Requiem for the Living Mall

Core Pacific City, AKA the Living Mall, was notable for its striking dome-shaped exterior. Its construction encountered several issues that may have doomed it from the beginning. Photo: Tobie Openshaw

Core Pacific City was an architectural oddity, tucked into an unfashionable part of Taipei. Still, the shopping center – now being razed – always had its admirers.

The year of the rat is off to a rough start, throwing so much news of earth-shaking proportions at the public that less-significant stories get lost amid a maelstrom of genuine concerns. One such item of lesser import is the impending demolition of one of Taiwan’s strangest architectural landmarks, Core Pacific City (AKA the Living Mall).

It’s easy to understand why news of the Living Mall’s demise has met with a communal meh from Taiwan’s generally overburdened collective consciousness. The nation’s hangover from the most important presidential election in Taiwan’s history had yet to fade when the region was hit with impending peril yet again from another looming catastrophe in the form of the coronavirus.

This new existential crisis has stretched the nation’s overwhelmed attention span far past the point where many tears could be shed for a bizarre structure that had squatted quietly on the periphery of Taipei’s skyline for close to two decades.   

Few were surprised by last year’s announcement of the Living Mall’s closure. Core Pacific City had been hemorrhaging money for years, according to most sources (including, most notably, its owners). In recent years, the Living Mall had become an ideal place to take the grandchildren, thanks to its low traffic (ironically one of the factors leading to its closing) and businesses catering to children. But outside of regular customers on the far ends of the demographic scale, Core Pacific City had mostly die-hard enthusiasts enjoying the unquestionably unique, largely right-angle-free interior space.

The mall’s interior, which resembled something out of an old sci-fi movie. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

I counted myself among these enthusiasts, at least for the last few years of the Living Mall’s life, and news of the impending demise of this strange architectural behemoth brings me great sadness. At the risk of sounding self-centered, I should explain that Core Pacific City’s life is deeply intertwined with my own Taiwan story.

The year was 1997, and Taiwan had just recently gone through its most important election in history, the one cementing Lee Tung-hui as the first truly democratically elected president of the Republic of China. Economic sentiment was bullish, and Taiwan’s strategy of cornering the market in the semiconductor and computer-hardware sectors then driving a global high-tech economic boom was paying rich dividends.

I was a fresh-faced young expat with a degree in English and zero experience in either the financial or tech sectors. Despite this, I’d just been hired by a company called Core Pacific Securities. Flush with cash and expanding quickly, the company had just branched out into early childhood education, opening up a nursery school/kindergarten for their employees’ kids just a few blocks from its headquarters on Dunhua Road. Little Lion King Kindergarten was billed as a fully immersive English environment, and I’d been hired to teach from 8 a.m. until noon.

But Taiwan’s labor laws were (then as now) inscrutable. Unable to hire a foreigner legally as a kindergarten teacher, Core Pacific brought me on board as an “English Language Financial Specialist,” meaning each day after lunch with the kiddies and a power nap in the ball pit, I donned office jacket and tie and headed to company HQ. There, I’d spend the next five hours sitting at a desk reading newspapers, studying Chinese, and occasionally going to the library to use their computer to log into a novelty called “the World Wide Web.”

Very infrequently, I’d be assigned some minor task.

One of these rare sojourns into productivity involved editing a document created to pitch a building project to foreign investors. At first, I thought it was a joke. The proposal’s prose was weird and flowery, describing a building designed by an avant-garde American architect named Jon Jerde, who’d also drawn renditions of his proposed vision from various angles. It was a remarkably strange ball-shaped building that looked like the set from a cheesy retro sci-fi flick set in some far-off futuristic dystopia.

The colleague who’d given me the assignment was very excited. “If this moves forward, this building will really be a landmark,” he said. I agreed with him, of course, all the while thinking it highly unlikely that a project this strange would ever be green-lit, let alone funded.

But Core Pacific Securities hadn’t hired me for my financial acumen, and Taiwan in the late 20th century was a wild place, fertile and optimistic. More importantly, the Taiwan business community was swimming in cash and in a gambling mood. Within the next 18 months, ground on the corner lot at Bade and Dongning Roads was being broken for the construction of what was now dubbed Core Pacific City: The Living Mall.

Inauspicious beginnings

Core Pacific City: The Living Mall opened in November 2001, by which time I’d long since hung up my kindergarten cap and Core Pacific tie. Still, I had a small sense of personal investment in the project, and was saddened by the news of the Living Mall’s inauspicious grand opening. The long escalator meant to bring the first batch of VIP visitors from ground level into the Mall’s futuristic interior failed to operate. That these VIPs included then-President Chen Shui-bian – who’d been elected the year before in what many called “the most important election in Taiwanese history” and invited to cut the ribbon – was only one bad omen among many.

Core Pacific City’s problems ran deeper than a mere inauspicious opening day. The Mall was under a cloud, owing largely to issues involving licenses and safety violations. That the project had gone vastly over budget did not help matters, especially since the bullish financial era in which the project was conceived had given way to the deeply bearish days following the bursting of the first dot-com bubble.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, Core Pacific City opened just a couple of months after September 11, 2001, a time of financial uncertainty and general global pessimism.  

