Shenzhen… the manifestation of Le Corbusier’s ‘Radiant City’

A splash of icy water to my first impressions as the true Shenzhen stood up and shone its glare ridden face. Shenzhen Day 3.
Friday 26th April 2013

I feel like I have been removed from a familiar ‘real’ environment, rudely plonked on another planet sometime in the future, forced to take part in a Utopian experiment.
I was ignorant and naive to assume that Louhu district was symbolic of Shenzhen, it is merely the starting point of this explosive 30 year growth that has charged west, carving pulsing veins of asphalt and erecting glass shrines, monuments to the mission underlying Shenzhen’s existence, the generation of cold, hard, cash!

An eerie sensation took hold of me as I both drove and walked, through, under and around the Futian and Nanshian districts. It was as though I was waltzing through Le Corbusiers dreams, embodied in his ‘Radiant City’ proposal. Twelve lane highways acted as arteries of circulation, at regular intervals spiralling exits led to smaller veins of tar. In the patchwork like pockets of earth that remained between the grid of roads stood slender columns that housed both life and business, at times difficult to differentiate between functions due to the monotonous repetition of facades and the formula that one size fits all approach in relation to a buildings form and scale. There was however an absence of piloti and undistrupted green space on the ground plane that quickly began to suppress my joy that I was witnessing Corb’s vision being played out in real life.

Futian district, the commercial and governing center of Shenzhen is void of social vibrancy and diversity. Although not a place to reside, as a working environment it lacks sufficient amenities that are essential for one’s physical and mental well being. Footpaths as wide as oceans, (maybe to cater for future road expansion) replace green space, there is no colour, there is a sense of oppression and of measured thinking and actions.
It is disconcerting thinking of those who work all day in one of the innumerable concrete, steel and glass towers that make up the commercial forest of Futian. A days cycle would involve finishing work and descending in a polished steel elevator from your office on he 40th floor, walking momentarily along grey expansive footpaths, descending further into the bowels of the subway, having your organs rearranged as you are squished into a subway car, regaining consciousness as you ascend out of the subway, once again a fleeting interaction with the outdoors as you claw you way over a tiled footpath, only to ascend in an elevator that takes you to your box of a home in the sky! Where is the lifestyle, where is the standard of living?!

The drug of financial prosperity appears to come at a sever cost….genuine social interactions are not possible nor valued, green space unnecessary as it doesn’t provide economic reward, architectural repetitive monotony because it costs less and is quicker to build.

The future city that I hoped of seeing, does exist! It is a complex place of bold urban design gestures, repetition, padlocked green space, socioeconomic disparity. A city void of cultural heritage and public facilities that are essential to both grounding and sustaining social cohesion and vibrancy. I cannot help but think that the pursuit of financial gain is creating an unstable society that doesn’t have the capacity to be resilient to future growth.Image


‘A standard of living…can it be measured in smiles?

Reflections on a surprising day 2 in Shenzhen.
Thursday 25th April 2013

A self guided walking exploration of Louhu, elucidated a disparity in social classes and a sense of happiness.

My preconceived notions of Shenzhen as a space age city composed of glass, steel and concrete, built by money for the generation of money couldn’t have been further from the reality.
In the Louhu district of Shenzhen the buildings are of diverse size, shape and colour. Each building hasn’t a single use but a multitude of functions. Every element of the built environment has a sense of tiredness, of age and of enduring. Although the majority of Shenzhen is less than 30 years old, an exploding population, its demands and impacts have obviously burdened the city with accelerated ageing. As a foreign on looker you are thus deceived into perceiving heritage and history.

There is a miss-match of residential archetypes…from 3-5, 10-15, 25+ story complex’s that gives the cityscape a layering or terraced effect. The older buildings are adorned with small windows and balconies, caged in by heavy duty steel barriers. The more modern towers merely replicate the one facade treatment from bottom to top where a rare few mountainous towers are sporadic and random in their adornment.

The roads in Louhu are rivers of constant movement, acting as powerful axis’ for the district. Although the car is clearly favored the footpaths are also extraordinarily wide…maybe to accommodate for future traffic condtions? In conjunction to oversized circulation for pedestrian traffic are exorbitant building setbacks that both defy logic when they occur for every building and kill the engagement of the building with the street.
Polarizing this urban design aspect are zestful zones of lower density hybrid buildings that function on the ground plane as shops of all descriptions and above as residences. The streets are narrow and branch off to small pathways where filtered light enters via a cluttered path between air conditioning units and clothes lines. The buildings have no setbacks and the lanes evoke the atmosphere of ancient European districts. There is a buzz in the air, a composition of frying food, babies crying, laughter and heated business exchanges. There are smiles on faces, the streets are spotless and a feeling of comfort and safety took hold of me. There is a strong sense of social cohesiveness here, enabled by a high density, low rise archetype. Connections are enabled and fostered. The buildings engage with the street and narrow lanes and they in turn engage with the buildings.
There is such life in this lower density hybrid district where anything you could ever need is within a few short steps away.

The lifestyle present here in the shadow of modern towers, although void of green spaces does portray a desirable lifestyle, if viewed from a sociology lens.

Adjacent to the ‘urban district’, and providing me with a juxtaposed experience was a shiny new multilevel mall complex called, The MixC. It was clinical in its smell and appearance. I could see my reflection in the polished tile floor. Void of people and of life, it was providing for the elite rich and privileged in Shenzhen. I was perplexed by its existence within a district where they average monthly wage would struggle to buy a single item of clothing that hung within one of the innumerable boutique clothing sores.
It highlighted to me a point that I hadn’t previously considered, that the disparity of socioeconomic classes with Shenzhen is immense. How will such divisions in wealth, power and privilege effect the future prosperity of the city?

I have much to learn, observe and study. Shenzhen is proving to be a city of complexity and incomprehensibility.Image

‘If Hong Kong was a glossy magazine, Shenzhen would be a week old tattered newspaper’


Reflections on a confronting first afternoon in Shenzhen.
Wednesday 24th April 2013

A thin layer of silt covered all that I could see, a thick slightly unpleasant smell sat in the air, my heavily perspired brow adding to the discomfort and ill-ease I felt…my first impression of Shenzhen, well more specifically the Louhu district, the first stop across the border from HK was not a good one.
The sun appeared brown through the thick haze, making the faces of the people and the facades of the buildings look terribly weathered and downtrodden.
Not a single building appeared to be unblemished by the effects of time and neglect…..crumbling render, snaking cracks, dust-covered and smashed windows, rusted cages that enclosed balconies….where was the city of the future I had read so much about?

As time passed and the shock subsided, the Louhu district began to reveal itself to me…although not the place I had envisaged, there was a zest that lifted my spirits…in this urbanized concrete jungle people forged a life…maybe even a life of happiness?