An Architectural Laboratory in Southern China

by Natalia Echeverri and Ivan Valin



Shenzhen, a booming city north of Hong Kong, has become a testing ground for architects and designers around the world. From wacky streetscapes to major civic and commercial buildings to high-profile master plans, the city is flourishing with design. It has its own Art and Architectural Biennale, and in 2009 it became the first city in China to be designated as a UNESCO "City of Design."

Well known international architects — from Rem Koolhaas/OMA and Steven Holl to Field Operations, BIG, Massimiliano Fuksas, Work A.C., and Meccano — have projects planned or underway. The architecture is usually outrageous: complex structures and unconventional forms that require clients dedicated to the patronage of contemporary architecture. It is the kind of work students of architecture make pilgrimages to see.


Steven Holl's Vanke Center is sold as a "horizontal skyscraper as long as the Empire State Building is tall." The mixed-use building, which includes a hotel, service apartments, and offices, removes the ubiquitous commercial podium and allows vegetated landscape to occupy the entire site. Most of the building seems to float on glass and steel piers. As public space, the open ground provides direct connections from the city to the adjacent lake. To achieve this largely open ground, Holl uses a long-span structural system more common in bridges. The result is an unusual but impressive architectural space that unfolds in dramatic ways. Holl realizes ideas that had been simmering in his sketchbook for years, but that were always too impractical to build. This project can also be read as a revival of 1950s and 1960s modernism.

Shenzhen, until now, was the city of imitation. Tourist go to buy fake Gucci bags and Polo shirts or visit theme parks like Windows of the World and Splendid China, where the main attractions are miniature imitations of other global tourist centers. But Shenzhen is also a city that never stops reinventing itself. As a "City of Design," it is making convincing moves toward becoming a center of creativity and cultural sophistication, following in the footsteps of cities like Barcelona, Berlin, and Rotterdam. We hope this phase proves lasting.


Credits: Photos by Natalia Echeverri and Ivan Valin.

+ share