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    Can China’s Skyscraper Capital Come Down to Earth?

    For decades, Shenzhen has adopted a brash approach to turning itself into a global hub: the bigger, faster, and more ostentatious, the better. Can the same approach make it a cultural center?

    Last July, China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission issued a notice banning the construction of buildings taller than 500 meters. The document, which marked the formal end of China’s skyscraper boom, had ramifications for cities across the country. But perhaps no city was more affected than the southern metropolis of Shenzhen.

    One of China’s youngest cities, Shenzhen’s rise began when the central government named it one of the country’s first special economic zone in 1980. In the four decades since, it has grown from a sleepy agricultural border town across the Sham Chum River from Hong Kong into one of the world’s largest megacities. Home to some 20 million people, it is almost synonymous with the success of China’s “reform and opening-up” period.

    The city’s ambitious approach to development is reflected in its built environment. Separated from Hong Kong by only a narrow river, the contrast between Shenzhen’s poverty and Hong Kong’s prosperity stimulated Chinese leaders’ ambitions for reform in the early 1980s. Forty years on, the stagnant northern reaches of Hong Kong pale in comparison to the rows of gleaming high-rises on the Sham Chum River’s northern bank. The unprecedentedly rapid development of Shenzhen — summed up in the expression “Shenzhen speed” — seems to offer visible proof of the efficiency of China’s socialist system relative to the “capitalist world” across the river.

    Given the city’s relatively small geographic footprint, it was natural that Shenzhen’s planners would build upward. Practical considerations aside, however, many Shenzhen officials also associated skyscrapers with progress and material development and were correspondingly eager to break ground on new landmarks.

    China’s first multi-use super high-rise building, the Shenzhen International Trade Center, was completed in 1985. The speed with which the building was finished — construction moved at the pace of one floor every three days — stunned observers both inside and outside China. Before long, “Shenzhen height” was added to the lexicon alongside “Shenzhen speed.”

    When Deng Xiaoping travelled to Shenzhen to try and relaunch China’s stagnating reforms in 1992, he chose the International Trade Center as the venue for a key speech. Looking out over Shenzhen and Hong Kong from a revolving restaurant on the building’s 49th floor, China’s paramount post-Mao leader told the assembled crowd that, “Those who do not promote reform should be brought down from their leadership positions.”

    With Deng’s formal endorsement, Shenzhen redoubled its commitment to economic development. Along with the local manufacturing economy, the city’s property market also took off: In Luohu District, the Shenzhen government held China’s first international tender for land use rights, which was won by a Hong Kong-based firm for a then-record $140 million. The resulting 384-meter-tall Shun Hing Square is known locally as the “Land King Building,” due in part to the record-high price of the land it was built on. Completed in 1996, Shun Hing Square immediately became a Shenzhen landmark — dominating views of the city from Hong Kong. Construction also set a record for “Shenzhen speed”: a floor was completed every two and a half days.

    Since then, the city has continuously pushed the limits of “Shenzhen height” upward. The city’s 592.5-meter Ping An Finance Center, completed in 2017, is currently the second tallest building in China. After work on the structure was completed, Shenzhen was home to 12 of the 144 buildings around the world over 200 meters in height — more than any other city. That same year, Shenzhen’s GDP surpassed Hong Kong’s for the first time.

    Higher and faster seemed to be written into Shenzhen’s genes. However, even before the central government’s ban on buildings over 500 meters, there were questions about the sustainability of the city’s development model. As more and more Chinese cities built their own skyscrapers, Shenzhen’s weaknesses in other areas have been exposed. In particular, compared with its towering economic success, Shenzhen is widely regarded as a cultural desert. Statistics show that Shenzhen lags far behind other major cities in China in terms of cultural venues like museums, galleries, libraries, exhibition halls, theaters, cinemas, and bookstores.

    As with any upstart city, Shenzhen’s rapid accumulation of wealth has led to criticisms that it is “uncultured,” “unsophisticated,” and “nouveau riche.” The city is sensitive to these accusations. As far back as the early 1980s, Shenzhen constructed eight major cultural and sporting facilities, including the Shenzhen Museum, Shenzhen Grand Theater and Shenzhen Sports Center. Around the turn of the millennium, Shenzhen again set its sights on becoming a “famed cultural city.” However, these efforts failed to fundamentally alter the city’s cultural landscape.

