Meng Yan

In the discourse of architecture and the city – a conflicted dualism of an architectural urbanism, or an urban architecture – there is a call for a deeper reflection of the role of an architect. Today, all professional practitioners in China are described as congyezhe, which implies in the Chinese language, a submissive position to the work at hand like a mere service provider. In such a professional climate, is it still possible for an architect to become an active agent or change, or have an impact as a mediator of complex relationships? Are there possibilities for architects to practice in an expanded field? In addressing these concerns, Urbanus developed an urban strategy between 1999 and 2006 called the urban infill. A comparison between the City of New York and Shenzhen shows the large amounts of urban voids in Shenzhen left during heydays of its rapid urbanization. These voids and remainder spaces became instant opportunities for newer forms of architectural and urban practices.The voids can be redesigned for remedial actions, integrating new interventions with public spaces for a greater transformative effect on the city.


Voids and Topography as Remedial Action

Many residential neighborhoods in Shenzhen were built on hills as a result of its natural topography and urban development. One of the projects encountered by Urbanus was at the entrance of the Cuizhu “Emerald Bamboo” Park. While the entrance sat on a parcel of land that was rightfully owned by a developer, next to a larger plot of land ripe for development, the government had requested the parcel to be surrendered as an entrance to a public park. This problem became an opportunity, where the architect was able to act as a mediator, not only between the government and the developer, but also in design. The developer eventually agreed to give the entrance parcel back to the public in return for fifty underground parking lots, and the ascension to the park through this hilly gateway was designed with a public walking trail, breaking the steep incline into segments of walkable terrain. This architectural car park intervention was fully integrated with the intentions of the urban design of the park.

There were dramatic changes in the central districts of Shenzhen between 1998 to 2014. Today, these districts are forests of skyscrapers with practically no room left to build in. In the process of designing skyscrapers in such districts, it is arguably unnecessary to generate greater monumentality in each building. Instead, the programming and tactility of the built form would be of greater importance. In approaching a project of this nature, Urbanus was happy to fully relinquish the individual form of the tower because they would have become, at best, two very generic and economically-centered towers. In place of form-making, the real opportunity was in the search for shared public spaces between the two clients of the towers. The explorations led to vertically staggered public spaces alternating between interior and exterior spaces. This analytical examination of each design brief and site led to a confrontation of their banal realities, and it was up to the architect to demand a critical and reiterative mode of thinking to reveal the real potential of the project.

The Civic Center remains the biggest unoccupied piece of land in Downtown Shenzhen. Measuring around 600 meters by 600meters, this urban plot is larger than the Tiananmen Square in Beijing.It was not only large, but also empty, devoid of real urban intentions. The unbearable width of Shennan Road prevented pedestrians from approaching this downtown site, which represented an enormously wasteful potential. Countless proposals were created in the past decade to solve this urban problem. In 2009, Urbanus pursued a research study of this site with OMA, and the joint proposal eventually won the bid. The successful bid created a holistic system that integrated various resources of the surroundings, tackling the bigness of the site with bold gestures, and confronting the complexity of the site with complex programs. There were three primary components in the proposed urban system. Firstly, there was a proposed largering on the ground that connected all public spaces above the ground with those underground. Secondly, the sunken space in the middle that preexisted the proposal was maintained. Thirdly, a system of spaces underground was proposed to fully integrate the urban realm with the high-speed rail station of Shenzhen. Shenzhen is the only city in China that had constructed its high-speed rail station underground, so that it can connect to downtown Hong Kong and Guangzhou in fifteen minutes.The convenience in the future would bring vitality back to the large emptiness. A high-speed national rail station, an inter-city rail station, and four subway stations were all connected by the ring. The on-grade development was also proposed to be connected to the underground, so that people can walk in and out of the ring to get above or underground, or simply to cross Shennan Road. The sunken space in the middle also carries multiple functions – it is not only a monumental place, but it also has very public functions in the form of a library and an information center. This will be a landmark of a city, even if it is evidently not a vertical landmark. There was a conscious effort to avoid an predictable verticality, and the iconicity and success of the project was instead to be achieved through a real spatial and urban connectivity. This gave rise to the Shenzhen Eye, the project’s designated name.


Infills, Contours and the Village Scale

There would be another form of infill project in the city, flanked by the famous Lotus Hill to its left, and the Beacon Hill to its right. These are the only two hills remaining in the city center, after a period of dismembering the natural features and natural topography of Shenzhen. After multiple rounds of urban design and feasibility studies, the developer committed to retaining the expanse of aged warehouses between the hills,and developing a large-scale mixed-use fabric. There are two bridges that connect the discontinuous urban fabric that was once separated by the two hills. The most profitable high-rises in the project were designed by SOM and a Hong Kong-based practice, and the huge shopping mall was by yet another practice. Urbanus was left with the least attractive and difficult part of the project, which was the design of a residential component on top of the shopping mall. Given the context of the urban reconnection of the two hills, Urbanus embraced the added challenge of reintroducing a village scale instead of the standard housing towers in the necessary housing above the mall. The return to the village scale would be an ideal reaction to the saturated commercial programs around the rest of the project, even if it is uncanny and impractical to mobilize the roof of the mall as the new urban topography for the people. It raised all forms of problems of access and privacy – can the residents gain direct access to the village from the two hills, and eventually participate in the public activities of the mall?

