The purpose of Design Society is to reinvent creativity in China — Ole Bouman

1. Ole_Bouman

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, which houses a collection of more than 2.5 million objects spanning five-thousand years of Art History, is sharing its priceless exhibits with China thanks to Design Society. The key player behind the project, founded by China Merchants Shekou Holdings (CMSK), is Design Society’s Director, Ole Bouman.

Over the past five-years, working between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, Bouman has made an enormous footprint on the region’s art and design landscape. In 2013 he was the creative director of Shenzhen urbanism\architecture bi-city biennale (UABB). In 2015 he was appointed (by CMSK) as the director of Design Society, aiming to construct an important Chinese art and design institution.

“Design society intrinsically has the purpose to reinvent creativity in China, and to apply creativity on all kinds of societal questions,” says Bouman. “There is an interesting challenge that I see as part of the beauty in this project. The fundamental conviction that the institution should not be in opposition to the creative. Can the institutional power be used to cultivate creativity, and how can that be done?”

7. Urbanism Architecture Bi-city Biennale Shenzhen 20142. The construction site of Sea World Culture and Arts Center, photo taken in August,2017©Design Society

From 2009 to 2013, he was General Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, a national museum and archive of Dutch urban development, established in 1988. Similarly to NAI, Design Society is a private organization with corporate and governmental backing. He remarks that it’s purpose is not to take and hand out grants, and he believes that a spirit of entrepreneurship is the best way to achieve the desired long lasting, sustainable cultural drive.

He envisions the unstoppable urban development, occurring between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, as a driving cultural trend in the region, reasoning that in 30 years time the two cities may become one gigantic metropolis. Design Society is established to play an incubating role in this historical narrative, igniting sparks of creativity and tending to the fire. As opposed to the dialectic of culture and counterculture in twentieth-century Europe and America, the Chinese dialectic aims to reinvent creativity by enterprising from within the institution.

“There are interesting historical dynamics that allow us to be cutting edge, at the same time knowing it is part of a much stronger, long-term historical trend,” says Bouman. “I think that makes a very different project from, for instance, what has happened in California in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, which was much more individual, and much more about counterculture. Here the questions are different.”

4. The construction site of Sea World Culture and Arts Center, photo taken in August,2017©Design Society5.The construction site of Sea World Culture and Arts Center, photo taken in August,2017©Design Society

The Dutchman is very aware about the historical awareness of the Chinese community and the conflicts caused by historicism. Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement for example, arose from a conflict in multiple Chinese imaginaries, between an element of Hong Kong society that actively opposes its integration with the wider region. He aims to cultivate a less conflictual form of creativity, from Shenzhen across the region, by rejecting counterculture and embracing the historical trend.

Despite the utopian vision guiding his project, he admits that the twin phenomenon of creativity and historicity is jarring. Openness and freedom from control is generally accepted as the catalyst for creativity, whereas the historical narrative at play is characterized by a tightening control across the region. Design Society will explore the possibilities of creativity and pragmatic historicism presented in the rise of authoritarian China.

His project in China began five years ago with the Value Factory and the Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture. At the time, he says he was already thinking about Design Society. The wider scope of his project is very much about branding the city as a creative hub for the region. The Biennale event in Shenzhen was a reflection on the long established event in Venice, highlighting the stark differences that define both cities as a sub narrative for the 2014 Venice Biennale.

“You could say that Venice, as a city, is not really relevant to the global discourse on ‘the city’, except maybe on the topic of tourism,” says Bouman. “As a city itself, it is more of a scenery than an engine, whereas Shenzhen is the exact opposite. It is not very much a scenery, but it is very much an engine.“

Deng Xiaoping era policies drove industrial development in the Pearl River Delta region, turning a community of around 30,000 residents into a sprawling metropolis, home to more than 10 million people. Shenzhen has become known as “factory of the world”, creating its own particular notion of originality with its infamous fake markets and copycat artists. Bouman has made a project of cultivating Shenzhen’s design talent, in order to reinvent our notion of creativity from the stance of originality in the Chinese design industry.

“I think that globally speaking, in the last twenty to thirty years let’s say, in the time where great designers became superstars, there was a kind of self-evident relationship between good design and uniqueness, or originality,” explains Bouman. “If it comes to positioning design in our future society, or the future of urban growth, or the changing the middle class and their growing appetite for design, the big question is of course, can that definition of design survive? Or at least, can it remain the only one determining the role of design? When you look at Shenzhen, you see so many interesting phenomena, where the design industry is more bottom-up [as opposed to top-down]. You could also say, where design is less about distinguishing yourself socially, and more about getting on your feet as a citizen, and creating a certain niche for yourself in a rapidly growing city.”

3. The construction site of Sea World Culture and Arts Center, photo taken in August,2017©Design Society

About Ole Bouman

Ole Bouman is currently the Director of Design Society, which includes the Shekou Design Museum in Shenzhen. From 2013 to 2014, he was Creative Director for the Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture, for which he founded the Value Factory. Until 2013, he was Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, globally the largest institute of it’s kind. Prior to that, he was the Founder and Editor-in-chief of Volume, an independent magazine for architecture, which aims to push the limits of spatial design and find new roles in society. He was also Director of Archis Foundation, an NGO, active in publishing, consultancy, and connecting local design communities with expertise through the Archis global knowledge network. In 2007, he founded the Studio for Unsolicited Architecture, starting at MIT, Cambridge Massachusetts.

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