    Now it’s trying again. Less than two years after the Ping An Finance Center was completed, the Shenzhen municipal government announced a major plan to build “10 new cultural landmarks,” which were to be “world-class, landmark facilities capable of representing the city’s image.” Just over two years later, in March 2021, the winning designs for what city officials now called Shenzhen’s “10 Cultural Facilities of the New Era” were unveiled.

    These facilities represent an attempt to rethink not only Shenzhen’s cultural positioning, but also its architectural style. But while pushing the boundaries of “Shenzhen height” is no longer the city’s sole focus, the preference for bigger and faster remains.

    Shenzhen’s “10 Cultural Facilities of the New Era” are designed by some of the world’s leading architectural firms, including Pritzker Prize-winners Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and SANAA. But according to Feng Guochuan, whose company is collaborating with the German firm KSP Jürgen Engel Architekten on the new Shenzhen Art Museum, the bidding process’ short timeline posed challenges. In an interview last year, Feng complained about vague design parameters, which left bidders unclear as to who would actually use the facilities and what would be displayed inside them. In some cases, the architectural designs for building were selected even before the curatorial teams of the institutions they were meant to house were assembled.

    Motivated by the city’s competitive approach to developing cultural venues, architects from all over the world unleashed their imaginations, submitting bold, eye-catching works. But when the building is the real draw, the work of the curatorial teams charged with filling these facilities becomes more challenging, as they must adjust the content of their exhibitions to architects’ often highly personal styles. The characteristic “Shenzhen speed” with which the bids were solicited and chosen, meanwhile, could cause financial or operational problems in the long run.

    In contrast, Hong Kong, which shares Shenzhen’s ambition of becoming a cultural hub, conducted extensive public consultations and undertook a lengthy planning process for future exhibitions before constructing its highly anticipated M+ Museum. The Suzhou Museum, although designed by the acclaimed architect I.M. Pei, is a work of simplicity that fits rather than upends the ancient city’s construction style. Even Shanghai, which has built several major cultural buildings of its own in recent years, including the Museum of Art Pudong and West Bund Museum, has generally adopted more restrained and low-key designs. In all three cities, architectural considerations were subjugated to questions of economics, quality of exhibition spaces, and integration with the urban environment.

    To some extent, the four cities’ different approaches stem from the different ways in which culture is consumed in each. Hong Kong, Suzhou and Shanghai all have longer histories of cultural creation and consumption than Shenzhen. Their stock of diverse, historically significant architecture and cultural heritage means local officials feel little pressure to build new landmarks. In Shenzhen, however, planners still see the city as being in desperate need of showy avant-garde buildings to make up for the city’s lacking cultural or historical heritage.

    Time will tell as to whether Shenzhen’s insistence on going big and bold will be as successful in fostering a cultural scene as it was creating one of the world’s top skylines. Even the winning designers of the city’s latest round of 10 new landmark buildings are not without misgivings. “I hope the construction of the ‘10 new cultural facilities’ will slow down or even stop,” said Feng.

    “During the launch of the cultural facilities, the public wasn’t consulted, only informed. Is it now possible for us to create a space for discussion that is open to the public, to give the people a voice? Perhaps a large-scale project like the ‘10 new landmarks’ isn’t necessary. Could it be better instead to build 20 or 30 smaller cultural facilities that are closer to the people?”

    Interestingly, the Shenzhen Art Museum, which Feng helped design, is something of an outlier among the city’s new landmarks. Originally approved in 2016, it was only later added to the list. This is reflected in the building’s more muted design, relative to the other winners.

    Shenzhen’s skyline, built from scratch in a matter of decades, is a testament to the city’s freewheeling, ambitious spirit. But with China’s skyscraper era now over, the city is struggling to reposition itself. Feng worries that the new cultural facilities will create a city that looks like a movie set and lacks real depth. He’s unlikely to get his wish for a halt to construction, but he’s not necessarily wrong. It’s not more flashy architecture that Shenzhen needs in order to shake off its label as a cultural desert, but greater collaboration with the city’s residents.

    Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: A construction site in Nanshan District, Shenzhen, Guangdong province, 2019. Liang Xiashun/People Visual)