The initial design was to build a village with slabblocks, which served as an urban village with some of the largest buildings at its core, medium ones on the perimeter, and smallest ones in the middle. This reacquaints the site with a valley section, with a depression in the middle. To connect the village-scale housing units, an informal network was created by weaving streets in between the housing in the sky. The loft spaces of the housing units can be adopted as either living or working spaces. The project-between-the-two-hills also included a hotel, a mini-theater, and delicate commercial streets that were relatively miniscule in size. This smallness serves as a resilient form that supports everyday life, and it is also as an alternative form of urban design in China that is not big. The housing contours as a village landscape,paradoxical to the shopping mall below.

Apart from filling in the disconnected urbanism, there were also attempts of cultural injection through program alterations in the urban fabric.Oncedescribed as a “cultural desert,” Shenzhen is systematicallyinjecting new creative industriesinto old urban fabric. The Overseas China Town (OCT) has become one of the most important cultural districts in Shenzhen. It contains not only a few conventional theme parks and high-end residential areas, but there is also a series of emergent cultural and creative industries in recent years. The Museum of Contemporary Design was thefirst cultural landmark realized through areconfiguration of an old laundry facility. Such alteration projectsprove that spaces with new cultural sensibilities can be attained with a number of simple architectural moves.

Similar buildings have emerged all over Shenzhen in recent years. Most of them have becomesignificant cultural landmarks, despite being dilapidated at the inception. These projects ought not to be the sole geniusor the sole effort of the architects. Projects tend to be successful only when the visions and planning capacities of the architects are met with the collaboration and spontaneity of the developers. Urbanus only had the responsibility of designing the system of public spaces in the southern and northern parts of OCT, including the large murals and the consolidation of outdoor spaces, yet OCT has had the capacity to regenerate itself continuously in the past decade. Combined with a marketplace of creativity,OCT has become a cultural hotspot especially on the weekends. On the north side of OCT, Urbanus is currently working on the conversion of an antiquated factory into a contemporary art museum. It is a low-key building that blends in well with the existing fabric, but its intervention should not alter OCT substantially. It has an art exhibition halland meeting hall, but mostcritically, the ground floor has to serve as a 24-hour space even after the exhibition is closed.


Messy, Filthy and Inclusive

In recent years, there is a realization that there is a strong force behind the formation of urban villages. The confluence of power and capital pushes the inevitability of the making of a city within a city. Currently, urban regeneration projects in Shenzhen amount to about 12 million square meters. Many urban villages are undergoing tremendous changes, including those still under research at Urbanus. Despite the fact that every village has its distinctively original morphology and character, the implementation of new development remains the same. Two case studies reveal contrasting findings.

The first case study is known as the Hubei Village, which is located in the center of the old Luohu District in Shenzhen. It contains numerous historical buildings, where their structures and spaces are largely preserved in their original states. While they are not comparable to the historical buildings in Beijing or Shanghai, these historical findings were significant for a city with a short history of thirty years. Urbanus led a study of the district on a voluntary basis, after reviewing the district’s latest redevelopment plans. Without knowing who the developers might be, Urbanus proposed design solutions and economic feasibility plans to save the old village, and combine it with an urban park. These plans included ideas for the local government and developer to generateprofit for further improvement to the district. Finding Urbanus’s research and report intriguing, thelocal government and developer requested that the appointed architects collaborate with Urbanus for further refinement. Through a series of workshops and field studies, and interviews and working groups with the government, schools, and villages, Urbanus’s strong position to protect the urban villageled to a positive interaction with the appointed architect, and an eventual adoption of the ideas.

The second case study is a large urban village of Baishizhou near OCT. It represented the biggest redevelopment project in Shenzhen, sitting right next to the most luxurious villa area in OCT, with historic buildings and a central plaza. This urban village actually mediates many social and urban problems, drawing people from all walks of life to live there, including white-collar professionals, the working class and the poor. Even new migrants are attracted to the village. To enhance the relevance of the village, especially its economic value, one could probably meet the developmental potential of the site by using the traditional and one-dimensional plot ratio in an urban renewal approach. But by doing so, the continuity of its history and context would be destroyed. There would be a failure to improve its social value alongside its spatial and economic value. Under such circumstances, a study was conducted by Urbanus, and the urban morphology of the complex village was discovered to be made of five villages, each with a different need. Urbanus proposed a preservation of some of the overlapped spaces where interactions between the five are occurring. A new spatial typology emerged as a hybrid of towers and podiums, striking a balance between the demand for a vertical city with a plot ratio of 20. The diversity in the village was maintained, with its urban culture and fabric intact.

A good city must be inclusive, which means it may be filthy and messy, with people from different backgrounds. This is whatthe future of Shenzhen is – a place where the rich and poor, the morally upright and warped, and the cultured and nouveau riche, can live together harmoniously. Without clear social or cultural goals, or the vision to respond to a city, and its unique context and culture, the discipline of architecture will be thrown intoa deep crisis. Under the universal influence of globalization, architects would travel widely to export their professional design services. There ought to be architectswho wouldelect to maintain a close relationship with their hometowns and cities, and improve them in small increments over time.


This essay is translated and adapted from an academic address by Meng Yan at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Architectural Society of China. The original transcript was published as “介入城市: 都市实践在深圳,” Journal of Shenzhen Civil Engineering and Architecture, Issue 2014/4, p.37-41.