Buildings were constructed so close to one another that it gave rise to “handshake architecture.”

Unidentified Acts of Design: The Workers/Urban Villages from the Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

In just three decades, Shenzhen has grown from being a small fishing village of just 30,000 people into an economic powerhouse. It houses at least 11 million people today, many of them migrants from across China. (The count doesn’t include those living there undocumented). In that time, shopping malls have popped up and sleek skyscrapers have transformed the skyline—evidence of the city’s industrial success.

But hidden among the glimmering towers are more than 200 “urban villages,” neighborhoods that developed out of rural villages after Shenzhen was a made a Special Economic Zone in 1980. They’ve become homes for millions of migrants from the countryside seeking cheap rent.

As a recent video released by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London explains, urban villages are a form of “informal urbanization”—and until the early 2000s, they were never part of the city’s “urban master plan.” The video, which was first presented as part of a 2015 exhibit titled Unidentified Acts of Design, walks viewers through these villages.

The first generation of urban villages, built in the ‘80s, were constructed on 32-by-32-feet plots. They were two stories high and intended for private family use, Shenzhen-based urban ethnographer Mary Ann O’Donnell says in the video. As more migrants flocked to the city, usually without their children, urban villages transformed to provide more rental spaces.

This gave rise to a unique architectural form known as “handshake architecture.” Buildings constructed between 1992 and 2000 were placed so close to one another that neighbors could reach across the space and shake hands with their neighbors, says O’Donnell.

Apartment buildings, which were typically six stories high with four to five flats on each floor, were built for “high-density” usage, Fu Na, a researcher at the Shenzhen Design Center, says in the video. Each flat consisted of just one living room and one bedroom, or just one room altogether. They were simple in structure and uniform in design, with tiles running up the buildings’ exteriors and iron bars on the windows.

Commercial spaces were used for “mixed use” stores. “The main activity of small store might be a post office,  but at the same time they would sell [mobile phones] and mobile [phone] cards,” says Fu Na. “Water and fruit might be sold at the front.” Other spaces were used for manufacturing products such as computer chips.

As millions of migrants have continued settling into cities, urban villages have become crowded. Residency restrictions—or hukou—have made finding housing and public services a challenge for many, though the Chinese government has promised to ease those restrictions for the country’s 250 million migrants. And as CityLab previously reported, designers have also vowed to make life easier for those living on the “urban fringes,” with developments that apply a more “human-centered” approach.

Because, while neither migrants or urban villages are highlighted as main attractions in the city, they have been one of the major forces driving its economic development, designers in the video argue. And with China in the midst of largest migration in history, it can’t afford to ignore migrants. “Without urban villages,” says O’Donnell, “there would be no Shenzhen.”

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