Learning from Shenzhen: The City as a Studio, was conceived and led by Thomas Kong. It formed part of a series of studios organized by the Aformal Academy during the 2015 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture. In this 5-day studio, participants were involved in a number of micro, on-site investigations centered on the interplay of everyday life, urbanization and globalization in China’s first Special Economic Zone.
Everyone waits. Despite the fast pace and busy life of Shenzhen's residents, waiting is one common social phenomenon that binds everyone in the city while the cellphone is the indispensable electronic companion to alleviate the boredom of waiting. What do we actually do with our cellphones when we wait? What are we waiting for in the first place? These seemingly naive questions formed the basis of Lai Sihan and Gongyu's work.
The love hate relationship between Shenzhen students and their school uniforms was the focus of Xia Weiyi's work. As the city continuously erases and rebuilds at an incredible pace, the ubiquitous school uniform that Shenzhen students wear daily becomes an identity anchor for many. However, it is not just a passive acceptance of the uniform attire by the students. As Weiyi's work showed, the relationship is one of creative improvisation, and negotiation with personal identity, memory and authority.
Shenzhen's economic development has brought transformational change to the lives of the residents. The urban village of Baishizhou exemplifies the mix of hope, ambition, opportunity and squalor that comes with the city's relentless push for urban and economic growth. Inspired by their work in Baishizhou, Deng Yinjie and Huang Jiangshen set up an installation that solicited from the visitors to the studio their ideas of a good life in Shenzhen and beyond.
Form follows signage
Like tattoos on a body, the advertisement signs follow the contours of the building's form in Shenzhen. It is almost impossible to distinguish between advertistment signs and the building's surface. Taking this premise, Ali Keshmeri's work re-imagined a new architectural form arising from the locations and shapes of the signage.
Shenzhen Vending Machine
Lin Simin and Zou Yizhi’s designed and made a vending machine, which they placed in different parts of the city. The machine had three buttons- money, love and water. They were associated with the economy, the body and human relationship. Unlike the vending machines in the city, their version did not offer what it promised. Instead the machine frustrated the user by consistently failing to vend what was desired.
As the only participant who grew up in Shenzhen, Lui Min witnessed first hand the urban transformation of her city. She noticed places that had formed an important part of her life growing up in Shenzhen were no longer around. Through her mnemonic drawings, she recalled several memorable moments at different stages of her life.
The invitation from the Aformal Academy to teach a class during the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture in Shenzhen, China was a pleasant surprise and a serendipitous meeting of distant minds. I have just written a proposal for a fictitious design school that aimed to reimagine the current institutionalized structure and organization of the architecture and design education. The proposal was motivated by my desire to search for an alternative design pedagogy less organized around the long cherished model of a design studio housed in a school and be more engaged in a peripatetic experience situated within multiple locales in the city. The biennale in Shenzhen offered a wonderful opportunity to undertake such a pedagogical experiment. Titled, Relearning, the Biennale hopes to question the basic assumptions of the architectural artifact, design of cities and by extension their impacts on our everyday lives.
Much has been written about the meteoric rise of Shenzhen from a quiet fishing village to a modern metropolis after it was decreed by the late premier Deng Xiaoping as a Special Economic Zone. The multitudes of social, cultural, economical and environmental challenges that accompany such an accelerated urbanization process are also well documented. What more can we learn from Shenzhen? And who else can we learn from besides the mélange of professionals, experts, city officials, thinkers and observers of Chinese cities? In the spirit of RElearning, RE not in the Greek god Sisyphus’s sense of repetitive actions condemned to eternal futility, but one that could refresh and redirect our learning of Shenzhen. The Shenzhen Flash Cards Project carries such an aspiration.
The RElearning happens at street-level and from the local residents through the process of crowd sourcing a Chinese character or字that best exemplifies the city at this particular point in time. The hand written character will be recorded on a flash card and the process repeated. The final collection of flash cards will consist of the accumulated handwritten cards over time. As a system of pictograms and ideograms, the Chinese language is most suited to this pedagogical experiment. The compositional meanings inherent in a Chinese character and its combinatory possibilities expand on what could first be perceived as a limited and narrow beginning. Like the use of flash cards to learn a new language, the city flash cards will hopefully offer multiple, drifting, colliding, commingling and shifting meanings of Shenzhen shaped by the forces of urbanization and globalization. The RElearning of the city through the Shenzhen Flash Cards Project does not proceed from a fully formed theory or will the eventual understanding be systematic, complete and unified. Rather the learner needs to interpret and filter a palimpsest of dreams, desires, fears and memories, which defies neat categorization and are ultimately fragmentary. In a sense, this is how a city appears to us and is experienced.
It is conceived that the flash cards will have educational, economic and cultural afterlives beyond the Biennale. It could be used by schoolteachers to cultivate awareness among Shenzhen students the manifold values and perceptions of a diverse group of city dwellers. It could be sold as a memento in a gift shop, which offers visitors to Shenzhen something beyond a packaged touristic experience. It could also be housed in the library as an archival material for future learning and reference. Or it could simply remain on the shelf of an academic, tucked among an assortment of books, papers and other personal objects, to be rediscovered only after several years have passed.