yuehaimen village

When I first arrived at Shenzhen University, Yuehaimen was the urban village where I rented a conveniency apartment for 600 rmb a month. Located at the southeastern border of the SZU campus, there was an open gate between the village and the campus. However, by the time of SARS (2003) the gate was sealed off and students took to clambering over the wall between the village and campus in order to get to school. The university built dormitories at its southwestern border in Guimiao campus. That small, backdoor gate was the easiest to slip through during the SARS quarantine.

Piece by piece, urbanization near the SZU campus isolated Yuehaimen from the city. On its eastern border, Yuehaimen abuts the southern section of the Shenzhen Science and technology park. During construction of the park (from mid to late 1990s), another wall was built between the village and the white-collar work and residential area. The village’s southern border was the coastline that is now Houhai Road, and yes, a wall was built to separate the village from land reclamation, and has remained in place to cordon off ongoing construction of SZU’s southern campus.

These successive construction projects (SZU campus, Science and Technology Park, and reclamation of Houhai Bay) meant that Yuehaimen was an important home for construction workers, SZU students, and office staff. Having limited land resources, villagers built early and tall; these 6-8 story buildings are not prototypically “handshake” buildings, which emerged in the mid-1980s. Instead, Yuehaimen buildings resemble early 1990s work unit housing. More importantly, given land constraints and building styles, villagers did not own individual property, but units within jointly held buildings.

Yuehaimen is scheduled for razing by the end of the calendar year, or early next year. Most of the residents have been evacuated. What remains is an urban ghost village, where a few stragglers wait until the very last-minute before slipping into another urban enclave. In turn, Yangguang Real Estate developers promise to build another gated community on the footprint of Yuehaimen — this one shiny, modern, and meant to house Shenzhen’s technocratic managers and leaders.

Impressions, below.

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return to [human] nature: nostalgia at and around shenzhen university

Yesterday, I participated in an organizational meeting for a public talk on Shenzhen University. The meeting was held at the Qinghua Park (清华苑), the design firm headed by Luo Zhengqi former SZU president and members of the original SZU design team that left the University when he did (in post June 4th restructuring).

The planning of the SZU campus interests because it represents a unique moment in the Municipality’s history. Members of the Architecture Department as well as students in the first graduating classes actively participated in the design and construction of the campus. Indeed, Teacher Luo held on campus competitions to design dormitories and other buildings on campus.

According to Teacher Liang, who was in charge of the project, the animating principle of the design was a “return to nature (回到自然)”. She defined this return to nature in terms of freedom of spirit . For Teacher Liang, “nature” meant “human nature” as an extension of natural order.

Teacher Luo joked that the reason the design of the SZU campus had succeed was because they hadn’t done anything, a reference to the Daoist value of “no action (无为)”. On Teacher Liang’s understanding, freedom allows human beings to express and recognize human nature or art through the creation of material objects and the modification of the environment. She emphasized that neither economic nor social limits determined the form and meaning of an object or space, but rather human intention and the liberation of the human spirit.

Eyes sparkling, Teacher Liang illustrated her understanding of the kind of freedom at SZU with a joke, “There was no summer vacation at SZU.” Everyone was busy at one of the many construction projects, none of which were landmark buildings. Instead the campus layout reflected the ethos of communal construction toward a common goal — education for a new kind of citizen, one who made creative break throughs rather than repeated standardized forms.

For example, the main gate was set at an oblique angle, rather than along a cardinal axis, which was and remains a standard design practice for a university. In addition, early SZU was not walled off to create links between the campus and society. Moreover, the library held pride of place in the university commons, rather than a Ceremonial Hall for university meetings. In this sense, Teacher Liang defined freedom not as “freedom to do whatever I want (自由放肆)”, but rather a self-regulating freedom that creatively responded to community needs (自由自律).”

