It’s a familiar story: old industrial area becomes creative hub. What makes OCT Loft different is that the entire process took just six years — and it’s on the vanguard of Shenzhen’s transformation from factory town to Chinese creative superpower.
In the mid-1980s, a swath of farmland in the newly-established Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was developed into the OCT East Industrial Park, one of first of many new factory districts. Over the next 20 years, they helped transform Shenzhen into one of the wealthiest and largest cities in China.
Then, in the early 2000s, as labour costs and real estate prices soared, most of the factories left for cheaper pastures in Shenzhen’s suburbs and other parts of the Pearl River Delta. The industrial zone was slated to be bulldozed and replaced by a luxury housing complex, but a new policy that encouraged the development of creative industries led OCT Properties, which owned the land, to hand it over to artists and designers.
OCT hired Shenzhen-based Urbanus Architecture and Design to facilitate the transformation. The first order of business, in 2004, was to make a home for the OCT Contemporary Art Termial (OCAT), a Kunsthalle-style exhibition hall and research centre.
The building they chose for OCAT was a 3,000-square-metre shed. “It was hardly a building,” says Urbanus partner Liu Xiaodu. “It had a tin roof and there wasn’t even any insulation. So we were very free to do anything.”
What they chose was to keep it simple. A new roof was installed but the space was left mostly untouched, except for an OCAT logo that was cut into the building’s clay façade. The same approach was taken throughout the site. Urbanus created steel follies and canopies to frame public spaces and create a coherent visual identity, but none of the buildings were significantly renovated. Landscaping was minimal, too: concrete pavement was replaced by brick and new trees were planted.
“We didn’t want it to look like it was done by just one architect, so we let the tenants come in and make modifications on their own,” says Liu. “Old cities are attractive because things were built by different people at different times — it was very vibrant, and there’s a kind of richness. That’s what we wanted to achieve, but in a short period of time. Artists love it because they can do anything they want — the buildings are just shells.”
Urbanus also made a point of preserving the area’s industrial character — a radical notion in a city younger than most of its inhabitants, where reminders of a rugged past are usually swept aside by generic glitz.
“When people came, they were surprised it was so raw,” says Liu. “But this was the very first industrial park in Shenzhen, so it has a lot of meaning for the city. It’s worth maintaining that industrial taste, like a memory that gradually fades.”
OCT Loft quickly became successful, attracting companies like Emoi, a lifestyle brand that is now headquartered in OCT Loft. (Urbanus moved its offices there, too.) Shops, galleries and cafés moved in and customised their spaces, like Idutang, a bar and music venue that surrounded its minimalist concrete loft with a bamboo-shrouded terrace.
The project was so successful, in fact, that OCT Loft has now expanded to the north, taking over even more factory buildings and more than doubling in size. Urbanus took a more assertive approach with the expansion, converting streets into stone and wood pedestrian walkways, commissioning murals on many of the buildings and building a short footbridge system to create more retail and public spaces above ground.
So far, the northern expansion has attracted 40 new design studios, architecture firms and artists since it was completed last year. But Liu says the work is far from finished. OCT plans to build a contemporary art museum nearby and he is lobbying to have an international design school open a campus in the area.
“If that happens, it will generate some real creative energy,” he says. “Creative space needs freedom for people to generate ideas. People meeting people is more important than having a grand architectural idea about how a space should be used.”
Tags: Adaptive Reuse, Architecture, Artists, China, Exploring the City, Gentrification, Industry, Landscape Architecture, Redevelopment, Shenzhen, Urban Design