Creating A Taiwan Sensibility in Architecture

The National Palace Museum Southern Branch in Chiayi, by Kris Yao's Artech (Photo: Jeffrey Cheng (Kris Yao))
The National Palace Museum Southern Branch in Chiayi, by Kris Yao's Artech (Photo: Jeffrey Cheng (Kris Yao))

Major advances have taken place in the sector in just the past few decades.

 The opening of the National Palace Museum Southern Branch in December last year brought President Ma Ying-jeou and a host of other dignitaries to Taiwan’s southwestern city of Chiayi, in a celebration of Asian culture. Aboriginal singers and a dragon dance entertained the guests, who then viewed exhibits of Buddhist art, Chinese Ming Dynasty porcelain, and Islamic jades.

The event also showcased another, more contemporary art form: Taiwan architecture. Designed by one of the island’s leading architecture firms, Kris Yao Artech, the building that houses the Southern Branch represents an elegant, modern monument to the confluence of Eastern and Western aesthetics and technology. The flowing glass-and-steel structure, which in its basic form reflects three kinds of Chinese ink brushstrokes, has won rave reviews from visitors, as well as professionals and experts.

Explaining his design concept, Artech founder Kris Yao says: “I thought the building would be a free-flowing form on this absolute flat plain [of former sugarcane fields]. The theme is Chinese art, so I wanted something cultural-related. Calligraphy is just right.”

The tranquil Water-Moon Monastery on the Guandu Plain near Taipei, by Kris Yao's Artech (Photo: Jeffrey Cheng (Kris Yao))
The tranquil Water-Moon Monastery on the Guandu Plain near Taipei, by Kris Yao’s Artech (Photo: Jeffrey Cheng (Kris Yao))

Yao and Artech are among a handful of players in the local architecture sector that are exploring, and starting to define, a unique Taiwan sensibility. “It’s a beginning,” says Wu Kwang-tyng, director of National Cheng Kung University’s Art Center in Tainan. Architects such as Yao “have a sense of self-identity and they know what they want to do to promote Taiwan culture,” he says.

Taiwan still has a long way to go, especially in comparison to the skylines of New York, Dubai, or Hong Kong. High-rises crowd the capital Taipei, yet few stand out among generic stone-and-glass facades. In many buildings, bars cover the windows and plants sprout off balconies, while mom-and-pop stores and auto repair shops clutter the ground floor. Structures tend to reflect a focus on efficiency and the bottom line, rather than aesthetics.

Even so, the sector has seen major advances since the boom days of the 1980s, when tile-and-glass buildings and other projects of dubious aesthetics and quality sprang up all around the island.

Just take a walk in the Xinyi commercial district in eastern Taipei. Anchoring the area is a 101-story skyscraper designed by Taiwan firm C.Y. Lee & Partners and aptly dubbed Taipei 101. The building – once the world’s tallest – displays both technological ingenuity and Chinese cultural motifs. Other sleek towers – including Kelti Center’s rectangular, crystallized-rock structure and a half-dozen other Artech projects – house hotels, commercial space, and corporate headquarters. Elevated walkways connect the buildings, while public spaces below welcome street performers and cafes.

Better city planning, improved technical skills, and strong local architecture programs have contributed to the progress. Many of Taiwan’s leading architects, including Yao and C.Y. Lee, studied or worked in the United States, Japan, or Europe before returning home to practice, and eventually to set up their own firms.

Architecture designer Sasa Ho says such international exposure has been key to encouraging Taiwan architects to explore their own design style. Initially, in what she calls the local sector’s “teenage phase,” Ho says “Taiwan rejected its roots. It tried to become Japanese, American, European.”

After more Taiwan architects started getting educated overseas and exposed to global trends, “they became more aware of the importance of the vernacular,” she says. “When you are able to counterbalance globalization with the celebration of beauty in your culture, that’s when you reach maturity.”

Today, Taiwanese are beginning to show a growing appreciation of their roots; it’s become trendy, for example, to find new uses for old buildings, rather than tearing them down. In the heart of Taipei, an abandoned wine factory has been transformed into HuashanHome 1914, a creative-arts and culture center. The set of buildings, which date back as early as 1914, has attracted the attention of artists and performers thanks to its open spaces and abundant natural light.

Tainan, on the southwestern coast, has also made efforts to preserve old parts of the city, with many Japanese colonial-era buildings getting a second life as boutique shops and restaurants. (The city recently also shined a spotlight on the poor quality of some older structures, after a strong earthquake in February damaged buildings and caused a 17-story apartment complex to collapse, killing 115 people inside.)

Construction of the Taipei Performing Arts Center in the Shilin District (Photo: Chris Stowers)
Construction of the Taipei Performing Arts Center in the Shilin District (Photo: Chris Stowers)

A process of integration

One challenge facing Taiwan architects seeking to incorporate both the traditional and the modern into their creations is how to do so without being viewed as too overt or pretentious. C.Y. Lee has come under such criticism for his works, including Taipei 101, which uses dragon and phoenix motifs in addition to “stacking peak on peak,” echoing the structure of a pagoda or bamboo.

Lee brushes aside such detractors. “People criticize us for using too many Chinese elements. But architecture is like a language. Symbols are part of a language to express ‘This is ours. This is mine,’” he says.

“People say I try to do my own [style of] architecture, but that I can’t achieve it. But [others] don’t have the guts to try.”

Another characteristic of Lee’s works is their sheer ambition, whether symbolized by the former record height of Taipei 101 or shown off in his vast white-and-gold addition to Shanxi Famen Temple’s Sarira Pagoda in central China. “A grand scale has the power to influence,” he says.

Wu of National Cheng Kung University says that Lee is “maybe too direct and strong” for many of his fellow architects, but he appreciates that Lee “has a lot of guts – and the Chinese like him a lot.”

When it comes to works that capture a unique Taiwan sentiment and reflect the island’s identity and culture in a post-modern milieu, though, Wu cites two other architects. One is Artech’s Yao, epitomized by such works as the National Palace Museum Southern Branch building.

In contrast to the National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall – a model of 1960s Taiwan architecture with its distinctive, traditional curved roof – the Southern Branch, with its flowing lines that echo brush painting, identifies as “Chinese traditional without architectural form,” says Wu. “It uses a more abstract way to define our tradition.”

Fung Ming-chu, director of the National Palace Museum, says the design is “related to Chinese tradition, but it is also totally contemporary and modern.”

A second architect whom Wu regards as representing another direction in Taiwan architecture is Huang Sheng-yuan, founder of Fieldoffice Architects in the northeastern city of Yilan. The Yale University-educated architect and his firm are changing the look and feel of the city and surrounding county, even as their projects celebrate local culture and natural environs.

“It’s a localized approach,” says Wu. “It’s development from the grassroots, not the [central] government. It utilizes and provides flexible space, so local culture can develop that space.”

Fieldoffice has designed not just parks and museums, but also a water pump station and bike lane, an old people’s home, and a cemetery. Working with local authorities, it is uncovering the natural waterways that run under the ground in the region, but have been paved over by highways and other construction.

“The water is always there, going through the city, flowing to the ocean,” says Huang. By revealing these channels and allowing them to flow visibly next to schools and in grassy parks, “people won’t forget nature.”

Several other younger-generation architects are also attracting attention with their use of innovative materials and creative designs. Divooe Zein of Taipei-based Divooe Zein Architects uses simple materials to try to bridge the gap between people and nature. One project, the Siu Siu Lab of Primitive Senses, creates a workshop from wood and agricultural netting that allows light, natural fauna, and forest scents to permeate the space.

The iconic Taipei 101, with its Chinese motifs, dominates the Taipei skyline. (Photo: Li Zhuyuan)
The iconic Taipei 101, with its Chinese motifs, dominates the Taipei skyline. (Photo: Li Zhuyuan)

Chang Ching-hwa and Kuo Ying-chao, principals of Taipei-based Bio-architecture Formosana, have won a name for sustainable architecture. Their award-winning Taipei Public Library Beitou Branch features solar panels, a green roof and permeable pavement, and a light-drenched interior.

In recent years, the entrance of more international firms into Taiwan has helped to strengthen local firms’ expertise, generating both competition and collaboration. Dutch architecture firm OMA, based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, has teamed up with Artech on the Taipei Performing Arts Center, a geometric structure housing three theaters that is currently under construction in the Shilin night market district. OMA Managing Partner David Gianotten says such partnerships benefit both sides.

“We learn about Chineseness and Taiwan, and an international interpretation of Chineseness,” Gianotten says. “They learn conceptual thinking – how to transform concept into real progress.” For example, he says, OMA successfully persuaded the client not to line the sides of the new building with potentially lucrative luxury shops, and instead to keep the area clear for a possible return of nightmarket stalls.

That was a key aspect of the architects’ vision, but “you have to help the client feel they are part of the process and convince them,” he says. “We’re trained in this because we work all around the world.”

Obstacles to innovation

Innovative works such as the Arts Center still remain the exception in Taiwan’s architectural landscape, however, with architects citing several reasons for the dearth. Shen Kuo-chien, a partner at Kris Yao Artech, says local fees, budgets, and salaries are markedly lower than in the West, with projects in Taiwan typically costing one-third or half that of comparable international projects. “We use very few resources,” he says. “If we had the same amount of resources, we feel that we could do better.”

Another consequence of this trend has been a brain drain from Taiwan, with many architecture students staying abroad to work and others taking jobs in China, where salaries can be twice what is available in Taiwan.

While public projects can offer opportunities for greater creative expression than commercial ones, the former generally pay lower rates, and are often accompanied by bureaucratic meddling and numerous requirements and regulations, “which strangle you to death,” Shen says.

The outdoor reading area of the Beitou Library (Photo: Bio-architecture formosana)
The outdoor reading area of the Beitou Library (Photo: Bio-architecture formosana)

Changes in political leadership, meanwhile, can result in changes in, or the outright cancellation of, public-project contracts, says Mei Cheng, a principal at Fei & Cheng Associates. That can be a problem because Taiwan architects tend to be paid only after completion of a job, instead of in phases, as is done in the United States and other markets.

Fei & Cheng has yet to be paid for work it did on the National Palace Museum Southern Branch, after getting caught in a disagreement over cost between the museum and New Mexico-based Antoine Predock Architect, which ultimately resulted in the U.S. firm being replaced by Artech. Fei & Cheng had been responsible for detailed design and construction supervision, while Predock oversaw basic design.

Fung, the National Palace Museum director, says the museum has resolved the bulk of cases related to the dispute, but three – including the one involving Fei & Cheng – await resolution in court. She adds that the firm “wants more money than we can pay.”

Cheng says issues like these “make it very, very difficult” for firms – especially smaller ones – to thrive in Taiwan. He has been pushing for changes aimed at making the local architecture sector more professional, including calling for an overhaul of the examination system for certification and for greater respect for the profession.

Artech’s Yao says a fundamental problem facing local architects is that for the past few decades, architecture and building have tended to be closely linked with commercial developments in Taiwan. As a result, “much of the general public can’t differentiate between architecture and real estate.”

Still, he argues against the need to define a Taiwan style of architecture. “Taiwan has a unique natural environment, history, culture. Any architecture that can express that, that grows out of these things, is genuine Taiwanese architecture.”

A few major local firms, such as C.Y. Lee and Partners, are expanding overseas, notably in China, and to a lesser extent the United States and Europe. Some are winning Taiwan-based international competitions for bids, as well as global recognition and awards. For the most part, though, the small scale of Taiwan firms, along with their relative anonymity, up to now has made it tough for all but the biggest and best-known to compete on the international stage.

“I think Taiwan architects are technically capable of making good buildings, and aesthetically they benefit being at the juncture of China, Taiwan, Japan, and modern Western exposure,” says OMA’s Gianotten. “The main thing they need is more international exposure. And they should be united and have a stronger voice for architecture in general.”