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The only biennale of urbanism

An interview with Olé Bouman on the Shenzhen Biennale by Olena Grankina

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An interview with Ole Bouman

An interview by Olena Grankina

There is something different in the Shenzhen Biennale in comparison to others. It was founded in Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, the core of Chinese modernisation and it seems to be continuing the process of this modernisation. According to official sources, the goal of the Shenzhen Biennale is to forge the cultural dimension of the Zone by considering the theme of Urbanism and Urbanisation, which is probably a coherent step of modernisation in China. Taking this into account, the Biennale can be considered as a window into an unknown Chinese reality and even future. Its fifth season kicked off a few weeks ago. Headlined as “Urban Borders,” it’s curated by Ole Bouman, the well known architectural historian, curator, teacher, and editor.
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My planned Skype-​interview with Mr. Bouman unexpectedly turned to chat. It was evening in Moscow but dead of night in Shenzhen; the interview-​format seemed to be lost and even the roles were changed.

Are you from Ukraine?” Olé Bouman asked me, probably seeing my Skype-​status.
“Yes, I’m from Kiev”
“The place to be at the moment”
“Just came back from there this Sunday”
“I could interview you instead of the other way around. So much to ask.”
The talk turned to the latest events in Ukraine and gradually drifted to what is going on in Moscow and afterwards in Europe.

The current situation in Europe is more than familiar for him. Olé Bouman is a former director of the Netherlands Architectural Institute [NAI], the most powerful European architectural institution in the recent past. As he became a director, the NAI was abruptly transformed by an aspiration for new goals. Firstly, it turned from a close professional institution to a public space, which was announced to encourage citizens to visiting it. Secondly, a new virtual medium was created that has translated through special application of the NAI to other cities in Holland. Finally, Olé Bouman created a new agenda for the institute, partly reflected in the well known “Architecture as Consequence”, which is less focused on architectural expressions than on solving issues: food, health, energy, space, time, social cohesion and value creation. In 2013, the NAI been fused with the Netherlands Institute for Fashion and Design, and the Knowledge Institute for E-​Culture, becoming The New Institute. “NAI is no longer powerful”, said Bouman.

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Probably this feeling of dead structure and “clueless Europe” as he called it was also implemented in the Dutch pavilion curated by him at the last Venice Biennale in 2012. The pavilion building stood vacant for more than 40 years, being used for just three months per year. The idea was to reveal the existing potential of the space, its possible reuse and re-​set by transforming it into different spaces with mobile curtains. Thus, visitors were encouraged to experience the full potential of an empty building, an impulse that still awaits thousands of buildings and structures. “To breathe life into old foundations”.

To become better, better in life. Improving yourself, the only recent motivation that counts here. Many Chinese I work with are students, students of life”

This statement seems to be critical for the Shenzhen Biennale too. The main Biennale venue is an old glass factory in Shekou city, where the glass for modern Chinese buildings was manufactured at least ten years ago. This is the venue, but it’s also the content of the Biennale itself. A derelict industrial factory has been transformed into a cultural institution for a biennale program but not as a background for it. What is different to Venice in this transformation is the context of Chinese society, which is changing abruptly. “To become better, better in life. Improving yourself, the only recent motivation that counts here. Many Chinese I work with are students, students of life,” said Olé Bouman.

The Chinese experience is of course very different to what is going on in the West. To understand the social changes occurring one should also take into account the economical specifics. China has set itself several tasks, which are keeping the speed of economy growth high; job security; massive urbanisation; diversified modernisation of economy; and utilisation of free capital, which has been enormous since 1980 and the implementation of the Open Door Policy*. All these tasks can been realised by infrastructure construction. Thus, a kind of oversupply appears. A few years ago, China was thought of in the context of rapid growth and an enormous field for experiments and construction only, now it is also considered in terms of the spreading of “ghost cities”. Houses, districts, entire cities where nobody lives. The theme of the ‘Chinese bubble’ is broadly discussed. Olé Bouman does not consider it a crucial problem. He believes most building has happened in real cities with a real purpose and for real people. Existing speculation can be considered also as a form of anticipation if it is called forth to develop society. “If society changes the way it does in China, anticipation can be of all sorts including building for GDP as a goal in itself,” he said.

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Most Chinese suburb societies have changed immediately to urban. This process of urbanisation has only had a quantitative dimension. Thanks to land-​use reform, which made peasants owners of the land and enabled them to join together and sell land-​use rights to developers, villages have transformed into cities in days. Nearly 20 new cities per year have appeared on Chinese maps during recent decades. China has provided a new model of country modernisation, exporting it to Africa, Asia, and Turkey in particular. Nevertheless, “the Chinese modernisation has one ultimate and decisive argument to support it despite all weirdness and against all odds and that is that it has uplifted so many people out of poverty, exactly what cities have done for centuries,” explains Olé Bouman. “The city as a place of emancipation and personal growth. This makes the Chinese urban experiment so much more serious compared to Dubai, new Baku, and other fossil fueled pop-​up cities.” Now is the moment when the process of urbanisation has turned to a qualitative direction and this is what Olé Bouman means with changes. “There is a kind of new ambition to deepen this quantitative progress and create a more mature civic society.”

The city as a place of emancipation and personal growth. This makes the Chinese urban experiment so much more serious compared to Dubai, new Baku, and other fossil fueled pop up cities”

Shekou, the location of the Biennale, is a good point in this case. A former industrial zone aspires to become a new cultural one. Using this ambition, Olé Bouman has “breathed new life into old foundations”. He achieved it in a few steps. In his vision, the derelict glass factory, which was the symbol of the Special Economic Zone* in the past, is celebrating new values as a core of a new Special Cultural Zone. The factory is the property of China Merchants Group. This company was supposed to be a sponsor of the Biennale but Bouman’s team has considered them as investors and this was the second step to achieve the goal. The venue itself is not just a building for a curator. Very often venues of biennales or festivals are there to provide a background for the programme that people come for. “But this time the container has become content itself. The background becomes the foreground. To cherish existing qualities, to provide a wonderful architecture tour, to re-​set and re-​charge an almost timeless construction, can be seen as a key component of the show”, the curator says. After the glass factory had been preserved and it qualities celebrated, Bouman invited its new residents, Value Factory programme partners. They are from all over the world, featuring globally famous museums, schools, offices, design labels and culture centres such as the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), MAXXI, OMA, Droog Design, International Architecture Biennale of São Paulo, MIT, MoMA New York, the Berlage, and also several Shenzhen local organisations. With their very diverse activities, they will activate the Value Factory from the very beginning. Their work will not finish with the end of the Biennale. The Value factory is an institution that has been “conceived, designed and programmed to last much longer than the Biennale’s duration of three months”. The last step toward the Special Cultural Zone, which Olé Bouman laid out, is future society input. On the road from Shekou city towards the very urban border where the venues are, he asks visitors to “find how much more is waiting for ideas and courage to follow suit. Places where value is created, where culture can be made, where people can have profound experiences of timeless architectural qualities, where they can meet and share, where China meets the world and both sides can look in each other’s mirror, where experiment prevails.”

The chat time was over, Olé Bouman logged out. I reread the saved story. There was a paradox. Claiming “borders” as a theme, the Shenzhen Biennale has no borders itself. In fact, it’s not limited in time or to any locations. Because it is directed into the future.