Confucius said: “You cannot open a book without learning something.”
The passing of the 102 year old world renowned architect, I M Pei, who also left his mark in Taiwan, has prompted me to write about architecture in Taiwan. People who have landed in Taipei or see the iconic photos of Taipei with the Taipei 101 building centre stage might think all of Taiwan looks like that. That, sadly, is just not true. Once you leave the vibrant cities behind, and even in most areas within cities, the lack of any building or home that is worth a second glance could leave a person quite depressed.
But if you know where to look Taiwan will show you some very eye pleasing secrets. I’m no architect and have very little knowledge about this creative field, but I know what I like: Concrete and lots of it used in gravity-defying ways. Tall shapely buildings (the Dubai type landscape) impresses me for the time it takes to drive past the building. It is concrete used in striking structures, creating something that feels light, airy, elegant and even delicate that grab my attention.
That juxtaposition will keep me returning to stare and experience again, at different times of the day to see how the light, and even the seasons, changes the atmosphere of the building.
Before I tell you about my current four favourite buildings, (oops, four is not a lucky number in Asia, so I’ll throw in another and tell about five buildings) first the history lesson and reasons for the bland buildings or rather the lack of beautiful buildings and a distinct architectural style in Taiwan. Between 1683 and 1895 the Qing emperors ruled Taiwan and the buildings had that look that I will describe as a typical Asian temple look. Then the Japanese colonised Taiwan till 1945 and during their rule only Japanese citizens were allowed to design a building. They did leave some really impressive government buildings and the interesting thing is that most of these buildings are in the western or European style of that time. The Literature Museum in Tainan is an example.
In 1949, at the end of the Chinese civil war, several millions of Chinese arrived in Taiwan and faced a shortage of housing. This led to buildings being erected for functionality and not beauty. However there were some landmark buildings designed and built between 1950 and 1980, mostly in Taipei. Its only since 1990, when the shift in the political arena started happening, Taiwan was becoming richer and more sophisticated and the public wanted buildings that would define a new Taiwan. They wanted to move away from the Japanese and Qing dynasty styles. Over the last 30 years in every sector the Taiwanese have started experimenting and exploring outside the proverbial box. Unfortunately they are looking to the west for inspiration instead of trying to marry Asian and western styles, but that is a debate for another day.
I will list the buildings in the order in which I first saw them.
Kaohsuing is my favourite city in Taiwan. It has two of my favourite buildings. First there is the National Kaohsuing Centre for the Arts. Lets start with the low-down: Built on a former military base, this building was designed by Mecanoo, a Dutch firm, under the leadership of Ms. Francine Houben. It was completed in 2018. It has four performance spaces under the roof and one on the roof.
The Bayan trees in the vicinity of the centre was the inspiration for the design. The Bayan tree is also called the strangling fig. A seed falls on a host and while the roots grow downward covering the host, the trunk and branches grow up to form the canopy. If the host is another plant the Bayan will eventually kill the host and it will become hollow. The art centre has a vast roof or canopy that flows down to the ground and, like a tree, has big open spaces where the breeze moves through while still giving protection.
Although this is the largest performing art centre, under one roof, in the world, its not a formal serious space that one feels you can only visit when holding an expensive ticket to a highfaluting concert. I like the informality it exudes. It invites people to come and spend time here. Its a space you can walk through carrying your picnic basket and blankets on the way to the Weiwuying Park on the other side. Here children and dogs can run and play. Here you can find a place with a good view and a cool breeze and just sit yourself down against a wall and watch the people or read a book. Here the people dressed to the nine for the concerts mingle easily with families out to have a good time.
I really like the outdoor theatre that flows down from the roof to the ground. It leaves the sky or the park as the backdrop for a performance. It all gives you a great sunset experience.
When I look at this building from a distance I see a concrete building that looks like it drifted down and the breeze just lightly put it down here at the edge of the park. I see lines that look like sound waves (I’m sorry I do not see the Bayan tree). When I walk through the building I feel cocooned, the space around me feels light and elegant, and not at all as if there are tonnes of concrete overhead.
My next stop in Kaohsiung is the New Main Library in the Asia New Bay Area that was completed in 2014. Taiwanese architect, Ricky Liu teamed up with Japanese architect Toyo Ito to create this unique building. This eight storey building was built from the top to the bottom. It is regarded as the world’s first column-suspended green building. That means there are no view-blocking pillars on any of the floor, just some “steel bars are responsible for making each floor suspended”, according to the library’s website. The central spiral staircase, too, just floats up from one floor to the next. On all sides the views over the city and the harbour demands attention through the uninterrupted glass walls. On the outside this is a square building and inside from the sixth floor up there is a round atrium that is home to many Asian bayberry trees. Indonesian cinnamon and indigenous cinnamon trees adorn the building on the west and south side. The building has a roof garden which is so lush and well maintained that at times you have to remind yourself that you are in fact on a roof. It even has a pond. On the roof you can see the four main pillars that hold up this building.
What I like about this building is the light, lots of natural light pouring in through the glass walls and via the atrium. With nature so close one can be forgiven for wondering are there trees in the library or is the library in the trees?
For number three on my list of interesting buildings in Taiwan we head to Taichung. On the west coast in the middle of Taiwan you will find this beautiful city. The National Taichung Theatre, completed in 2016, was designed by Japanese architect, Toyo Ito, in collaboration with the Sri Lankan-British designer and artist, Cecil Balmond. This eight story building is in the city with busy roads around it but has a spacious outside area too. The curved walls consist of concrete poured into a prefabricated cast and hand-plastered in the inside of the building. Natural light pours in through big windows and smaller round holes during the day. At night these holes reflect yellow as lights from the inside shines out of it.
