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Shenzhen is probably the biggest city you've never heard of. Thirty years ago it didn't exist. Today it has a population estimated at 13 million – nearly two Londons. Nowhere else has ever achieved the pace of this urban up-rush. But the merciless tempo of Chinese urbanisation is old news, the subject of excited broadsheet features and nervous conference papers for years now. More interesting to the non-statistically minded is not so much the speed of Shenzhen's growth but its lifecycle. From agricultural landscape to industrial powerhouse to post-industrial city forging a culture and knowledge economy, Shenzhen took 28 years to evolve through a series of transitions that took many European cities 200.

This is a metropolis with a human lifespan, maturing at the same pace as its citizens. And those citizens are young – like the city itself, the average age here is under 30. In the commercial hive of Dongmen, the streets teem with urbane, Converse-wearing teenagers. In a sense, Shenzhen is a hormonal teen, changing in real time. Parts of the city are already into their fourth generation of buildings.

In that context, the former factory complex in an area called Overseas Chinese Town (or just OCT) on the city's western fringe seems positively antiquated. They were built in the Bauhaus style – but in the 1980s, not the 1930s. Today, though, the workers have gone and their machinery has been replaced by architectural models and info-graphics from Los Angeles, London, Copenhagen, Rotterdam and, of course, Shenzhen. This is my excuse for being here: the second Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture. The fact that the biennial is here is significant, as Shenzhen says more about urbanisation in China than Beijing or Shanghai. But the exhibits feel hopelessly static compared to what's going on outside – they can't possibly keep up. Much more interesting is the city itself.

"Shenzhen is China's laboratory," says the biennial's curator, Shanghai- and LA-based architect Qingyun Ma. "It is constantly changing, and its value lies in its constant creation of new meanings." Ma's theme for the biennial is "city of expiration and regeneration" – although the Chinese title neatly drops the word "expiration" because some bureaucrat decided it was contrary to the national ethos of growth.

The Shenzhen experiment is not just urban but socio-economic. It was one of a handful of Special Economic Zones created by the government in 1980 to test, in a controlled way, the effects of a free market economy on the People's Republic. The rampant success of these states of exception led premier Deng Xiaoping to start to adapt Mao's socialist vision to one more suited to the Chinese entrepreneurial instinct. He summed this up with the dictum "To get rich is glorious".

Shenzhen is a border town – Tijuana on steroids. Clinging to the Shenzhen River that separates it from Hong Kong, it is a parasite city, feeding off the capitalist wealth of its neighbour. The Shenzhen-Hong Kong border is the busiest in the world, with half a million people crossing daily. The cities exist in a slightly tense symbiosis: the money on one side and the cheap labour on the other. In fact, everything in Shenzhen is cheaper, so the Hong Kongese cross in droves, stocking up with the vim of ferryborne Brits raiding Calais for wine. The Shenzhen side of the border at Luohu is a classic grey market of cheap cigarettes and prostitution. Rich Hong Kong businessmen keep their mistresses in Shenzhen.

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Just inside the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border at Luohu

In fact, Shenzhen is effectively sandwiched between two borders. It is maintained as a kind of buffer zone between outward-looking Hong Kong and the introspective and still dogmatic Maotherland. It is full of contagious potential, so the central authorities have always kept a watchful eye on it.

Driving along Shenzhen's main artery, Shennan Avenue, the surroundings alternate between hotspots of concentrated life and what seems like suburban hinterland. A classic linear city, Shenzhen has no real centre. Really, it is a series of skyscraper "villages", a term widely used in Shenzhen in reference to distinct neighbourhoods. This is a migrant's city, in which nearly half of the population is made up of unofficial residents, flooding in to find jobs, and finding homes in village enclaves.

This ghettoisation is typical of instant cities. Art here, manufacturing there, entertainment over there. Dafen Oil Painting Village, in the east of the city, is one such ghetto. The five thousand artists and craftsmen working here are all in the same business: kitsch. The streets are lined with imitation Impressionist canvases in gilt frames and sentimental Chinese landscapes destined for mediocre restaurants across the world. Occasionally you'll glimpse a backroom full of diligent copyists – skilful artisans fuelling a global trade in tat: made in China, sold in Wal-Mart.

