Architecture in Taiwan: Dual Approaches

Luodong Cultural Working House is defined by its open space as much as its industrial steel structure (Photo: Min-jia Chen)
Luodong Cultural Working House is defined by its open space as much as its industrial steel structure (Photo: Min-jia Chen)

One is high culture, the other grassroots. But the architecture of both Kris Yao and Huang Sheng-yuan represents the emergence of an original Taiwan sensibility.

Kris Yao Artech  

“One thing that is very important in architecture is locality. The design of any piece of architecture can only stand on one certain spot on the planet Earth, so you need to relate it to the locality, culture, history.”

– Kris Yao, founder

Whether designing cultural centers or corporate headquarters, Kris Yao and his firm seek to incorporate elements that reflect the fundamental identity of the structure, its functions, and surroundings – and meld that with modern technology and aesthetics.

Humble House hotel in Taipei. (Photo: Jeffrey Cheng (Kris Yao))
Humble House hotel in Taipei. (Photo: Jeffrey Cheng (Kris Yao))

The National Palace Museum Southern Branch, which showcases Asian art, includes traditional Asian cultural elements in both the layout of the building and other structural features. The project design echoes the flow of three types of brushstrokes in Chinese calligraphy: thick ink, as represented by a dark, solid section holding six galleries and two exhibition rooms; half-dry, represented by the steel-and-glass section containing the lobby, library, and offices; and smearing, defined by a courtyard bamboo garden that runs between the two structures.

Dragon, elephant, and horse motifs in various parts of the building symbolize the civilizations of China, India, and Persia, respectively. Composed of more than 36,000 cast aluminum disks, the exterior of the dark section depicts a digitized design of ancient dragon and cloud patterns that appear to move with the changing light.

The exterior space is also important. “The National Palace Museum houses the treasures of humankind,” Yao says. “The journey of making a trip into the treasure house is a process of exploring and discovering.” Before entering the lobby, visitors must thus cross a long pedestrian bridge spanning a manmade lake and traverse the quiet of the bamboo courtyard. The long stroll forces visitors to slow down to the rhythm of life in rural Chiayi, and allows the landscape to unfold scene by scene, as if in a movie.

The NT$3 billion (US$91.5 million) project employs advanced technology in the building of the 142-meter suspension bridge and of the museum itself, with features to protect it from earthquakes and typhoons, and to promote environmental sustainability.

The Le Meridien Hotel and office complex. (Photo: Jeffrey Cheng (Kris Yao))
The Le Meridien Hotel and office complex. (Photo: Jeffrey Cheng (Kris Yao))

Fieldoffice Architects

“Architecture is part of everything. All of our work is connected with Yilan – connected with the river, with the riverbanks, with the museum. You can do one street, then another – small projects, but you add them together…All are connected, but none quite done.”

– Huang Sheng-yuan, founder

Although originally from Taipei, Huang Sheng-yuan opted to establish Fieldoffice Architects in Yilan, which attracted him with its natural beauty, slower pace of life, and distance from mainstream Kuomintang politics. Preserving all this – and helping Yilan’s local culture and natural surroundings flourish – are a key theme running through Fieldoffice’s many projects scattered around the city and greater Yilan County.

Luodong Cultural Working House exemplifies what Huang and his firm have been doing in Yilan. Located in the heart of Luodong Township, the Working House is defined as much by its open space and emptiness as its industrial steel structure. A sky gallery and an elevated track park above allow for exhibits and joggers. More performance space is available on the ground floor, while a giant steel canopy stretches overhead, providing partial cover.

Huang says one goal of building the Working House was to provide a cultural counterbalance in Luodong to the center of government in Yilan City. Another was that “we wanted to occupy space,” he says. Some local interests wanted to develop the area for business, but “we wanted to keep it empty for public use. Insects and frogs can wander through. You can invite artists and exhibitions….It’s like a plaza in front of a temple. It’s all culture, but not high art.”

Fieldoffice works closely with local authorities in developing its projects, in a relationship that Huang describes as resembling a friendship or a collaboration among equals. The dynamic contrasts with the traditional top-down political structure imposed by the Kuomintang when it fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war on the Chinese mainland. Even so, the Working House ran into resistance, taking nearly 15 years to complete the main structure.