To describe this building you need many adjectives, as other writers have proven: swooping walls; sloping halls; delicately rounded; gigantic pristine egg; womb-like; cave-like; tubular voids; overflowing with romance; the building is an opera; overwhelmed by the grandeur; cozy environment: cosmic brilliance; enigmatic cave space. Ito said “A good design allows a person to feel their own freedom within them.” I think he has achieved that.
How do I feel? I fell in love with this building the first time I saw it. When I’m in the building I know I’m in an art space, perhaps even moving around in a piece of art. I like the light and the dots of light against the walls, I like the curves and just like when looking at a sculpture I like to touch it and run my hand along the walls. On two of my visits I was there with a group of friends and in both cases we seem to drift away from each other, each into their own space and yet when we get together again we talk about the building.
I do have two comments that could sound like criticism. There is one passage where I feel claustrophobic and I have to remind myself I will see the foyer and the outside if I just keep moving around this wall. The other has to do with the scale of things. As I said before I’m no architect or designer so perhaps I do not understand this part of the design. This building is huge, the curves command your eyes to move up and around, and then there is that small stream of water in the foyer. I don’t even remember seeing it the first time I was in the building. I discovered it on my second visit when I nearly stepped into it, and I’m sure I’m not the first. I’m wondering if it should not be a bit bigger or more noisy? I’m not asking it to be practical, just for it to claim it’s space, to give it a right to be there. Perhaps when there are not many people in the foyer it does make a statement but unfortunately, like me, many visitors will only see this building at weekends, when its always crowded.
On the second floor there is an artwork designed by the artist Su Meng Hong that gives a lightness to a space that feels plush and formal. On the rounded wall birds and butterflies are moving through leaves and flowers while still leading your eyes up to see the building. I mention this here to show this serious building does have a quirky side too. First the use of the really bright colours is eye catching and a surprise. Then when you take a close look at the wings of the butterflies you see faces, well, the reversed profile of people that worked on this building. The one butterfly set apart from the others is the profile of Ito.
When I started writing this blog I realised I did not have a single decent photo of this building and it’s because I’m so in awe of everything around me that I forget to take photos, and that says something. I can go for a short hike in the mountain near my village and come back with hundreds of photos. However, after several visits to this unique building I do not have more than a handful of photos, none which I feel are worthy but I’ll show some anyway.
The fourth building is the newest and closest to my home. The Tainan Art Museum is spread over two buildings. Building 1 was renovated and reopened in 2018 and one street block away Building 2 is newly built and opened its doors to the public in January 2019 for the first time.
It was designed by Shi Zhao Yong and Shigeru Ban architects from Japan. They took their inspiration from Tainan’s official flower, the vibrant flower of the poiciana tree (Delonix Regia) and the shape / outline of Tainan on a map. This building has a pentagonal shape and putting the unique roof on this five story building they followed through with the tree theme. When I went looking for information on the roof I found one website that started its explanation with “By using simple geometry…” well, I’m sorry but for my brain those two words simple and geometry are contradictions. So I will just quote from the official brochure handed out when you enter this space. “The specially engineered triangle fractal shaped panels hang on the ceiling to keep the building cool from direct sunlight and cast a shadow like that of ones through tree leaves.”
At the beginning I said I like the use of concrete to create interesting buildings. So what attracts me here are concrete blocks hanging on the outside of the building at different levels and angles, and the diagonal beams grounding the roof. These beams also lead your eyes up to the roof making you want to go inside and see it from another angle. On the outside, from all five sides this building is pleasing to look at.
I have mixed feelings about the inside. Once you step inside the building from its dramatic exterior through a standard size door that feels too small for this setting, one sweep of the eye and you have taken in the whole of the inside of the building. Your eyes go up to that roof, then the creative lift shaft and that’s it. Perhaps the interior was left looking like a blank canvas to show the play of the shadows and the light falling through the roof. I love it, its beautiful. Unfortunately it also leads my eyes to the floor. The first time I saw this floor the first thought that crossed my mind was “Has this building been signed off? Are the contractors coming back at some point to complete the floor?” Sadly, the answer is no. The building is done and that floor is there to stay. I can’t pinpoint my exact problem with the floor in the foyer. Its slabs of concrete with the outline of each slab visible where it touches the next slab. Many buildings have floors like this but here it just looks like there is another step to be done to finish it off.
The Tainan Art Museum is not set near or in a park so to encourage the public to use this space as if it is a park the architects have designed the building so that there are spaces between the galleries that flows to many semi-outdoor platforms. The public do use these spaces to rest or to work . On my one visit there was a fashion photo shoot happening on one of these platforms and on another occasion a band was shooting a music video there.
So the fifth building has to be I M Pei’s contribution to the Taiwan architectural scene. I have not seen this building, yet. It is called the Luce Memorial Chapel on the Tunghai University campus. It was built in 1962/63. It is described as made up of four reinforced concrete panels. On the outside the concrete is covered with locally made diamond-shaped tiles in a yellowish colour. When I look at photos of this building I get the impression it sits lightly on the earth, it looks like it could just lift off and drift away on a breeze. And yet, it has withstood many typhoons and earthquakes. When I do have a chance to see this building I will update this blog. I think the interior is going to sway me one way or the other.