Cities, Grow in Difference: Starting from Urban Villages…

As the theme of the 2017 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (Shenzhen), “Cities, Grow in Difference” represents not only a critical interpretation of the current urbanization in today’s China and the world but also an attempt to envision alternative models of future cities.

Today, we are living in a world of turbulence and uncertainties, such as unbalanced economic developments, cultural conflicts, divided views, and illogicalities. Meanwhile, globalism, consumerism, and media hegemony are dominating the existing world order, economic system, and lifestyles, constantly reformatting people’s ways of thinking and acting. Prompted by power and capital, urbanization in China has gone through rapid booms for over 30 years. Driven by the combination of two main planning models, namely the former Soviet-style modernism and the market-oriented total utilitarianism, the cities we live in tend to be homogeneous and generic. This is not only the case offirst-tiercities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen but also of second and third-tier cities, even towns and villages. In recent years, urban renewal, pretending to improve quality of life, has further swept away the time-honored historical areas and a rich urban life based on diversity and hybridity. They are now replaced by a globalized and commercialized standard configuration. Underneath the flashy gentrification, social polarization and lusterless life rear their ugly heads. Faced with this reality, we call for a new concept of urban diversity to promote “coexistence”of differences, and growth through difference.

We are convinced that we should consciously resist the promise of amonoculture and idealistic vision of the future city. The city is a highly complex eco-system. Today’s city should be a manifestation of a balanced coexistence of different value systems. It should be a civilized community with maximum heterogeneity and diversity in which people coexist in one domain with different dreams. A city should be all-embracing, and seek harmony through negotiating with differences. Its survival and prosperity lie exactly in being more inclusive and tolerant toward “difference”, “alternativeness” and “otherness”. This makes up a real urban cultural identity. “Cities, Grow in Difference” emphasizes coexistence at various levels of culture, society, space and daily life in the complex system of a city: it embraces multiple identities and perspectives, and acknowledges the diverse values and lifestyles in society as well as the variety and uncertainty of space and time. Like a “jungle grown out of difference”, it stresses the importance ofdiversity, differences, hybridity, and resistance in our conception of a city.

“Cities, Grow in Difference” fundamentally signifiesa recognition and inclusion of things of different origins, status and values at social, cultural and spatial levels. It is a revolt against the main stream culture ruled by“centralism”. We must respect the balance of the urban ecosystem like we should do with the delicate balance of nature, in which the ecological system exists in a dynamic equilibrium. On one hand, the balance of contradiction and hybridity in the city shouldn’t be broken arbitrarily. On the other hand, respecting otherness is a test of the degree of tolerance of a city. Opposing purity and advocating hybridity are resistance to the orthodox modern political-spatial vision and its aesthetics, it is a revision ofthe single-minded”progressive” view of history. The hybrid urban ecosystem is where the imagination, free minds, and passion for the creation of the city dwelland reside.

Creativity and imagination always need to be relocated and renewed across the city. This time they find their new habitat in the main exhibition venue, Nantou Old Town. Since the Jin Dynasty, a vast area consisting of today’s Hong Kong, Macao, Dongguan, and Zhuhai had been under the administration of Nantou Old Town, until Hong Kong was separatedfrom Xin’an County after the end of Opium War of 1840.In the past century, the ancient town has gradually vanished while the village was constantly expanding. The exacerbation of urbanization in Shenzhen has resulted in an intertwined layering of the historical town embedded in the urbanized village, which is again encircled by the city. Nantou Old Town is a combination of a modern urbanized village and an ancient town.It has both the ruins of a 1,700-year-old ancient city and the constantly growing, spontaneous and alternative space during the course of urbanization in modern times. As the main exhibition venue, it displays in a full spectrum a complete set of spatial evidence of the urban village transformation in recent history. It fully embraces its Chinese origin and Western influence, as well as the hybrid coexistence of the past and the present. As the one and only biennale of urbanism\architecture in the world, and with the mission to focus on cities and urbanization, UABB devotes attention to the discussion on urban issues which concern every individual now in China. Different from other biennales, UABB is not only an exhibition but also the site witnessing the most drastic urbanization during the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. From Shenzhen to the Pearl River Delta, cities in themselves are the biggest exhibition venues that accommodate the transformations. UABB is a platform for continuous discussion on the most pressing urban issues, and a laboratory for actualimprovement of urban architecture and daily life.

Urban village, an alternative model of the contemporary city, manifests the ongoingstatus of the evolution of a city in a uniqueway. Under the pressure of external forces, it is forming spontaneously and evolving continuously, steered by its own self-reproduction and self-regeneration. Urban village is the last frontier of Shenzhen’s urban renewal campaign, and also the bottom line of a balanced urban development. As aneconomic powerhouse, Shenzhen is currently undergoing the “Post-Urban-Village”eraand going through asecond urbanization. The ever-increasing spatial density of the city raises concerns about the survival and future of the urban villages, and UABB is born to enter the discourse. In the course of urbanization, the development of a city is propelled by both top-down urban planning and bottom-up growth.Under the influence of the two forces, the urban villages emerge as a result of the collision between the rapid urbanization in the current dynamism blending market economy and the urban-rural dual structure inherited from the planned economy period in China. They have now become the “Arrival City”where the exponentially growing number of new immigrants to a city reside.The urban villages covering about one-sixth of the total land area of Shenzhen house approximately nine million of the over twenty million people in Shenzhen. In other words, they accommodate 45% of the population with 16.7% of the space. As an extra-territory spontaneously formed and self-governed in a sense, the urban villages are inclusive and diverse in terms of space and community. Compared with a large number of cities designed like “stage-sets”in the context of fast urbanization and globalization, the urban villages are surprisingly dynamic due to the high-density physical space, manifesting the charm and creativity of human beings building their own homes. Residing inbetween past and present, order and chaos, legal and illegal statuses, and outside of the all-or-none system of value judgment, the urban villages are valuable for the bottom-up spontaneous potential preserved and developed from the gray zones where they are located. That’s why the urban villages become the incubatorof alternative new life in a city, and a place for newcomers to stay, nurturing indigenous creativities with their ever-lasting“incompleteness”.

