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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

What is Shenzhen?

“What is Shenzhen?”  This was the question asked of us this morning before heading out for the day.  While many of us recognized various urban conditions and critiqued the city from an economic and political stance, we struggled to address a critical aspect that helps define any and all cities; its cultural identity.  After nearly a week in Shenzhen, it is fair to say that we have not experienced a fair amount of the city’s “culture”, which left us asking questions of our own.  In particular, what issues are influencing this apparent lack of cultural identity, and how has the development of Shenzhen fostered this condition?

The rate of development is one major factor to consider.  It takes as little as a couple years for new developments to move from the design phase to completion in Shenzhen, a rate nearly ten times faster than that of the United States in some cases.  Because of this rapid pace, existing developments are quickly becoming obsolete.   As we have seen, the political and economic powers at play waste no time in demolishing these older developments, some less than a decade mature, to make way for new financial high-rises, government institutions and residential towers.  Unfortunately, many of these developments that are being destroyed are rooted in the initial culture of the city, which is now only found in the small-pocket “urban villages” of Shenzhen.  These were born from farmers who converted their land into housing developments to profit from the influx of migrant workers once Shenzhen began to grow.  Unsurprisingly, the fabric of these urban villages is much more culturally vibrant than the Americanized city grid in which our design project and hotel is centered.  Consequently, it is becoming increasingly harder for Shenzhen to retain this original culture, and furthermore hold on to an identity, if it is continually being replaced by new development.

It is also important to consider the physical growth of the city and its affect on Shenzhen’s identity crisis.  In particular, we can examine the prevalence of land reclamation.  Each year, several miles of infill is added to Shenzhen’s coast, and developed at the rapid pace mentioned above.   However, if we consider the standard supply-and-demand model for rationalizing the need for new development, Shenzhen exemplifies the opposite.  Here, there is an excess of supply before there is demand.  Developments are green-lighted with the economic assumption that they will be occupied.  Because of this, the so-called “threshold of development” is ever pushing outwards onto newer and newer reclaimed land.  In its wake are left the fledgling developments that are only a year or two behind, most of which haven’t had the time to establish a cultural foundation, or strengthen a citywide identity.  Time then becomes a critical dimension from which to analyze this condition.  As Walter Benjamin states in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to the history which it has experienced.  Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter.”  Without time to establish the history of such a development in the face of reproducing new multiples, cultural authenticity cannot take hold, and therefore the fabric cannot retain a cultural identity.

Ultimately, our original question of, “What is Shenzhen?” still remains unanswered.  Perhaps the cultural identity of this city is not as accessible as we have witnessed elsewhere.  Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong’s cultures were more easily identifiable, and physically prevalent within the fabric that we explored.  Maybe our observations of a city devoid of cultural identity are correct, and merely strengthen the argument that Shenzhen is too young to possess one, or too development driven to allow for one.  Or maybe we just aren’t looking hard enough.  Hopefully, we can shed more light on this answer with more investigation in the coming days.

Alex

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. New York, NY: Classic America, 2009. Print.

Filed under: About, China, Culture, Identity, Reclamation, Shenzhen, Urban Village

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Director:
Andrew Liang
Instructors:
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Students:
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu