Shen­zhen’s new art and cul­ture hub shows city’s am­bi­tion

The Guardian - Travel - - Travel | Globespotting - • de­signso­ci­ Cathy Adams

Shen­zhen is a bor­der town, tech hub, fac­tory floor and some­where Dutch ar­chi­tect Rem Kool­haas has la­belled a “generic city”: mal­leable enough to change its form with the times. This Pearl River Delta mega­lopo­lis is China’s rich­est city, hav­ing grown from 30,000 in­hab­i­tants in 1980 – when it was des­ig­nated the first spe­cial eco­nomic zone – to al­most 12 mil­lion to­day. With Shen­zhen’s mush­room­ing size comes bal­loon­ing am­bi­tion, be­cause Kool­haas’s generic city is now eye­ing de­vel­op­ments in art and de­sign.

On 2 De­cem­ber, De­sign So­ci­ety, an ini­tia­tive by China Mer­chants Group and London’s V&A, will open The Sea World Cul­ture and Arts Cen­tre, on the wa­ter­front in Shekou, a gen­tri­fy­ing district in western Shen­zhen. The cul­tural cen­tre’s de­sign is the brain­child of Pritzker Ar­chi­tec­ture prize-win­ner Fu­mi­hiko Maki and is an an­gu­lar white-and-glass be­he­moth, with can­tilevered lev­els, amid a land­scaped park. Its mis­sion: to be a light­ning rod for cut­ting-edge de­sign in China. Opening ex­hi­bi­tions will fo­cus on de­sign as a con­duit to an im­proved so­ci­ety – in­clud­ing Val­ues of De­sign in the V&A Gallery, which will show­case ex­hibits from the London mu­seum.

“Once the ‘fac­tory of the world’, Shen­zhen is now a metropo­lis with thou­sands of man­u­fac­tur­ers and de­sign com­pa­nies that share the am­bi­tion of mov­ing from a ‘made in China’ phase to the so-called ‘cre­ated in China’,” says Luisa Men­goni, head of the new V&A gallery. “There is a strong am­bi­tion at city level to make Shen­zhen a global player in the field of de­sign,” she adds.

Shen­zhen is “the birth­place of China’s mod­erni­sa­tion over the last 40 years”, says Ole Bouman, di­rec­tor of the Shekou De­sign Mu­seum, which is part of the cen­tre. In 2008, it was named a Unesco Cre­ative City of De­sign and each year hosts high-pro­file de­sign events, in­clud­ing De­cem­ber’s Shen­zhen Bi­en­nale for Ar­chi­tec­ture and Ur­ban­ism.

Shen­zhen’s other cre­ative zones in­clude the OCT Loft across town, a palm-stud­ded district of for­mer in­dus­trial build­ings turned con­tem­po­rary art park. Nearby is the space­ship-like OCT Cre­ative Ex­hi­bi­tion Cen­ter, show­ing land­mark ex­hi­bi­tions.

Fur­ther into the heart of Shen­zhen’s dense fi­nan­cial district is the just­com­pleted ne­o­fu­tur­is­tic, cloud­like Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art and Plan­ning Ex­hi­bi­tion, de­signed by Aus­trian ar­chi­tect firm Coop Him­mel­blau. Shen­zhen is now so de­sign-friendly it’s been cho­sen as the in­au­gu­ral des­ti­na­tion for a three-in-one Muji store, ho­tel and res­tau­rant – a spinoff of the Ja­panese home­ware brand – slated to open by the end of this year.

“By rais­ing ex­pec­ta­tions among the pub­lic on what de­sign can do for them, we in­tend to pro­vide a po­si­tion to­wards a more cre­ative China,” says Bouman. “De­sign in such a city has a dif­fer­ent role com­pared with de­sign in Mi­lan, London, or even Shang­hai. De­sign in Shen­zhen breathes an al­most ex­is­ten­tial drive.”

Shap­ing up nicely … the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art is a state­ment of in­tent

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