Web Exclusive: Learning from Shenzhen

In early 2017, fellow Vancouverites Fang Liu, Kevin Pan and I (Nicholas Waissbluth) were invited to participate in the inaugural Under-40 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Architecture Conference and Workshop in Shenzhen, China. Hosted by the Architectural Society of China, the event brought together 40 young architects and facilitators representing China, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Singapore, and Canada.

Over five days, the group toured, explored, questioned and offered innovative new ideas for one of the world’s fastest growing cities. As attendees, we left with many takeaways—none more important than reaffirming the need of integrating cultural diversity, knowledge exchange and new technologies into the architectural process.

In Canada, we understand development and growth on one scale, but a visit to Shenzhen quickly showcases how such cities require different strategies. Shenzhen’s population has grown 4% annually since the early the 2000s, while in the 1990s the growth rate was almost 19%. For reference, 4% would be the equivalent of an additional 100,000 citizens coming to metro Vancouver every year. Our current rate is just over 30,000.

As an architect in Vancouver, I hear a lot about how global cities reference our urban planning strategies—yet this event made it increasingly evident that the younger generation of Canadian architects, urban planners and designers can learn a great deal from Asia. This is especially true as as our new urban centres continue to densify at higher rates, and we struggle with how to accommodate housing needs, traffic infrastructure, public services and economic growth, while simultaneously maintaining a sense of innovation so that our cities don’t retain static identities.

The conference began with an opening ceremony and series of lectures held at offices of Huasen Architectural & Engineering Design Consultants, one of the city’s largest studios. We learned about the history of the city, new strategies and developments to cope with the ever-expanding technology industry, and plans to improve public space. Of greatest interest was a presentation on population growth—specifically on the the city’s need to accommodate the increasing independence of the younger generation and, as a result, the housing needs for an older generation who had traditionally lived with their children. The ongoing economic growth of the city in technology and engineering, as well as its proximity to Hong Kong, has attracted young citizens from all over the country. Today, the average age of Shenzhen residents is 28-29 years old. This migration has had a major effect in family culture. Cities throughout China, Shenzhen inclusive, are now exploring the concept of senior residences and how to integrate these typologies into their urban masterplans.

Participants from China, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Singapore, and Canada

In response to the changes happening in the city, the group was divided into 8 teams (each with five architects and one facilitator). Each group was assigned to explore, design and develop an architectural proposal that responded to a unique context and theme. Over 72 hours, each group was hosted by a different architectural studio, and given access to the resources of the office—3D-printers, plotters, drones, model shop and meeting rooms—to create a three-panel visual presentation, along with models and videos, to be shown to a jury of national and international architects on the final day of the conference.

Fang was selected to work on project titled Bao’on 1990, which looked at the redevelopment of a cultural complex, Kevin was a facilitator for the group exploring Shekou Old Town, and I was a part of a team called Castles in the Air that looked at the Oct-Loft district of the city.

Aerial view of Oct-Loft

At first glance, Oct-Loft appears to be a collection of abandoned warehouses filled in with wild trees. In reality, this neighbourhood is home to some of the biggest design studios in the city, including Aube and Urbanus, galleries, local manufacturing for designers, and a space where builders can create full-scale mock-ups of façadess and test concrete formwork systems and finishes. The district has some similarities to Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, however the Oct-Loft district is more of a commercial design district. Since 2003, Urbanus has been responsible for overseeing the revitalization of this former industrial park and has been successful in creating an important landmark for Shenzhen. Our team was asked to explore what was missing from this increasingly popular district.

Concept Diagram

Central connection from ground to rooftop level

How does one improve a place that is considered to be “done” and is already filled with successful cafés, restaurants, businesses and manufacturers? The three-day workshop was filled with sketches, long conversations and debates about tourism, local economies and architecture. The group focused on the roof plane of the existing warehouses, where we proposed a new landscape connecting the dozen buildings. Working in the offices of Aube Architecture for three days, we explored the rooftops of the district in-person and used drones to understand their greater context in terms of massing, perspectives and landmarks. While movement was the guiding factor in laying out the program for the new landscape, the architectural expression of the proposal focused on integrating ecological systems and modular construction strategies, while creating nodes to enhance the visual connection between the ground plane and new roof-level environment.

Concept Diagram for Baoan. Neighbourhood and landmark connections.

Fang Liu and her team developed a project that responded to a much more urban context: the Baoan neighbourhood of the city. The group was challenged to  develop an urban revitalization proposal that would include a library, cultural centre, concert hall and public space that would allow for different types of events to take place. The five team members, working within the studio of Hong Kong Huayi Design Consultants, developed a project responding to in-depth site analysis, community engagement with stakeholders in Baoan, and the traffic flows and pedestrian movement (above and below ground) throughout the historical neighbourhood. The result is a design that balances new and old, where formal gestures connect historic landmarks, while the layout of new public walkways and plazas create a stronger social environment where the public can gather, celebrate and move freely between various cultural nodes.

Aerial view of proposal for Baoan

Central plaza of Baoan, proposal rendering.

On the final day, conference members and invited guests reconvened for presentations. Taking place in the large gathering space within the office of Capol International, the jury included Meng Jianmin from the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE); Zhuang Weimin, Dean of the School of Architecture at Tsinghua University; Liu Fuyi, Secretary-General of The Civil Engineering and Architectural Society; Zhang Baiping, Executive Vice Secretary-General from the Architectural Society of China (ASC); Larry Ng Lye Hock from the Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority and John Van de Water from Next Architects (Netherlands).

Final Presentations. Fang Liu and her team for “Baoan 1990”

It was remarkable to see what each group was able to produce in 72 hours. Beyond preparing three panels and a 10-minute visual presentation, a few teams, like Fang Liu and the Baonan group produced an impressive five-minute animation, while others made scale models of their proposals. A few teams remained very conceptual in their ideas, while others were on the other end of the spectrum in creating feasible projects. As the organization committee explained to us at the opening ceremony, the goal of the workshop was to stimulate new ideas between architects from various cultural backgrounds, and the final presentations proved that collaboration is one of the most important ways to tackle difficult questions.

Conferences of all formats have always been a great way to connect with professionals, and the 2017 Shenzhen International Conference was a starting point in developing greater connections for young architects working the Asia-Pacific region. My experience differs a lot from Kevin and Fang, as both were born and raised in China, whereas I was on the only english speaking member of my team. We are fortunate to be in a profession where drawing is universal and technology has evolved to a point where it can help facilitate communication and create a rich dialogue.

Fang Liu is an Architect at W.T. Leung Architects; Kevin Pan is an Architect and Senior Project Manager at Fraser Health, and Nicholas Waissbluth is an Architect and Principal of Waissbluth Architecture.

The workshop organizers are creating a publication of the conference with an anticipated publication date of late summer 2017.