The 7th Bi-City Biennale of UrbanismArchitecture: an Interview with Curator Hou Hanru

by Mara Sartore
December 4, 2017
Mara Sartore

The Bi-City Biennale of UrbanismArchitecture (UABB), held in Shenzhen, China opens its 7th edition on December 15th, 2017. It is the only exhibition in the world to explore issues of urbanization and architectural development within China and around the world, creating a unique experience for its audience.

This year UABB embarks on a new journey, holding its first ever art exhibition, directed by co-curator Hou Hanru, together with Liu Xiaodu and Meng Yan, and opening new grounds in the art design world. The theme, “Cities, Grow in Difference”, will explore the future development of urban villages and their place among the rapidly developing cities of China, while communicating an understanding of “coexistence”.

Mara Sartore:  This year UABB holds its first ever art exhibition with theme, “Cities, Grow in Difference”. This is exploring the future development of urban villages and their place among the rapidly developing cities of China. Could you tell us more about this concept and how did you get to this curatorial idea?

Hou Hanru: This has to do with a few elements and conditions, namely the local level research and macro level research.
On the local level, there has been a long lasting debate over the issue of urban village and an urgency to deal with the related social concerns. This debate has been reflected in previous biennale but there has been no systematic consistency. Also, the investigation has been more theoretical and conceptual ideas. There has been lack of real actions. We believe this time is an important opportunity to develop the debate in a more systematic manner and to test out the idea of how to negotiate with this situation, rather than utilizing the old fashion official approach of urban planning. Instead, we want to deal with this issue with innovation, renovation and transformation.
In a larger perspective, a macro one, we are looking at a global phenomenon as the formation of urban village has not only been happening in China and also across the rest of the world. We are facing excessive urban expansion where the typical model to deal with it is the method of tabula-rasa. It tends to erase the past and replace historical districts with new projects. This provokes a lot of problems as it creates a radical transformation of the social structure and its social tissues. This has also provoked a lot of protests. Watching the city from a historical perspective, one can see there has been an ecology that erodes with time. Also it erodes with improvement of human conditions. By taking this perspective, it allows us to deal with the issue of urban villages in a much more intelligent and human way. What is most important to this debate is to understand what is the definition of a good city. It should be the one that maintains and encourages diversity, a multiplicity of cultures, people, social structures, values, and individual freedoms. Bottom-up, grassroots voices can be heard and expressed and implemented facing the imposition of top-down planning. This will create a city that is a live body and not a frozen and dead one.
The opportunity of the biennale allows us to look at this dynamics from both the local and global perspectives.
Which model of urban development is the correct model? This becomes a central debate. However, we tend to not embrace one single “correct model”. We want to understand and promote diversity and difference rather than uniformity. This should be the starting point of looking at this question.
The living condition of Nantou village is a great opportunity that our partners URBANUS and us the art team are interested in. The exhibition project is hence turned into a direct intervention in the place, a laboratory for exploration for a healthy and human model of future city development.

M.S.: UABB 2017 focuses on urbanization and architectural development within China and around the world, aiming to raise awareness on this issue. How do you manage to engage the public into this social cause?

H.H.: Working in a village in the city is not simply trying to explore a different typology of urban space and buildings. Instead, it has more to do with the society and its people. An Urban village is a place consisting of many different people, communities and social classes. They are all concentrated in one place for the reasons of survival in a new city like Shenzhen and settling down here for all kinds of economic, political, social and cultural motivations. Many are here for transitional reasons. They are migrant workers and students looking for places to live on their arrival in the city. This brings an interesting dynamics which is much more diverse and rich as compared to other areas of the city. Other parts of the city tend to become increasingly divided into isolated social groups according to their income level, educational level and social levels. Here we can see an interesting landscape of different people gathering in this crucial moment of transition. As such, they are all in survival mode and are “forced” to be more creative, intelligent and dynamic. This movement has generated much folk wisdom and freedom of the mind. They can provide the best grass-root, bottom-up approaches to deal with urban transformation. They are inspirations for many innovative projects.
We are bringing many projects that not only deal with the issues that happen in the area, but also try to interact with the inhabitants. Several projects that are a part of the biennale organize collaborations with the local people, from dancing workshops, construction workshops, mural paintings and of course educational workshops. We have also developed a whole series of events that engage them as an active part of the Biennale.

M.S: Could you anticipate some of the projects that we will be seeing in the exhibition? Any specific project you enjoyed the most?

