Design Society, Shekou, Shenzhen.

Design Society, Shekou, Shenzhen. 

An introduction by its director, Ole Bouman

At this day of writing, we are only 30 days away from the Grand Opening of Design Society in Shekou, Shenzhen. Recently, on this blog, Luisa Mengoni introduced its main program. Brendan Cormier wrote a few times about the careful preparation of the exhibition Values of Design, which he curated. It’s my pleasure to share with the V&A audience more about the background of this exciting cultural project to establish a new design institution for China, literally at the crossroads with the rest of the world.

We have come a long way since the initiation of this project. In 2014, China Merchants Shekou, partnered with the Victoria & Albert Museum, to establish a world class cultural institution designed by Fumihiko Maki  by the waterfront in Shekou, the symbolic cradle of China’s Reform & Opening. Not an institution as we know it, but one that would resonate with the ambition to integrate culture and the spirit of innovation into a unique hybrid program. The remaining question was: How? As founding director, I had the privilege to contribute and work with many others on the answer to this question, by setting a mission, developing a brand, preparing a program and creating a team to realize it all. The dialogue with the V&A has been a precious source of inspiration throughout the entire process.

Before sharing the highlights of our platform, it is appropriate to reveal a couple contextual factors that make all of these efforts understandable in light of the massive historical shift that is currently unfolding, and from which it hopes to take its long-term inspiration and perhaps even energy. It is about China, it is about Asia, it is about Shenzhen and the repositioning of its best potential: creative drive.

Many elements come to mind to describe this positive context. First of all, one needs to mention the political framework, which outlines the general societal agenda. For China in general, and the PRD region in particular, we are talking about a powerful transformation to a more knowledge-based and creative society. Acknowledged as a fact, but also stimulated as a goal, it recurs in several state documents.

But of course it’s not just political framing that counts. Clearly we see a new economy emerging that, compared to the recent decades, relies much more on service industries, technology, innovation and creative entrepreneurship, with a rapidly growing middle class to leverage it. This new generation is in ever stronger need for creative inspiration.

Politics and economy notwithstanding, maybe the most powerful condition to mention is the creative ecology of Shenzhen itself and its surroundings. This is an arrival city in the best sense of the word. A place where countless newcomers are carving out niches to create or add value. Where they spark the ideas, invent the products and services that makes this place so vibrant and rapidly developing.

Regardless of these positive factors, ultimately we want to know what to do with it. How do we cultivate the spirit of innovation and reap its fruits? How do we turn positive factors into real actions, products and ideas? If these are the questions, design is definitely focused on the answer. We are basically set to establish an institution that breathes and inspires design, but most of all proves design’s potential to contribute to society. A place where human imagination finds clues for creating a better world, and where its projections, from the ancient past to the far future, can be discovered, celebrated and adopted to become part of daily life.

Hence our name: Design Society. Design Society’s identity lies in its capacity to combine, connect, cross-fertilize and, by doing so, transcend cultural territories and boundaries as we know them. Both a noun and a verb, it’s a place to go and an agenda to pursue.

As a visitor destination Design Society runs the Sea World Culture and Arts Center at the Western tip of Shenzhen. Backed by the Nanshan Mountain and looking out over Shenzhen Bay and Hong Kong, this place, loaded with historical symbolism, will become a go-to spot for the culture and design hungry in Shenzhen and beyond, connecting audiences of different ages and backgrounds.

At first, it may look like a comprehensive design museum. It features multiple galleries, presenting ground-breaking designs from the past, present and future. It has studios and education spaces, catering the public’s need for learning and interpretation. But Design Society also cultivates a genuine civic and community centre, comprising a theatre and many other event spaces, big and small, programmed by Design Society and others who gain from the many possibilities to use this venue and urban landmark. Around, inside, and even on top of the building, generous public and park spaces welcome visitors to discover, play, experiment, interact, share, and create together.

With its agenda for innovation, Design Society aims at developing relevance for the creative industries in the Pearl River Delta, and to provide a prestigious and major design platform to stage interactions between the broader design culture of China and the world. Design Society, by actively pursuing opportunities for design in society, and by its manifold match-making activities between design talent and industries, design disciplines and social issues, hopes to contribute to elevating the quality of life and the positive transformation of contemporary lifestyles.

Sketch of Sea World Culture and Art Center by Fumihiko Maki @Design Society

At this moment in time, around the time of opening of Design Society, we draw hope from the history of this project itself, in which the ambition to ‘design society’ has been tested already by tapping into the great assets we began with. Continuing the pioneering spirit of Shekou, focusing the innovative drive of China Merchants, demonstrating the collaborative mind-set with the V&A, and experimenting with new cultural formats right at the opening, we are confident that our brand name ‘Design Society’ and our logo design (the dynamic Hanzi grid), will become synonymous with the way we bring all of the above together in a new unique institution.

More than the sum of its parts. Design Society.

Ole Bouman, former Creative Director of the Urbanism/Architecture Bi-City Biennale Shenzhen (2013-14), was appointed Director of Design Society in January 2015, to benefit from his multiple experiences in creative leadership. He was the editor-in-chief of Volume, a magazine he co-founded with Rem Koolhaas and Mark Wigley. His publications include The Invisible in Architecture (co-author, 1994) and Architecture of Consequence (2009). Between 2006 and 2013, Bouman was the director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi). He worked as a curator for Manifesta 3 (2000), and the architecture Biennales of Shenzhen, São Paulo and Venice. Ole Bouman taught architecture and design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Hong Kong.

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