I visited the Mall just a few weeks after its grand opening, hoping very much to fall in love with the weird place. But immersed in the gloomy zeitgeist along with everyone else, I found the experience surreal and underwhelming. I wrote of my first experience at the place in less-than flattering-terms in an article entitled “A Late Night Visit to the Great Mall”:

“Getting from the street level to The Living Mall’s interior lobby requires a lengthy escalator ride through a neon tunnel. Keep reminding yourself that you are going shopping, and not being taken via conveyor belt deep into the heart of an alien hive. Do not panic. The colored lights along the ceiling are there to soothe. They are not obscuring wall-mounted nozzles waiting to disinfect you for your visit with the alien hive queen. Soon enough, you will be inside the structure itself, refreshed and ready for some serious shopping.

But shopping for what? There’s the rub. After the lengthy trip up the mystery chute, the rapt shopper expects to be greeted by some sort of futuristic smorgasbord of capitalistic delights – shops selling space-age go-go boots, beauty salons offering Jetson-esque haircuts, a few snack bars hawking Soylent Green. But there isn’t any of that. After a few loops around the mall’s ever-curving interior, it dawns on the shopper that The Living Mall offers nothing that can’t be found elsewhere in Taipei city.”

I didn’t return to the Living Mall for several years. Apparently, I was not alone. After an early flush of curious visitors, attendance dwindled. My one-time employers and their various investors had gambled that their unquestionably unique shopping and lifestyle venue would become an anchor point, transforming an unfashionable part of Taipei into a center of shopping, leisure, and recreation. Instead, the opposite happened: the neighborhood remained unfashionable and – equally important in a city of a million conveniences – desperately under-served by the city’s growing MRT system.

In what must have seemed to the once-optimistic developers at Core Pacific the unkindest cut of all, Taipei 101 opened its doors to the world in late 2004 with the sort of fanfare and patriotic pride generally reserved for moon launches and Olympic hosting. With the opening of Taipei 101, the Xinyi district cemented its position as Taipei’s prime shopping district. Taipei 101 (and the luxury mall in its lower floors) would cast permanent shade on Core Pacific City, which was relegated to the unenviable position of White Elephant of Taipei City’s shopping scene.  

As the decade wore on and the bold era of Chen Shui-bian gave way to the more cautious days of Ma Ying-jeou, the Living Mall stayed alive. And while it never quite thrived, Core Pacific City continued to hold the dubious honor of being at once the most written about, yet least profitable, shopping mall in Taiwan (and perhaps all of Asia).

In spite of my own initial impression and snarky first article, by 2010 I’d joined the ranks of writers singing the place’s praises, calling it – in the numerous articles and guidebooks I was writing at the time – a must-see spot for anyone visiting Taipei. Perhaps this change of heart reflected maturity, my taste in art and architecture having expanded through extensive travel through Pearl River Delta cities like Shenzhen, whose unabashed embrace of experimental architecture had apparently widened my horizons.

The time-honored crankiness of middle age (something we inevitably try to pass off as nostalgia) may have played a role as well. As Taipei’s top-tier shopping venues continued to stay on the bleeding edges of fashion and technology, there was something comforting about visiting a mall whose surrealistic design was belied by the unfashionable, almost frumpy, shopping choices within.

As the 2010s dawned, the Living Mall’s interior became my comfortable time capsule of a future that might have been. The food court offered little in the way of outstanding fare, but I ate there anyway just for the chance to dine beneath the sphere itself and gaze upwards into its interior lights.

The only practical area where Core Pacific City punched within its weight class was its movie theater, which remained among the best in the city and was my go-to spot for thrice-yearly Marvel blockbuster pilgrimages. But aside from the theater, the mall was usually uncrowded (and unprofitable).

Though the writing had long been on the wall by 2017, that didn’t stop me from continuing a career-long tradition of inaccurate prognostication by declaring the place to be “on an upswing” in a 2017 blog post written while doing research for a book.

Even after the lights-out ceremony for Core Pacific City (where visibly saddened Core Pacific Group Chairman Shen Ching-ching said the mall’s closing “symbolizes the disillusion of a dream of mine”) was held last November, I still held hope that the building might be saved. I was planning to end this article on a hopeful note, speculating that President Tsai might use a bit of her post-election political clout to grant the structure landmark status.

Never one to leave a half-baked idea half-baked, I’d even come up with a few suggestions about how the government might go about re-purposing the building. The options included turning it into a velodrome, cat sanctuary, or annex for the National Palace Museum (or perhaps all three at once, zoning laws permitting).

But scarcely had I begun the final paragraph when a series of photos and a video posted by a friend confirmed that the deconstruction crew had already begun its work, dashing my hopes for a reprieve. The deconstruction will need to be done delicately to preserve the foundation and sub-levels for incorporation into the office complex slated to replace the Living Mall by 2022.

Soon enough, the physical embodiment of Jon Jerde’s vision and Shen Ching-ching’s dream will exist only in the memories of the millions who visited it over the years, and in the thousands of articles written about the mall by journalists, travel writers, and bloggers impressed enough by its short, audacious existence.