The second planning value that Teacher Liang emphasized was humility (谦卑). Humility took two explicit forms. First, layout emphasized users’ convenience, rather than centralization. Thus, staff offices and classrooms were located on either side of the central library, while student dormitories were placed adjacent to classrooms and within a 10-minute walk to the library. Staff housing and facilities were located furthest from the central commons. To further promote cross disciplinary conversations, students were not housed by major, but by year.

Second, large swathes of land were left open for future use. This open land, which included a large section of Mangrove forrest along pre-landfilled Shenzhen Bay, included extant Lychee orchards (and yes, students and teachers participated in early harvests) as well as planting garden areas and an artificial lake. According to SZU architectural student, from the outside the campus looked like waves of trees and low-lying buildings, while inside one could leisurely walk on shaded paths without the oppressive sense of skyscrapers or the disorientation caused by too many landmark buildings that stood apart from an integrated urban whole.

Participants agreed that early Shenzhen University reflected larger social goals to reform and open the Maoist system. They had been proud that SZU was not like Beida or Qinghua, they wanted to educated students who learned through doing, and they believed that universities had an important place in leading post Mao China. Indeed, they were not simply nostalgic for early SZU, but also and more profoundly, nostalgic for the Special Zone, when Shenzhen was a synonym with “experimentation” and “difference”, and “freedom” defined as a “return to [human] nature”. To this end, Teacher Liang made a point of quoting Liang Qichao’s Confucian motto for Qinghua University, “Strengthen the self without stopping, hold the world with virtue (自强不息厚德载物)”.

Early SZU’s socialist /Daoist / neo-Confucian hybrid culture stands in marked contrast to the Municipality’s ongoing campaign to promote neo-Confucian harmony. The meeting ended with further comparisons to then and now; SZU, one of the participants maintained, had represented an architectural expression of educational values. Indeed, he lamented a fundamental change in attitude. Previously, SZU administration, teachers, and students had taken it as a point of pride that early reports criticized SZU as “not conforming to the standard (不和规矩)”. In contrast, today’s SZU was so busy trying to play catch-up that it had lost what made it special.

The comparison was explicit; just as SZU had become second-rate by relinquishing its experimental and creative mandate, so too had Shenzhen lost what once made it the epicenter of reform and opening a moribund system and thus a special zone.

This organizational meeting was part of the Shenzhen Design Center‘s (深圳市城市设计促进中心) series of public talks, Design & Life (设计与生活). The format begins with an architect led tour of an interesting Shenzhen building or site. This tour is open to the public, and then edited into a short film. The film is shown at a two-hour public talk, which includes a viewing of the short film and talks by three or four guests, concluding with a question and answer session.

The first two sites were the Nanshan Marriage Registration Hall (南山婚礼堂 by Urbanus) and the Shenzhen Music Hall (深圳音乐厅 by Irata Isozaki). Architect Meng Yan led the tour of the Registration Hall and Hu Qian, a Chinese architect who studied in Japan led the Music Hall Tour. The SZU talk will take place on August 25 at the Civic Center Book City.

Luo Zhengqi will be the guest of honor.

new project — architectural worlds

I am currently working as an editor at Architectural Worlds, the journal of the Shenzhen University School of Architecture. The Journal has a long history, in fact, when I first came to Shenzhen in 1995, I also worked there as a translator! Anyway, this year, the journal is shifting its focus from buildings to the social context of architecture and urban planning. The preface from the first edition of the renovated journal is:

Why Architectural Worlds?

“S” is a tricky letter, signaling more than fill-in-the-blank grammatical shifts from the singular to the plural. Instead, “s” indicates an emphasis on and recognition of lived diversity. We start from one – one world, for instance – and by adding an “s” we suddenly find ourselves amongst a plethora of worlds – the peoples, societies, and institutions of the earth.  In other words, the presence or absence of an “s” reveals both the topic of conversation and our level of analysis. Are we talking about the nature of the world in general, or are we talking about distinct cultural worlds?

