“Never before has urbanisation mattered as much”

The “Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism / Architecture” in the Chinese cities of Shenzhen and Hong Kong Biennale is the largest of its kind. This year, the ETH professors of architecture Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner are part of the four-person curatorial team. Here is an interview with the two co-curators.

ETH Shenzhen and Hong Kong Biennale

The 2015 Shenzhen-Hong Kong Urbanism/Architecture Bi-City Biennale (UABB) opens in December. What prompted you to seek an opportunity to curate it?
Alfredo Brillembourg: The 2015 Biennale in Shenzhen and Hong Kong is the only event of its kind that deals exclusively with the challenges of massive urbanization. Shenzhen is an example of this process. It has emerged over the past thirty-five years from a collection of fishing villages across the river from Hong Kong into China’s fourth largest city after Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The Biennale presents an opportunity to understand migration from rural to urban areas as it is expressed not only in demographic and physical growth, but in the way the environment takes shape.

Hubert Klumpner: Never before has urbanisation mattered as much to humanity as it does today. Today, we do not have to live in a city to lead an urban live, but at the same time we have to re-think how we interact with our environment – adapting to changing conditions, re-distribution, and sharing rather than to exclusive patterns of linear growth.

What will be your main contribution to the Biennale as curators?
Brillembourg: As a curatorial team, we presented ourselves to the UABB as a group of professionals with strong academic backgrounds, common interests, and passion in democratizing architecture and urban design for the masses. When resources such as safe air and water are in short supply cities risk becoming sites of conflict. The members of the team are addressing housing for new types of families, access to opportunities and resources, along with beauty and recreational spaces that fit the demographic shifts.

Klumpner: The 19 and 20th century fascination with urban architecture is still alive, but the methods and master plans of the modern movement are no longer relevant to the unprecedented growth in South America, Asia, and Africa. In these regions, radical urbanization patterns question how western cities operate. The UABB committee searched worldwide for a curatorial team that can address the questions relevant to the lives of the tens of millions of people who will abandon rural areas for a life in the city.

Tell me more about the theme, “Re-living the City.”
Klumpner: Cities today are places of opportunity, success, and higher education; but they also produce inequality, congestion, and poverty. Urban designers are doing little to address these real and obvious failures in society. We have to make progress in science, technology, and policy available, along with our highest social and cultural achievements, to as many people as possible. In making knowledge available, we provide structures of coexistence that break the dichotomy between wealth and poverty in cities.

How do you plan to address the topic concretely?
Brillembourg: We will address the decision of the Chinese Central Government to urbanize 250 million people, by looking at shifts from two-dimensional to multi-dimensional design thinking in urban development. We plan to create a broader visibility for alternative formats of manufacturing, production, housing, recreation, transportation, and social media as an antithesis to the functionally separated living patterns that prevail in much of our professions’ design thinking.

How do you plan to integrate ETH Zurich research?
Brillembourg: Research on architecture and urbanisation, robotic building, energy conversion, food, and the environment in the Departments of Architecture and Civil, Environmental, and Geomatic Engineering, as well as, in many other departments at ETH Zurich and the Singapore-ETH Centre’s Future Cities Laboratory is highly relevant. Never-the-less, it is a question of how to communicate this knowledge so that it influences our reality.

Klumpner: The newly founded Institute of Science, Technology, and Policy may receive momentum from initiatives like the Biennale – where science and practice are measured against each other. We also plan to offer a Winter School with the Department of Environmental Systems Science in which the Biennale will become a living library or lab. We believe that the collaboration between students from ETH Zurich and Asia will provide an excellent opportunity for trans-disciplinary work.

What do you want to achieve through the Biennale?
Brillembourg: The Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale, like the ones in Venice and Sao Paulo, serves as a vehicle to measure the pulse of our profession as urban designers and architects. “Re-living the City” is something we are doing each and every day, but it needs to be translated in a better frame of living better and more consciously.

Klumpner: The fight against poverty in cities is official. The rapid urbanization of people into inadequate cities and buildings is, perhaps, one of the greatest challenges of globalization. It affects all of us as we face environmental, health, and security issues. It is in our best interest to face these challenges together. The UABB is an ideal platform to communicate how we are changing the way we think about cities. This is why we are happy to curate this Biennale.

This interview was originally published on ETH News.