MDes Talks: A Lifetime Lesson

The current studio project is targeting the future of Nantou (Chinese: 南頭), an urban village in Nanshan District (Chinese: 南山區), located in the southwest area of Shenzhen.

Shenzhen is known by the fast growth and development after 1989 due to the creation of the Special Economic Zone, changing the history and shape of the city dramatically. Before that, the city used to be small villages.

Futian District View, Shenzhen | MDes Talks: A Lifetime Lesson
Futian District View, Shenzhen (Photo by Yeung)

Nantou, on the other hand, has a completely different story. Before Shenzhen's appearance, creation and growth, Nantou used to be the centre of the government of the Pearl River Delta.

It was also where the Treaty of Nanking was signed, ceding the Hong Kong territory to the British after China's defeat at the Opium War. After that, the county seat was moved to Shenzhen town, making the old walled city forgotten in space and time.

The Urban Village

Urban villages are usually places with cheap rent where many people can afford to live. By having newcomers, these places become a mix of cultures and spaces. They are neither completely urban like a big city nor like the rural area.

Urban villages are composed by a completely different environment. It is a place for fresh dreams, opportunities, hard work and slow down pace rhythm, where stories meet and are changed.

According to the exploratory study trip, Nantou, as an urban village, is where the formal meets the informal due to its rapid growth. Some components offered by the city are not able to keep up with the the growth of this living organism.

Walking on Nantou’s streets brings the sight of many distinct elements merging into one space. By observing, you will probably see traces of history contained in the walls and gates, even if they do not seem original. By listening and smelling, you will likely find traces of different cultures, through conversations in the streets in different dialects and the food cooked in the small shops spread along the living streets.

Nantou's main gate | MDes Talks: A Lifetime Lesson
Nantou's main gate (Photo by Yeung)

A mix in the streets, different elements and styles, merging times | MDes Talks: A Lifetime Lesson
A mix in the streets, different elements and style, merging times (Photo by Yeung)

A different timing in the urban village | MDes Talks: A Lifetime Lesson
A different timing in the urban village (Photo by Yeung)

MDes Talks: A Lifetime LessonDifferent smells and food | MDes Talks: A Lifetime Lesson
Different smells and food (Photo by Gattegno)

MDes Talks: A Lifetime Lesson
(Photo by Gattegno)

Where the formal meets the informal | MDes Talks: A Lifetime LessonWhere the formal meets the informal | MDes Talks: A Lifetime Lesson
Where the formal meets the informal (Photo by Yeung)


Shenzhen's government plans to transform Nantou into a “Creative Town”.

As students and planners, the project brief is to discuss, plan, imagine and criticize the future of this place from four different perspectives: space, identity, policy and program.

These four pillars are basic lenses which a project can be seen through. They are not fixed and can be changed case by case. The important thing is that they have the power to transform a project into a successful reality or into a complete disaster depending on how they are equalized and balanced during the conceptualization of an idea.

When developing a proposition, it is fundamental to be aware of how the coming of a new element in the village should be a tool to strengthen the already existing community. Nantou shouldn’t be adapted to the design community but the other way around. Bringing designers here is an occasion to rethink the practice of design – the practice of design is not to be viewed as a closed world in itself, but as an inclusive activity. If we design a place like anywhere else, what is the purpose to put it there except to accelerate the already ongoing gentrification of the village?

A good consideration is to pay attention and focus on this unique population and preserve the quality of life. The community already exists, and our role should be to raise the awareness about it, to make people realize that their ways of life are in the same direction with the development of the city. There is a Nantou identity upon the various origins of the inhabitants.


Thinking about the idea of keeping the diversity of the village, each group that represented one pillar, came up with ideas following these concepts: co-living, co-life, cooperation and symbiosis. Actually these are completely new concepts but this does not undermine their value as a framework for analysis.

In one of his lectures, Alejandro Aravena, who won the Pritzker Prize in 2016 (most valuable prize in Architecture) said that the increasing social gaps produce social tensions, intolerance and even conflicts by the creation of guetos and violent areas.

These two seemingly polarized ideals – communality (co-living with a sense of belonging and working with inclusion, trying to decrease social gaps) versus individuality (keeping the diversity) – could be made compatible with one another through design. Taking this apart, it is inevitable to think and design the invisible, like imagining the human interactions, the mechanisms of a place, the articulation of space and the identity and culture contained in it, may be sometimes more important than simply designing the visible and tangible objects.

Then, once again, mentioned in the previous post, the idea of being a good designer is about developing and thinking beyond the product, beyond the visible and the existing. Sometimes it may not work because of the unpredictability of human beings, but by having this ingredient, the result may be closer to an humanistic approach, projecting cities, future, hope and opportunities for human beings.

By getting closer to the end of the course, that is one of the things the professors and specialists taught in my programme emphasized the most and it is also the most valuable thing I learned at PolyU. Sounds simple, but sometimes is not that visible or easy to learn. To develop a project closer to the human being and imagine the invisible, is a process that takes a long time to learn, improve and master.

MDes Talks: A Lifetime Lesson(Photo by Yeung)

Photo Credit: Sylvia YeungMathilde Gattegno

Posted by Sylvia Yeung - Living the 20's years old issues and doubts. Born in Brazil, with the heart in Hong Kong. Graduated in Architecture and Urban Planning at Mackenzie Presbyterian University, Sao Paulo. Living and exploring the concrete jungle and mix of emotions contained in the city where the journey of the ancestors began. A current Master's student in Urban Environments Design (MDes).
MDes Talks is a series of Student Blogs contributed by students in different specialisms under the Master of Design Scheme. It is set out to share students’ first-hand experience in the d-school pedagogy, their projects, takeaways, and student life in general.