H.H.: Well that certainly is a difficult question to answer as all our projects are exciting. We have developed projects of different levels and approaches, roughly separated into 3 blocks, architecture, urban, and art. Each block has its own focus while overlapping with each other in both concepts and forms.
Dealing with the concept of the South, it looks mainly at the typology of architecture and urbanism related to the concept of global south. The global South is more than just a geographical notion, but also a geo-social and geopolitical notion that provides us with a new perspective beyond the division of the East and the West, modern and tradition. This new notion of the South signifies an innovative orientation of looking at the tensions between urbanization and social transformation in relation to ecological issues. This further invites us to deal with a specifically local issue as one looks at migration and people in movement as well as their impact on the transformation of the city.
It will also bring in a focused chapter on the conditions that the Hakka face. We look into the cultural roots of Hakka, or migration at large, while also investigating it as a global phenomenon that has not only occurred in the past but also in the present. It will also look at how the new Hakka is bringing in a new circulation of people, ideas, social relationships and a new type of city life.
The previous biennales have had a focus on theoretical and conceptual studies of architecture and urbanism, resembling a typical architectural biennale, but this year we have introduced an entire section of artistic projects.
This art section focuses more on actions, coming up with a complex structure of different levels of interventions with investigations of street life as the core.
At the conceptual level, we present a series of installations and video works which reflect how artists use the streets as a site of creation, dealing with questions of from personal freedom in public spaces to playing games, from political manifestations to community building. Physically, we have decided to preserve the original condition of the factory building, as a site specific presentation to remind us of the original situation and to provide a particular context for this discussion.
The second section, we introduce installation, mural paintings, multimedia works and performative actions into the streets of Nantou. This will also extend into other off-sites areas, such as other urban villages. This will also extend to other areas such as Dawan Hakka round house (being redeveloped by OACT) and Design Society in Shenkou. This will turn the exhibition into a more direct confrontation with even more complex conditions in the city.
We also have relatively permanent interventions in the village to generate relatively long lasting social communities surrounding the projects. Such as the ongoing workshops, food courts, school education programs and so on. They are closely inserted into everyday life situations. This would be a long-lasting process throughout UABB and we hope that some of them will remain after the biennale as permanent structures for the urban village.

M.S.: The main exhibition will span across the whole Shenzhen city and will also include three sub-venues. How did you develop the path of the event within the different venues located all around the city?

H.H.:  One of the key elements here is collaboration. We have a main curatorial team which is more focused on the urban village of Nantou as the main venue, but we also have collaborations with other villages and other organisations across the city. Locally initiated projects in other cities provide singular possibilities. Together they are creating a whole network across the city. We also have a very important element, the collaboration with the Hong Kong architecture and art communities. The Hong Kong part of UABB has its own organization for this event. The organization has been relatively independent, with regular meetings and exchanges with the Shenzhen team, we have built a system that works across two cities. We have also extended a part of this collaboration to other parts of the region, especially around Guangzhou, working with different institutions to present the ecology of the creative community over there in relation to the urban transformation in the area. This network is an lively and ongoing one, a process.

M.S.: What do you think about the relationship between art and architecture, which in the last years has been more and more engaging? Which is your perspective for example on the Venice Architecture Biennale and its link to the contemporary art scene? Do you find something similar in this edition of UABB?

H.H.: This is a really big question and it is hard to give a general definition of that as art and architecture have been very closely intertwined and even existing as one entity in history, with intermittent periods of emphasize on their respective autonomy. In UABB, we are looking into the possibility of inventing new forms of trans-disciplinary practice. Namely, this means we are working with creators, people who have created new ideas and practices that deal with not only one discipline but many other things; using architecture as a structural force and art as a cultural, humanistic and spatial expression, like a flux at once penetrating and evading the boundary of the stabilized urban space.
As to the question of the Venice Biennale, it is difficult for me to answer the question of expectation as I do not know much about the upcoming Venice Architecture Biennale. But from the previous few Biennales, there is a continuous common understanding of what challenges that cities and urbanization might face.
From the attempts to revisit modernity, as seen in Rem Koolhaas’ biennale, to the last one exploring informal architecture and urban ecology, one can see the evolution of global discourses on architectural and urban researches. The Shenzhen Biennale is very closely and organically related to this discussion which has now become a global concern. We are now part of the global force and we have a unique context which the Venice Biennale doesn’t, a real urban condition that we can practice, perform and build on, whereas the Venice Biennale still remains as an exhibition. we are becoming a real field of experimentation, a laboratory and a site of construction.

M.S.: What do you think about the contemporary art scene in Shenzhen? As curator, what would you suggest to an art lover to visit?

H.H.: Again, this is a very big question as Shenzhen has seen a great development over the last 30 years, not only as a city but also as a place developing large cultural infrastructures. Some of the earliest contemporary art institution buildings in China took place here, as seen from the He Xiangning Art Museum, the OCAT Sculpture Biennale, the Ink Art Biennale. They are pioneers of sorts. We are also seeing a wave of design boom. Design is now considered a brand of the city. Hua Museum, the Design Society and so on are the best examples. And of course the UABB itself as the most important urban and architectural event also serves as an important driving force to create a innovative cultural sphere in the city. We can also see more and more young artists gathering in Shenzhen, making it into their own base. Other than UABB, there is another Shenzhen Art Biennale which is more focused on art. However, more importantly it is less about the infrastructures but more about the issues that we generate in Shenzhen. Being a special economic zone in which some of the earliest experiments of introducing new models of economic production such as textile and electronics industries were implemented in, and now the ambition to transform Shenzhen into a Chinese silicon valley. Hence, Shenzhen provides artists with not only the highbrow and fancy issues of aesthetic pleasure but also intense questions of labour, population and the future of work. All these are central to our Biennale as we try and deal with them. There is a chapter in the art section that looks specifically at the question of labour, the future market of work, and of human society surrounding the question of the new labour situation. Along with a forward looking ambition, this provides the art community with intense but natural topics to negotiate with. We expect to see artists coming up with fantastic works about this.

M.S.: Which are your hopes and expectations after the biennial?

H.H.: I hope that the Biennale continues, evolves and becomes something that is inevitably a part of the everyday life of the people there, especially the young people.

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