Internationally recognized progressive ideas and research place Shenzhen-based urban design and architecture practice URBANUS at the forefront of both local and global practice. Yan Meng, one of its three principals, shared his insider view and insights with journalist and urbanist Jessica Bridger, highlighting the unique characteristics of Shenzhen and the potential for collective student participation to contribute to today’s challenges in planning for the cities of tomorrow.

Jessica Bridger: A certain density and certain development pressures and a unique history in the Chinese context characterize Shenzhen. How do you, as an urban designer and as an architect, engage with the city?

Yan Meng: Shenzhen is unique in terms of the development speed and strategy, and it’s very artificial in a way. It was fabricated as experimental ground in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A lot of people would say that Shenzhen as a city doesn’t have a history, but actually that’s wrong. It has a unique history that we, a lot of the time, intentionally or unintentionally ignore. In order to approach and understand a city, you need to do thorough research. You have to be grounded in the city and really dig into it. We call this strategy ‘research-lead design’. Especially in a globalized world where everybody is working globally somehow, in unfamiliar areas, you have to try your best to understand the problem at the very beginning – what is really the problem of a particular city, whether it’s Shenzhen or somewhere in Brazil or the US. If you can define the essential problem better, then possibly you can come up with a better solution. We have so many solutions proposed without clearly defining the problems. We want to target at and be more specific in our research about Shenzhen.

JB: What are some of the most important problems that you either have been involved in – or want to be involved in – as an office?

YM: One of the most urgent urban problems, I would say, is the so-called urban regeneration or urban renewal project, especially in a city like this, which only has thirty-some years of history. Right now there’s a big campaign from the city level to redevelop because the city now has very limited land resources; it cannot sprawl over an unlimited amount of space. People have to reexamine places – like its center – which have already been developed, redeveloped, sometimes at a very high density already, as possible sites for redevelopment. It is a tricky situation, because it has already been built, it already has a very delicate complex social network and community life;it is pretty much mature. If you have to redevelop, the problem is that a lot of times most of the people have to be driven out. Then they are replaced by, for example, the inhabitants of super-luxury apartments, which, of course, only sell to the super-rich. Instead of getting more diverse, the city is getting extreme and monolithic. Of course, this is not a unique issue in Shenzhen – it is everywhere – but, in Shenzhen, because the city is so young, it doesn’t have a lot of layers of historic development. Everything was packed into less than forty years, so the issue is more severe.

JB: Is it almost that a process of ‘urban editing’ is needed, that you have to decide where to renew things, where to take things out entirely? Or would you say that it’s more looking at how to redensify? What are some of the approaches?

YM: Redensification, I think, from the spatial, physical point of view, but on the other hand, I think that how – after this, another wave of urban redevelopment – the social aspects of the city can especially nurture very positive and healthier urban life. I think this is always the big challenge for a city like this, because everything happens so fast. We don’t have much time to digest and there are not many lessons that we can learn, or precedents that come, from other countries. At this point, we think it is really important to engage the government, the developer, architects, social scholars, and all these people – maybe there should be some kind of a platform. We are trying to go beyond the traditional role of the architect as a service provider. We think that architects can play a much more significant role as collaborators or coordinators, to balance the needs of different parties because everybody has their own agenda. For example, last week, we held a symposium in our E-6 gallery. We engaged people from the government, developers, even some of the residents of the urban village clusters, and also other architects working on the urban redevelopment projects. Everybody came together, shared ideas and expressed what they think this is important, what they want to get from the redevelopment. It was quite a good occasion. But most of the time things like this are usually organized back-to-back, so there is no chance to share.

We also do a lot of independent research, sometimes sponsored by government planning institutions, sometimes by developers. We try to find a strategy even before the architecture design and urban design, about how to redevelop some of the sites. To just give some of the background, the things that go beyond the typical architect’s work. URBANUS is unique in this aspect.

JB: So would you say that you’re kind of defining a new mode of practice?

YM: I think so, yes. Especially in China and in this type of city, because there are so many problems around us, we, as architects, cannot really escape to somewhere else and then try to do some ‘fancy’ architecture. A lot of times you really need to engage with the city more; I think this is really one of the most unique aspects of URBANUS – we actively engage and sometimes we promote ourselves not only as architects but also as strategic coordinators and maybe as the urban curators that we sometimes call ourselves. We try to do more.

JB: For students of urban design, given these pressures, for instance in the Chinese context, in the context of Shenzhen, how can they begin to help to address these things, through these new modes of practice and through research?

YM: I think the platform is important. The student alone cannot really achieve a whole lot. But I think the university, and a group of students lead by professors and specialists, can work together with local architects and researchers, all in collaboration is much more interesting, can do more. We have so many real problems facing us; we don’t have to do just theoretical projects. Of course we have the theoretical background, but on the other hand we have some real problems, real sites, so I think a good strategy is to collaborate with the local knowledge-holders.


JB: Through the Global Schindler Award we’re trying to engage students worldwide in questions of globalization, urbanization through mobility, accessibility to different services and opportunities in the city. Do you think that students worldwide can begin to approach these problems collaboratively?

YM: I think so. The global aspect of these kinds of projects is quite interesting to me. People can really share a lot of their experiences and diverse ideas from different parts of the world.This could be an interesting thing to explore, to work with the locals and also with people from the universities and other fields, who have a deeper understanding and more of a global viewpoint. There is the potential there for an interesting and productive collaboration.