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Huaqianbei Commercial Zone

If ranks of Beaux Arts-style paintings don't correspond with your image of the new China, then Huaqianbei Commercial Zone will. You might call it the technology ghetto. Once an industrial area, it is now a heaving shopping thoroughfare and the biggest trade centre in Asia for electronic components. Even at night the neon-crazed streets throng with people, and pavement speakers blare out synthetic Chinese pop. In the SEG department store, behind a circuit board-style facade, is storey upon storey of phones, digital cameras, audio equipment and computers.

Despite what one might assume, none of it is especially cheap. Shenzhen has money without the ostentation. By not counting its roughly five million unregistered migrant workers, it can sell itself as China's most middle-class city. There are smart malls here, almost indistinguishable from their Western counterparts except in tolerating flagrant knock-offs – "Armarni" suits and "L'Occiturne" cosmetics. "Shenzhen is quite cosmopolitan now," says Mary Ann O'Donnell, an expat American teacher who has lived here for 13 years. "There's a lifestyle for the leisure class in place, and ten years ago that wasn't true." She adds, referring to the biennale, "Suddenly all the pretty culture people are in Shenzhen."

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The Window of the World theme park, with the Eiffel Tower, pyramids and African village

The image of this city – a light but permanent smog clinging to the skyline of unlovely towers – can belie the idea of a leisure class at all. And yet it is well stocked with large and formally landscaped parks and, north of the city, boasts the biggest golf course in the world. But, like Dafen, the leisure zones can take on a surreal quality. To the west is a series of theme parks. The largest, Window of the World, offers visitors "the cream of world civilisation". At 108m high, the replica Eiffel Tower is no slouch, and acts as a genuine urban landmark, dwarfing the nearby pyramids of Giza, French chateau, Dutch gabled houses and pigmy Taj Mahal. As a gesture, there is something sinisterly pacifying about the park, as though it were asking, "Why would you want to leave Shenzhen when the whole world is here?"

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Highrise residential towers viewed from a rooftop in the east of the city

Like Dubai, Shenzhen thrives on its faith in the power of real estate – unlike Dubai, the demand for that real estate is insatiable. Along Shennan Avenue new residential towers are sprouting up in clusters – still wrapped in green protective jackets, they look like they're being disguised as natural outcrops. But disguises would suggest embarrassment, and there is none of that in Shenzhen. Beauty is not the mission; architecture is for encouraging economic growth. Design here is not precious and angst-ridden; it is copious and unhesitant. The prevailing aesthetic is pragmatism. The innate industriousness of this city – and this country – means that speed of delivery is never in doubt, but neither is the likelihood of a quick fix.

"This is a generic city, as Rem [Koolhaas] would say, an artificial city," says Yan Meng, one of the founders of local architecture practice Urbanus. Educated in America, Yan and his partners opened their office in Shenzhen in the late 1990s because there was so much potential work here, and they followed in the wake of hundreds of other Chinese practices who arrived in the 1980s to capitalise on what was a blank slate. He concedes that the city has very little in the way of distinct culture. "It's very thin," he says, "but I can see the potential. It's like New York at the turn of the 20th century. You'll find people here from every province in China. It's a vibrant city, very chaotic – it's a lot of life."

The future of Shenzhen is not the future of a single city. Local planners take for granted that by 2020 Shenzhen will fuse with Hong Kong into a bi-part megalopolis. "It's hard to say whether we will cancel the border or not but what is sure is that connections will be more and more convenient," says Huang Weiwen of Shenzhen Municipal Planning Bureau. Meanwhile, Shenzhen is being ridden hard to catch up with its Siamese twin. "Industry will now be focused on high tech, finance, logistics and culture," he says. Across the city factories are being razed or converted into arts facilities, but this is not a natural evolution, as it was in Europe. It is being aggressively pushed by the government. "Retire the secondary industries and bring in the tertiary industries," goes the official policy slogan. Snappy.

Returning to the streets of Dongmen, I can't help noticing how many fake watches are on offer. Watch-making is a particular speciality of this city: 45 per cent of the world's watches are made here. Combine that with the indigenous talent for counterfeiting, and Dongmen would seem like the obvious place to buy a fake watch. Surely, even in a fake, some of that expertise would have to tell. But on the return flight home, somewhere over the Himalayas, my new "Tag Heuer" Carrera stopped.

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The Window of the World theme park, with miniature Manhattan, Washington DC and Rio de Janeiro

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Highrise and lowrise housing intermingle

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A construction cover in the Central Business District

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The port at Mawan, one of several in Shenzhen that make it the world’s sixth biggest container hub



Polly Braden



Justin Mcguirk

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The class divider is decorated with dotted chains that are supposed to represent a bead curtain

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