li liao: labor at PAM

I went to the opening of Li Liao (李燎)’s solo exhibition, Labor (劳动) at the Pingshan Art Museum. Li Liao lives and works in Shenzhen, where he and his wife are working off their large mortgage. When his wife decided she wanted to start her own company, Li says that he decided to work as a delivery boy in order to pay off one month’s mortgage payment. It took him six months to earn his keep, so to speak.

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reports from caiwuwei

The research division of Urbanus has sponsored Fu Na and Chris Gee’s research in Caiwuwei these past three years. Just recently, they released three videos that take viewers on walks through what remains of Caiwuwei. Of note: Caiwuwei has been upgraded and polished into an exemplar of the potential of high density living that can be created through appropriations of handshake buildings. So commercial opportunities and low-cost conveniently located housing, with minimal investment in public spaces and amenities. Links:


对话城中村_Conversations with the Urban Village

蔡屋围24小时 / Caiwuwei 24 Hours

maillen hotel and apartments

The Architectural Review has published my review of the Maillen Hotel and Apartments by Urbanus. In the published review, I look at China Merchants’ recent push to gentrify Shekou in terms of gated communities for Shenzhen’s expatriate community. As designed by Urbanus, the Maillen Hotel and Apartments suggest the role of traditional Chinese gardens in the ideological transformation of Maoism into neoliberalism. A synopsis of the review, below; full article, here (with pictures by Sarah Cain).

Urbanus’ stated intention was to design the Maillen Hotel and Apartment with respect to both extant geographic conditions and the traditional Chinese ideas about landscape and garden design, incorporating Nan Shan Mountain into its design with an eye to realizing the aesthetic ideal of “bu yi jing yi”, a four-character expression which literally translates as “step moves landscape moves” and refers to the experience of enjoying new garden scenes with each step taken.

By incorporating the hill into its design, Urbanus took advantage of the section of Nan Shan that remains standing. Historically mountains and hills defined the South China landscape, and Shekou was no exception. However, during the first two decades of development in Shenzhen, urban planning and design prioritized speed and price over any other value, including environmental impact. The Chinese expression for land reclamation, “yi shan tian hai” or “move mountains and fill the sea” literally describes the step-by-step transformation of the Shenzhen Bay coastline. First, raze a mountain – and many Shenzhen hills no longer exist except as place names – and, second, reclaim coastal land, creating flat, relatively inexpensive building sites. The point, of course, is that as the city has prospered and natural features such as Nan Shan have been restructured, their market value has increased exponentially.

The Maillen design also invokes traditional garden design through landscape. Elegant courtyards, perennial bamboo clusters, and delicate plum blossoms evoke literati lives in Suzhou, which during the Song dynasty codified the defining features of a traditional garden. In a classical Chinese garden, stylized elements – ponds, a rock garden, trees and flowers, as well as built structures, for example – symbolized the larger world. The key point, of course, is that the garden allowed members of the Emperor’s court, classical scholars and wealthy merchants to experience themselves as being one with nature without actually having to go into a forest or sail on the ocean.

It is at the moment of exclusivity, or rather the potential to market and sell privatized pleasure that we see the appeal of classical Chinese gardens to contemporary real estate developers. Classical gardens were restricted spaces of elite pleasure, where scholarly achievement and social rank determined who was or was not permited to enjoy the elegant topiary and tranquil spaces. Today, money and status rather than scholarly achievement or social rank might determine who crosses the threshhold, but the effect is the same, the creation of a fashionable space for a select minority. With the Maillen Hotel and Apartment, Urbanus has designed a witty, elegant, and self-enclosed space of privileged consumption.

Indeed, when we architecturally cite China’s classical past, it is important to remember that we are also invoking the feudal hierarchy that the Revolution aimed to overcome.

Whatever happened to knowledge as, well, knowledge?

Robin Peckam of Saamlung directed my attention to a recent article, The 20-Kilometer University: Knowledge as Infrastructure. The article presents Urbanus’ proposal to turn the 20 km corridor from Luohu to Shenzhen University into an open university campus, with university functions distributed throughout the city. The design aims to create an unconventional civic center in which “learning” is a metaphor for civic engagement or inhabiting the city. Inquiring minds want to know, what’s wrong with that? Continue reading

City of Suspended Possibility…

Friend Jonathan Bach has written a beautiful essay, Shenzhen: City of Suspended Possibility. Highly recommended because he nimbly places myths about success and failure, homecoming and homemaking, and self-construction and urbanization with respect to western theories of the same. In other words, City reminds me why the essay remains my favorite genre; illumination on the human condition through critical perspective and sympathetic voice.