newly built kiosk designed by FCJZ is on the west. Just like a small pavilion by a country road in ancient times, its overhanging eaves provide shaded seating for travelers;

A temporary “Weng Cheng” (barbican) plaza installation is on the north, reproducing with light materials the semi-circular barbican of the Southern Gate as it has been recorded in historic literature. The barbican is a symbiosis between historic facts and literary fiction, and its temporary popping-up will change people’s daily experience as they pass the ancient city gate.

The small semi-circular plaza will be kept after the exhibition, allowing people to stop and to ponder or lament. Rather than a simple rush in and out from the old city gate, a new route of humanistic and historical context will start.

Elucidation: Ancient Academy Square

Entering the Southern Gate, one is now standing on the South Zhongshan Street, which is lined up with many small shops. A small piece of elevated land in an eastern corner is where the Ancient Academy Square is located. According to historical records, the former Office of Coastal Defense was to the east of the modern day square, and in the early 1900’s the Fenggang Academy was established on its premises.

It was also the site of the Nantou Middle School and after many further changes, the site is currently surrounded by densely packed village towers behind the eastern and northern walls. In the process of renovation, the original atmosphere of existing trees and open space is preserved as much as possible, and only the hedgerow is removed from the south of the square to add steps and ramps in order to make the square more open facing towards the city gate. A screen wall of grey bricks separates the terrace from the street below.

A small open space is created in the middle of the square and a small stage is added along the northern wall to accommodate small-grouped performances and community activities. This small quiet courtyard with the shade of trees is a nice pocket garden to enjoy the city view, especially from a small porch pavilion in the southeast corner.

Transition: Cross Road Square

We chose this small vacant open space, enclosed by traditional buildings and other residential buildings, as the junction node connecting the main exhibition venue and the Chunjing Street area to the west of the exhibition route.

For a large number of illegal buildings and structures, instead of a total demolition, categorized and diversified renovation strategies are adopted, and feedback from the residents are followed in order to make continued adjustments.

The basic principle of renovation is to make the most of the current situation. Small-sized squares, pavilions, and green spaces are designed at the major nodes of public activity, responding to the specific conditions of each site in order to compensate for the current scarcity of open public space in the old town. They also will respond to issues like changes in lifestyle, the transformation of traditional spaces, and the scale of Lingnan architecture.

Conclusion: Baode Square

This area used to be a small open space in the center of the old town and was later used as a threshing floor in the 1970s. Historic County Government ruins, the Baode Ancestral Hall, and other historic buildings are in the vicinity.Located on both sides of the square were two metal sheds. Erected on the site of buildings demolished several years earlier, they had served as temporary markets to sell clothing, fruits, and other groceries.

The two sheds have been removed and two new temporary structures are built on the site after coordination with local residents. In addition to compensating the same floor area for the village, the new structures have roofs with slanting steps toward the square, forming a continuous interface which allows people to walk all the way from the square onto the roof. The roof serves as audience seating for basketball games or performances in the square.

Agglomeration: Creative Lab and Market Square

In the 1980s, a large number of factories began to be built in rural areas of Shenzhen and almost every village built factory buildings to rent out as the quickest way to shake off poverty and to get rich, while also bringing more employment opportunities for the villages’ younger generation. Wanli Industrial Zone of Nantou is located in the northern part of the old town and built in the late 1980s, with a building area of 14,000 square meters. Two factory gates on the east sit between the Nantou Town Primary School and the village; there are always residents and school children passing by the square in front of the factory.

The exterior walls of the factory and dormitories are essentially maintained in their original appearance. Only the large mural painted on the factory building adds a new stroke to the layered traces of time. A temporary metal shed on the factory square is dismantled, and a light canopy of stretching fabric is built along the east wall to accommodate an open-air café. 

The enclosing wall on the west side of the factory is demolished to allow the factory area to merge into the surrounding neighborhoods. Connected with the outdoor square it is like an open market as well as a delightful miniature theme park, suggesting that it could be an open creative cluster and a new living community for young people in the old town.

Openness: From Public Stage to Open Theater

In Nantou village, we are surprised to discover a remaining public stage between the old town and the Zhongshan Park on the north. The south edge of the stage is close to the crowded urban village while the north edge is open to the green space of the park. It is still a semi open-air theater for ordinary people to host amateur performances and local community activities.

We have placed three raised audience seating areas under the existing steel roof canopy, providing a better performance atmosphere and better views. The layout of audience seating resembling several scattered rocks creates an atmosphere of an informal theatrical space. A lifting fabric curtain system is designed around the roof truss, making it no longer a closed, static and conventional theater, but a convertible space that can be both open air or closed.

As the result of the actual intervention of the biennale, the multiple functions of the public stage will be extended to host the daily lives of local residents after the exhibition.

Seclusion: Urban Oasis

In the center of the old town, there is a piece of land deserted for many years. It is located to the west of Chunjing Street and enclosed on four sides by residential buildings. Historical buildings that once occupied the site have been gone for a long time. The site is now enclosed by a barbed wire fence and two uncompleted buildings with exposed steel bars and formwork are visually striking. Local residents spontaneously planted vegetables and fruit trees in the open space and gradually turned it into a hidden oasis. We hope to introduce spatial installations with themes of plants and to organize a small-scale garden tour or planting workshops through UABB to reactivate this area. Our future plan is to dismantle the fence of the garden and invite botanists, artists, local residents, students and the public to plan their own renovation strategy together and to build a new community space.

Urban Curation: The Beginning of a Long-term Plan

The 2017 Shenzhen-HongKong Bi-City Biennale (Shenzhen) themed with Cities, Grow in Difference will soon be held in Nantou Old Town. As the main exhibition venue, Nantou Old Town is a heterogeneous symbiosis of a historic town and a contemporary urban village. The urban intervention of this UABB is highly consistent with the old town regeneration plan, making a smooth transition from one to the other. During the renovation of the main venue, the design team selected a great variety of spaces within the urban village, including factory buildings, streets, squares, residential buildings, historical buildings, and parks. We hope through renovation for exhibition spaces, architecture and art interventions, and organized events to bring an alternative experimental opportunity for the regeneration of Nantou Old Town and the renovation of urban villages in general. “Urban curation,” in contrast to the current urban renewal process, is a long-term strategy for the incremental improvement of urban spaces and the quality of urban life.