Examples of how an “s” might bring us from abstract musing to actual experiences abound. Being means “existence”, but the word beings includes all life forms. Culture refers to our shared capacity to use symbols, while the word cultures reminds us that in practice we use different symbols in different and often incommensurable ways. Indeed, for many topics, speaking about a singular, essential nature indicates an epistemological shift. Thus, in everyday life, we talk about birds or a bird, but mentioning Bird raises the conversation either to the level of taxonomy (all birds are in the Animalia Kingdom, Phylum of Chordata, and Class Aves) or to the poetic (The free bird leaps on the back of the wind and floats downstream till the current ends and dips his wings in the orange sun rays and dares to claim the sky…)

By changing the journal’s name from World Architecture Review to Architectural Worlds, we at AW are announcing our commitment to and curiosity in human diversity. We still provide the informed, scholarly perspective on world architecture that defined our previous incarnation. However, by widening our editorial scope to include the cultural values and social institutions that distinguish one architectural world from another, we hope to open conversations about the place of architecture in constructing fully human lives.

The journal is bi-lingual, although we are still working out the ratio and format of translations. We are looking for critical essays on cities, urbanism, and/or buildings. If interested in writing for AW, please contact me.

Education and the production of educated masses

This is a speculative post from yesterday’s walk through Shenzhen University. What struck me in the rubble and organization of public spaces was how much was dedicated to creating mass audiences. Not just not enough for people to be present to observe and thereby constitute political hierarchies, but also that knowledge mediates the rituals of inclusion. Moreover, collectively watching sporting events seems to (1) create massive masses and (2) reminds us that we learn more through the body than we do through eyes and ears when they are pinned uncomfortably in plastic seats. And yes, all these bikes collectively used and then forgotten over summer vacation. For the over 40 crowd like moi, these images tell how extensively China’s political-economy has been restructured from cities of cyclists on their way to work units to cities of recreational biking and cars.  Impressions of technologies for creating educated masses, below:

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深大南区:the map is not the territory

the map

Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

Once upon a time, this territory was ocean. There were oyster farms and fishing boats. And the people who lived here had single story homes that came to represent the poverty that these maps and plans would end.

The effort it takes to force territories into maps pulses through each inch of the houhai land reclamation area. Lines imagined elsewhere are being bulldozed, pounded, and moulded into six-lane highways and ten-lane expressways. Beside these roads climb glass buildings and residential developments with exotic gardens – palm trees, English grass, a goldfish pond, which is drained and cleaned once a month.

This is the territory – unmapped, but not unsung: Beneath the grey sky and rising walls of a high-tech research compound, a woman washes vinyl advertizing sheets for indigent tenting, paths veer in hidden enclaves that serve as public toilets, and a child plays on a piece of flatboard that has been placed protectively on top the mud.

Shenzhen’s poor are poorer than they were 15 years ago, when squatters had enough space and privacy to build small shelters beneath the lychee orchards that have also been imaginatively disappeared.

May the new year bring new possibilities.

shenzhen university misty afternoon


Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

had one of those delicious afternoons when the beauty despite blossomed. more snaps of shenzhen university trees, here.

人的城市: shenzhen university

the first fat bird collaboration took place in the summer of 2003, when yang qian, wen rongbing, liu hongming, zhang yuelong and i occuppied famous shenzhen landmarks. at the time, we were experiementing with using the landscape as stage. more often then not, we performed short pieces and then were either sent away (by local security) or ran away (because the police had been notified). think of these pieces as fat bird’s first engagement with shenzhen.

this piece was performed at shenzhen university in the eves of a building that no longer exists.

