Yesterday, I participated in a Biennale event at 华南理工大学 (South China University of Technology campus slideshow, below). The event was organized into three sections: SZHK Biennale 2011 Main Venue; SCUT professors who had participated in SZHK Biennale 2009; and a SZHK Biennale 2011 sub venue event, the Enning Road Transformation Study Group (恩宁路改造学术关注组), an alliance of students and residents to voice concerns about Guangzhou’s plans to raze this historically important part of the city.
Now, visiting Guangzhou, especially with Guangzhou people is pleasurable because they love their city. They also love to compare their city to Shenzhen, which is interesting for what it tells us about the different ways we create a sense of belonging to “our” cities. The conversations I had highlighted important differences between the creation of urban identities in Guangdong Province’s two most important cities.
First, Guangzhou residents emphasized their shared culture – language, food, and street life. Consequently, when speaking about their shared environment, they emphasized places and situations where they spoke, ate, and lived Cantonese. Indeed, they didn’t seem interested in imperial history, except insofar as it provided a context for the specificities that made Guangzhou unique and essentially different from other Chinese cities. In this context, the decision to raze and rebuild Enning Road has become a symbol of efforts to respect and grow an indigenous society. Guangzhou residents’ preference to use new ideas to enhance what makes Guangzhou recognizably different from other cities interestingly contrasts with Shenzhen residents’ tendency to describe themselves in terms of hometowns elsewhere and, more importantly, the business that brought them to the SEZ.
Second, Guangzhou and Shenzhen residents have responded differently to their respective government’s efforts to compete with other Chinese and world cities by legislating identities out of taller buildings, higher per capita GDP, and national policy. In Shenzhen, top down legislation has been welcomed perhaps because many immigrants came to build the city and thus, government contracts align with the desires and interests of white collar residents; Shenzhen people are defined through the city and its upgrades. In contrast, in Guangzhou top down urban planning is meeting with more resistance whenever it bumps up against indigenous identities.
Theoretical speculation du jour: In China’s massive urbanization movement, architects and urban planners have a crucial role in creating urban identities. Consequently, differences in architectural practice will reflect and produce different forms of urban value. Three hypothetical supports for today’s theoretical moment:
First, white collar Guangzhou residents identify with blue collar Guangzhou residents in terms of shared history. This means that Guangzhou urban planners and architects accept (and take seriously some of) the claims that ordinary residents make to the city. In contrast, Shenzhen’s local urban villagers are precisely the target of urban renovations. Second, one of the GZ architects told me that in Guangzhou, most important design commissions go to graduates from and professors at the SCUT School of Architecture. This would mean that the people designing and planning Guangzhou share a common architectural language, training, and aesthetic values. In contrast, in Shenzhen, design commissions go to foreign and national firms in addition to Shenzhen firms, creating a design environment that emphasizes difference and novelty. And finally, at the roundtable, architects kept emphasizing the importance of Guangzhou’s history to contemporary design; they are participating in and furthering a local story. In contrast, architects in Shenzhen understand their role as making history, independent of whatever came before.
All this to reiterate a point I’ve made before. What distinguishes Shenzhen civic identity from that of other Chinese cities seems to be the degree to which Shenzhen emphasizes its incompleteness and its possible futures, while other cities reinvent themselves by giving new twists to local history.