shenzhen

Sheep keep the grass medians cut short along this busy roadway. They mulch and fertilize!

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A by-product of my interest in supertall buildings (over 1000 feet/305 meters tall) has been a huge lesson in geography. The Asian tall building boom has introduced us to many of China's more obscure interior cities, whose populations would make them top-tier metropolitan and economic areas in western countries. I had never heard of Shenzhen until the Di Wang Commercial Centre (now called Shun Hing Square) turned up on my buildings list in the late 1990s. Today I know Shenzhen firsthand as the home of the KK100, one of the most unique buildings I have ever visited, and as the future home of the 115-story Ping An Finance Center. Ping An construction was not very far about ground when we were in Shenzhen and we didn’t drive by the site.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to meet Shenzhen, once a border city between China and Hong Kong and today, a busy port city and export point for many Chinese-made goods. I drew a number of lessons from this city of 8.9 million, which is also gaining a reputation as a creative capital and trendy tourist destination.

Shenzhen is about 20 miles/32 km from Hong Kong, gateway to the Orient and one of the most energetic cities in the world. It takes roughly 30 minutes to get here by train from Central Hong Kong. Our chartered bus took a bit longer. Add another 20 to 30 minutes to cross the border between Hong Kong and China proper. Even though Hong Kong is once again part of China, it is also a Special Administrative Region (SAR) and a border checkpoint remains. Bring your passport and visa. Crossing the border at the Lok Ma Chau control point required getting an exit stamp from Hong Kong immigration and an entry stamp from Chinese immigration, plus you must fill out short entry/exit forms for both.

While we're on the subject of border crossings, this IMPORTANT note: be sure to get a MULTIPLE ENTRY VISA for China from a Chinese Consulate. Otherwise once you leave China – and Hong Kong is considered “leaving” China in this context -- you cannot re-enter. Also note that people from certain countries, the United States among them, cannot buy impromptu visas at border crossing stations. Check and make your arrangements before you travel.

We re-boarded our bus on the other side of the checkpoint and found ourselves riding on the right-hand side of the road. Hong Kong, true to British form, still drives on the left while the rest of China drives on the right. We crossed the small river that was once the international border and we were in Shenzhen.

Second lesson: With the geography comes a bit of recent history. Shenzhen is a Special Economic Zone and was the first city in China to be designated so in 1980. One of our hosts, a partner in the URBANUS architecture firm, explained this saying former leader Deng Xiaoping had given Shenzhen a ten year period to try private business ownership and international investment with the understanding the program would be terminated if it failed. It was wildly successful and international money poured into the Chinese economy. A 2010 article in China Daily describes a visit to Shenzhen by then-president Hu Jintao to mark "30 years of reforms of the city that provided the blueprint for the country's economic rebirth." The article notes "Once a sleepy fishing village, Shenzhen is widely viewed as the cradle of China's dramatic transformation into a world economic and trade juggernaut."

Deng Xiaoping is revered in Shenzhen as the father of China's "economic miracle", which all started here. As our bus left the KK100 development, we saw a large billboard bearing Deng’s image at the corner of Shennan Avenue and Hongling Middle Road, on the outskirts of Lizhi Park.

Our other stop in Shenzhen was at the offices of URBANUS, an influential Chinese architecture and urban design firm, and one of the sponsors of our visit to Hong Kong. One of URBANUS's "future vision" design and research projects is the Luuhu Caiwuwei Redevelopment, which includes two very interesting highrise components. One is an L-shaped building whose horizontal run is longer than its very tall vertical rise. The other is the Caiwuwei Financial Center, listed with CTBUH as being 2185 feet / 666 meters tall.

URBANUS's studio is located within one of their projects, the OCT Loft in the Nanshan district off Qiaocheng East Road near Shennan Avenue - see the OCT Loft web site. OCT is Overseas Chinese Town, a company involved in construction and real estate development, hotel and tourism, as well as consumer electronics

Ten 1980s-vintage industrial buildings were converted to loft residences and commercial/business space; the empty lots between them have are filling with new buildings for cafés, bars, bookstores, art studios, retail and other privately-owned businesses. Some of the developer's inspiration came from a creative-colony loft district in Vancouver, Canada. The role model is well chosen as Vancouver has a sizable Asian population, much of it Chinese, enough to earn the city a nickname: "Chancouver".

The OCT Loft web site has a map of the development.

One of OCT Loft's major components is the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT), run by the prominent He Xiangning Fine Arts Museum. OCAT's presence has served as a major catalyst to attract art studios and other tenants to the development and its location in a renovated warehouse shed is a story in itself. To avoid making major alterations to the shed, mechanical systems were installed on the exterior and then everything was wrapped in a metal mesh. This leaves the interior walls in more of their original condition and maximizes the extensive space inside, where there is more than 3000 square meters or nearly 10,000 square feet of exhibition space, artist-in-residence studios, offices, a merchandise section and a book shop.

Shenzhen is one of nine large cities on the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong province, a region with a population of better than 40 million. There are plans to merge these urban areas into one huge mega-city, so that growth and infrastructure can be more evenly distributed. The largest of these cities is the provincial capital of Guangzhou, also known as Canton, yet another Chinese city with supertall buildings and a spectacular skyline. The Guangzhou International Finance Center, completed in 2010, is only 10 feet/3 meters shorter than Shenzhen's KK100. I want to visit here after 2017 when an even taller building, The CTF Guangzhou (1739 feet/530 meters) is completed -- and after Shenzhen's new supertalls are complete.

A lot of learning crammed into one article? Into a seven-hour visit? Yes, and yes.