多一事不如少一事: regulating space

yesterday fat bird held its weekly workshop at shenzhen university. we had been rehearsing in one of the rooms assigned to the acting department, but decided to work outside the gym, where faculty and staff play badmitten, swim, and learn gongfu. the gym building has set-in doors that are well-shaded and because usually locked, these entryways provide semi-private outdoor rehearsal spaces.

as we rehearsed, some of the gym’s patrons stopped to watch, but most glanced our way and then moved on. however, the gym security guards kept circling past and one finally stopped to ask who we were and what we were doing. we said we were university teachers and students working on a project. the guard grunted and then moved on. about fifteen minutes later, he returned and asked to see our i.d. cards. several participants began arguing with him. fat bird asserted its right to rehearse in the gym space because (1) it was public space and (2) we were members of the university community.

to understand why the security guard came over a bit of background information is in order. during the sars panic of 2003, the university quarrantined the campus. students who lived on campus were not allowed to leave; if they did, they were not allowed back in. in theory, only staff and students who lived off-campus and had appropriate identification were permitted in and out of the campus gates. however, in practice, the university continued to let construction teams on campus. pre-sars, shenzhen university was one of the few, if only, campus to which the general population had free access. since sars, however, the university has tightened restrictions on entering the campus; security guards at one of four gates now regulate access to the university. indeed, in an important sense, they determine who the community might be. all this to say that the sars panic increased the guards’ power to regulate who comes on campus as well as the behavior of folks on campus. (it probably doesn’t need to be said that construction continues unabated as the administration fills in “empty” space with new, improved, and obviously expensive buildings.)

so at the core of the debate between the security guard and fat bird participants was the definition of public space within a space that had been re-designated as private space three years ago. fat bird insisted that “public” meant anyone who could get onto the university. we had, after all, been vetted at the campus gates. public space on campus was therefore available to anyone in the university community to use. in contrast, the security insisted on his responsibility and right to monitor the activity of anyone using the gym. he applied the logic of gates to the gym; one had to demonstrate one’s right to be there.

yet, what obviously drew his attention was how we were using gym space. it seemed that because he didn’t understand what we were doing he wanted us to do it elsewhere. he wasn’t asking us to leave the university, just the section for which he was responsible. there was no indication that what we were doing broke any laws, but rather, that it was inconvenient for us to be there. from the guard’s point of view “one thing less to worry about is better than the alternative (a very, very loose translation of the expression: 多一事不如少一事)”. fat bird has encountered this kind of monitoring public performance in other spaces. in the summer of 2003, fat bird organized a series of improvised responces to symbolically important spaces called “human city”. at several of these places, security guards interupted the performance and asked us to leave.

it is worth noting an important difference between security guards and the police. security guards are hired by private organizations to regulate and monitor use of private space. the police monitor and regulate public space. at one fat bird performance, the security guards actually called the police; we ran away before they showed up. so one of the morals of this story: we are more likely to argue with security guards than with the police.

a second and more sobering moral of this story has to do with regulation of expressive life in the prc. most of us are aware of the prc’s ongoing attempts to censor the internet. this very public battle is important. however, fewer of us are aware of the extent to which regulation takes place at the private level. security guards are just one symptom of a pervasive tendency on the part of private companies and organizations to pre-empt trouble by shutting down that which they don’t understand. throughout shenzhen, security guards monitor gateways into housing, commercial, and industrial developments. then within these spaces, security guards are placed at the entrance to each individual building within the development. the relationship between gate and gymnaseum guards at shenzhen university reproduces this all-too-common way of regulating space. the expression “less is more (多一事不如少一事)” in this context refers to the idea that it’s better to avoid trouble, than to take risks. this means that even if citizens aren’t breaking any laws, security guards nevertheless may (try to) stop them from using space in unconventional or unexpected ways.

unfortunately, the less is more approach to using space permeates our consciousness, so that censorship on expression goes all the way down. after the security guard left, i said that if we wanted to change the guards’ responce to us, we should report them. one of the fat bird members said that they would rather try to convince the guard to leave us alone because it wasn’t worth reporting them.

“what would the head of security do anyway?” she continued, “instead, if this keeps up, i would rather find someplace else to rehearse.”

sometimes, less is just less.

you be the judge. please check out a clip from the 13 may 2006 fat bird workshop. during the workshop, we continued working on new experiences of the body, specifically limiting the body in space.