If some of architecture and design's biggest names seemed conspicuously absent from this month's Art Basel Miami Beach—that annual, must-attend conclave for the glitzy-arty set—it was because they were halfway around the world in the adjacent Chinese cities of Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
Why, you ask? Technically speaking, the occasion was Hong Kong's Business of Design Week and the dual openings of the Shenzhen and Hong Kong (or Hong Kong and Shenzhen, depending who you ask) Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture. But the short answer is, duh—if you haven't heard, China is where the money is. (Well, not always, but more on that later.)
Indeed, at various points in the festivities, an all-star roster—from Jean Nouvel, Shigeru Ban, and Patrick Jouin to Steven Holl, Toyo Ito, and Ben van Berkel—swung by in a further sign that nowadays, opportunity means going East.
Shenzhen opened its biennale with an over-the-top ceremony booming with a full-blown orchestra beneath the hyper-gargantuan, 680,000-square-foot roof of Civic Square. One of the country's first Special Economic Zones, Shenzhen is the ultimate parable of turbo-charged, post-economic reform China—a small fishing village turned metropolis of 10 million-plus people. In just 30 years. With China's unprecedented, exhilarating and, yes, sometimes terrifying urbanization as a backdrop, chief Shenzhen curator Ou Ning emphasized the theme "City Mobilization" while taking over the square and other sites with dozens of public-friendly indoor and outdoor installations. Think Studio Pei-Zhu's bamboo beach pavilion, WORKac's fishtank-as-bar proposal and a billboard-turned-swingset by Bureau des Mésarchitectures. Visible a stone's throw away was the rising Shenzhen Stock Exchange, a monolithic super-building designed by Rem Koolhaas that's well under construction.
For now, let's leave aside things like human rights, an independent judiciary, business transparency and so on. One got the sense that if Hong Kong is the pragmatic older sister, sitting in a continuing education class while plotting her next move using flow charts, then Shenzhen is the wild child—perhaps not as wise or worldly, but out there and getting things done. (And hopefully, she'll learn from her mistakes.)
To be sure, Shenzhen showed no signs of holding back with Steven Holl's spectacular new Vanke Center. Built as the headquarters for China's biggest residential property developer, it's a jaw-dropping "horizontal skyscraper" that's as long as the Empire State Building is tall. "The detailing is fantastic," Holl gushed at a party there during the biennale's opening, apparently hoping to debunk one cliché about Chinese construction. As guests wandered around, in and under the never-ending structure—did we mention the entire thing is lifted some 50 feet above the ground?—architect Dan Wood of New York's WORKac could be found craning his neck among them. "It's amazing," he said of the building. "It's sort of not anywhere—but everywhere at the same time."
Official status notwithstanding, Hong Kong is not China and China is not Hong Kong. To be sure, the former British colony has all the advantages of being more international, developed, and sophisticated. But it also seems to be suffering from the same malaise as other such places. Great speakers—including Pritzker-Prize winner Jean Nouvel and New York star architect Liz Diller—were on hand during the horribly named Business of Design Week. They were making not-so-subtle pitches for a piece of the city's proposed, multi-billion-dollar West Kowloon Cultural District arts hub. Never mind that the plan has been stalled for years (though things are apparently moving again).
Meanwhile, the Cultural District's still-empty, waterfront site played host to the Hong Kong side of the biennale, featuring one of Shigeru Ban's signature paper-tube pavilions. Using lots of ingenuity and shipping containers as galleries, the curators, led by Marisa Yiu, otherwise framed the exhibition as a BYOB, or "Bring Your Own Biennale," affair to unleash public participation. As such, they managed to pull off something of a miracle, orchestrating a lively, scrappy event that made lemonade from the lemons they had gotten for funding.