It took less than four decades for this onetime fishing village on the Pearl River Delta to transform itself into southern China’s manufacturing hub. Now one of the largest cities in the country, can Shenzhen achieve the same success as a center of design?
“A vast expanse of luxuriant urban forest” has a strange ring to it—I’m not sure whether I should be enthralled or appalled at the notion. It’s the opening line of a promotional video produced by the Shenzhen city government almost eight years ago, around the same time the southern Chinese metropolis was designated a UNESCO City of Design. Considering some of the other burgs on the organization’s list—Berlin, Montreal, Saint-Étienne, Seoul—Shenzhen seems an unexpected choice for UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network. But is it any less deserving?
According to the promo video, no! Packed full of state-sponsored hyperbole, it renders the city a breathtaking utopia, “full of vitality and vigor.” That’s a far cry from how most people might regard what is China’s southern manufacturing hub and one of the busiest ports in the world—“full of factories” is probably closer to the mark. But there’s no doubting the local government’s ambition to transform Shenzhen from the city at the end of the Chinese production line to the country’s design capital.
If that sounds like a pipe dream, consider that this is a place that has metamorphosed from fishing village to megacity in less than 35 years. The metropolitan government has to navigate the convoluted bureaucracy of the Chinese Communist Party yet is afforded a degree of freedom. That’s thanks, in part, to Shenzhen’s status as a Special Economic Zone (the city was named China’s first SEZ in 1979). But it also touches on the old Chinese saying “heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” And while Shenzhen struggles to match the verve and aestheticism of Helsinki or Seoul, there’s something abuzz in the city that designers will tell you is starting to make it stand out.
“Twenty years ago, the first time I visited, I thought Shenzhen was the absolute worst city I’d ever been to,” says Tom Verebes, the creative director of Hong Kong–based design consultancy Ocean CN. “But it’s changed immeasurably and is turning into a really interesting place.” Verebes, who is also an associate professor of architecture at the University of Hong Kong, works regularly on projects in mainland China. That includes Shenzhen, where his firm helped develop a 79-square-kilometer swath of land around the city’s latest showpiece, its US$1.4 billion airport terminal. “In contrast to Hong Kong, they [the Shenzhen government] seem to have a focus on putting Shenzhen on the map as a creative hub. I think they are quite forward-looking,” he says.
Home to more than 15 million people, Shenzhen is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, its population swollen over the past few decades by migrant Chinese workers. But more recently, the city has welcomed a new kind of immigrant. “All sorts of artists and more creative disciplines and practices are moving to Shenzhen because it’s really emerged as the center of those industries in southern China,” Verebes says. “That includes a lot of Hong Kong designers, advertising firms, and architects who now have offices in Shenzhen as well.”
Urbanus, one of China’s leading architecture firms, chose Shenzhen for its headquarters back in 1999. Says Tat Lam, head of the company’s in-house research studio, “The atmosphere in Shenzhen—especially the political system—is quite different from Shanghai and Beijing, more open. Here, the government’s Planning Bureau takes a very proactive role in urban design. They are all very professional people who have trained as engineers, and a lot of them have PhDs.”
The fruits of their efforts are perhaps best showcased by the OCT-Loft arts district. Just 10 years ago, drab factories with smoking chimneys dominated the 15-hectare industrial site in eastern Shenzhen. Now, thanks to a government initiative, it has been converted into a precinct dedicated to leisure and creativity. One Saturday morning, the first sunshine of spring adds to the warmth and energy buzzing throughout OCT-Loft’s galleries, studios, restaurants, and cafés, where it’s the sound of grinding coffee, not grinding machinery, that fills the air. In a French bakery, delighted day-trippers snap pastry pictures on their phones, no doubt posting them straight to Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform. A pop-up market provides a showcase for young designers, bursting with enthusiasm, to promote their work. Purple-haired cosplayers perch on benches in their unrelenting pursuit of the perfect pose.