Why the Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale Rejected Sustainability as a Theme

Event curator Terence Riley on the role of architecture in urbanism and the commercialization of green

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Hong Kong & Shenzhen Biennale

Architecture creates cities. Cities create architecture. That’s the argument behind the 2011 Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture, which opened earlier this month in Shenzhen, China, and runs until mid-February. The exhibition features installations and projects focusing on cities and architectural design, looking deeply at the changing role of urban spaces and their importance in the creation of cultural vibrancy and vitality. Curator Terence Riley fielded questions via email about this year's event, its intentions and the meaning behind its broad theme.

How does the Biennale embrace or build on the idea that architecture and urbanism are interdependent?

In a very literal way, the interdependence is reflected in the structure of the Biennale, where exhibitions of urban planning are paired closely with exhibitions of architecture. Ultimately, however, this is a philosophical and polemical position that is better communicated by reading between the lines. That is, what is included and what is not. You will notice the lack of emphasis on what might be called the 'natural' landscape. Nor any focus on the sort of tabula rasa design that typified urban planning and architecture a generation ago.

What role does decline play in the Biennale? In what ways are the changing natures of declining cities — unsuccessful cities, some might say — put into context in a rapidly urbanizing age focused primarily on growth?

If you were to apply the 'circle of life' notion to cities, decline would be as important as growth. Rather than focusing on decline, however, we have chosen to look at strategies that ameliorate decline. The projects by Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, where they transform distressed neighborhoods with social empowerment and a lot of paint, are a good example of this attitude. Rather than limit their participation to photographs of past successes, we convinced the Shenzhen government to give them a site to transform. In other examples, both the exhibition sponsored by the Chilean government and that designed by the Chengdu architect Jiakun Liu recast the role of architect as a responder to crises (in both cases, earthquakes) rather than as the agent of commercial expansion.

How do the exhibits explore the concept of sustainability in cities — both as a legitimate movement and as a superficial label?

We rejected the word 'sustainability' in considering the theme for this Biennale. It is too important to be used, as it currently is, as a label to sell products, most of which are inherently unsustainable. As a practice today, sustainability also focuses on numbers. We chose to emphasize vitality, which, I believe, incorporates sustainability as well as a number of other less quantifiable issues. This attitude guided all the decisions we made about the Biennale.

What is quality of life in cities, and how is it changing?

"Quality of life" is the indefinable calculus that has been used by the hundreds of millions of people that have moved from the countryside to cities in the last 50 years. While this incredible migration has uncountable motivations, I would expect that virtually all of them could be categorized under the headings of Love and Money, or both.

What importance do you think this Biennale has to China as both the setting and as a hotbed of citymaking and urban development today?

A little reflection goes a long way when you are planning cities at the rate and scale that is currently defining urban growth in China.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.