Themed on “Cities, Grow in Difference”, UABB 2017 presents a platform to seek new theories, experiments and ways of action and offers a space for spontaneous exchanges without presumption. This is a constantly growing exhibition. UABB 2017 will be implemented concurrently with the old town regeneration plan.The exhibitions will be spread all over the lanes and alleys, parks and squares, residences and plants in Nantou Old Town. Sometimes, they are just subtle urban interventions, which infiltrate into our daily life and encourage unexpected encounters and discoveries. A glimpse during a walk, a moment, or an encounter may bring about profound understanding. It is in this way the exhibition responds to what George Brecht once said, “The most important things are the insignificant ones happening in the street”. Cities, Grow in Difference consists of a series of distinct and independent exhibitions scattering over the city and echoing with each other. The exhibition structure will be as complex as the city itself. With an overall guiding concept and the ability to adapt, it should be able to fully cope with all the uncertainties in the urban villages where it is held. Moreover, it is also a coexistence of a spontaneous bottom-up “self-organization” and top-down official planning, which serves as a critique ofthe biennale’s own mechanism and shows recognition ofthe juxtaposing differences.

Based on the previous fields of urbanism\architecture, UABB 2017 for the first time integrates an entire art section, making art as a keyvariable for a full picture of urban development. It will set up a platform where artists work alongside with planners, architects, and designers.With unconventional means and imagination reflecting the urban culture, it will inject new vitalityinto the exhibitionsin the urban villagesto facilitate the formation of the new social relationship among the inhabitants as well as with the outside world. Art projects will be introduced to historical buildings, industrial plants, market stalls, and even ordinary rentalapartments in unexpected ways. Such interventions and experiments that integrate the specific spaces in urban villages and inspired by the daily lifeof ordinary people will evoke our reflections on the significance of urban villages, the city, and public spaces. While leaving visual testimonies for UABB, they will also exert far-reaching influences on community building, neighborhood interaction, as well as dialogues and communications between professionals and the public. Eventually, the art interventions will create new public realms in the high-density urban villages. In other words, art is also an indispensable force in city making.

Under the theme of “Cities, Grow in Difference”, three interconnected sections in exhibition narrative are presented, namely “Global South”, “Urban Village” and “Art:MakingCities”. The first section “Global South”sets out the background, horizon, and stance for the discourse. Specifically, based on PRD region represented by Shenzhen, UABB 2017 will debate the obsolete east-west model through the perspective of global experiences. The”South” defines anew positionfor us to observe and explore the urban development, which better interpretsthe world current reality and its future.As the themed exhibition,”Urban Village”section focuses on the research on urban villages and related issuesand draws on experiences of the urban villages from three aspects, namely the knowledge pool, transformation tools and means, and test ground of intervening practices. This not only breaks through the boundary and stereotype of the urban-rural prejudice but also inspires the participation of the residents in creating the potential future of the urban villages. The exhibitions are thus incorporated into and interact with the daily lives in the urban villages stimulating the potential vitality there.The third section “Art: Making Cities”presents the critical exploration of the notions of the street, home, public space, social production and more by contemporary artists around the world. Meanwhile, it also launches a series of direct actions under the rubric of “urban art interventions” which engage urban life with vitality and creativity of contemporary art to generate diverse experiences, and in particular, emphasize the interaction with the local residents. By doing so, a more dynamic, creative, open, and democratic urban life system is thus experienced.

After UABB 2017, we hope to leave behind a comprehensive urbanarchive and cases for the future development of urban villages in Shenzhen, meanwhile carry the discussion further on broader urban issues. UABB for the first time takes place in an urban village, a special type of urban area, from wherewe can reflect on today’s city, and more importantly, discuss future urban strategies. Yet, a UABB with its main venue in an urban village doesn’t mean the exhibition isonly about the urban villages. In terms of the narrative strategy of the exhibition, the urban village is just where we start to explore “Cities, Grow in Difference”. UABB 2017 is a social platform to build and/or rebuild the connection between exhibition and its social context, stimulating diverse possibilities. Meanwhile, the exhibition itself forms analternative space of resistance against authoritarian planning, allowing the marginalized spaces and neglected voices of communities to emerge.UABB 2017 triggers an experiment of urban coexistence promoting the future of urban regeneration. Therefore, the 7th Shenzhen\Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (Shenzhen) in 2017 is not just an exhibition, but also an urban intervention and acity-making action.

Curatorial Team of 2017 Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (Shenzhen) (in alphabetical order by last name)
Hou Hanru, Liu Xiaodu and Meng Yan