Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Wednesday, 06 October 2010
Wednesday, 06 October 2010 23:46

The Native Evolution of Jingliao Church

Translated from Chinese by Conor Stuart

"I think the future of architecture does not lie so much in continuing to fill up the landscape, as in bringing back life and order to our cities and towns."
——Gottfried Böhm

Holy Cross Church: Made in Germany for Taiwan

In 1955, the German priest Eric Jansen, of the Franciscan Order, was sent to the Houbi township in Tainan County to establish the parish of Jingliao. For locals, this á-tok-á [Taiwanese language semi-derogatory term that uses “big nose” to describe foreigners] was quite entertaining: he could play the accordion, and imitate the calls of lots of different animals and often used a slide projector. However, what heightened their curiosity towards him was his unexpected decision to build a Catholic church in this small township. At the time everyone was primarily interested in seeing what foreign buildings looked like, no-one anticipated (not even the priest himself) that decades later the church’s presence would have such a dramatic effect, and become such a prominent tourist attraction, and the reason for this fame would be another foreigner.

Through the recommendation of another priest from Sinying (新營) Parish, Jansen managed to get in contact with a young architect called Gottfried Böhm. Böhm is from the south of Germany and was born into a family of architects, a family particularly known for church design. After a period of correspondence, Böhm agreed to Father Jansen’s request. At the end of 1955 the blueprint was completed, and in 1960 the work was completed and the church opened for use. The people of Jingliao were, from then on, free to frequent a very peculiar church.

In 1986 Böhm won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which is seen as an equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the architecture world. However very few people are aware that one of his works in in Taiwan, and it is said that even Böhm himself forgot about it.The plans were only unearthed three years ago, and everything that Jingliao Church had gone through in the intervening years was made public, which made people flock there in large numbers, to see this sacred shrine of architecture.


The silver hall amongst the billowing rice plants

In Jingliao, the Holy Cross Church leads somewhat of a distinctive existence: The silver grey of the steeple rises suddenly above the rice plants towering over them. On top of the steeple there are different decorations all replete with religious symbolism including a cockerel, a dove, a cross and a crown, so as to indicate respectively the belfry, the baptismal font, the sanctuary and the resting place of the Blessed Sacrament. Beside the church is a dormitory and a kindergarten, all enclosed within the same compound, and interlinked.

bohm_church_4When designing the Holy Cross Church, Böhm was heavily influenced by Modernism, with its simple lines as well as the abundance of natural light and open space. However his family trade was architecture, so the basic traits of European Catholic Churches are still noticeable in the entire Church, like for example, in the steeple, the baptismal hall and the wall mosaics, the convention of having the Baptismal Hall separate from the main church has also been adopted.

In addition, one can also observe Böhm's attentiveness to detail in terms of Circulation Design, the way from the belfry to the church is low, until after it winds around the holy water font, then the entire space becomes brighter and more spacious.

Finally when one arrives at the altar, radiant light spills down from the steeple, falling exactly where the cross and the altar lie, the altar is lighted from the windows behind it, bestowing a natural sanctity to the ambiance. Böhm also designed the decoration and religious vessels, making the architectural structure consistent with the interior. The presence of these decorative features, not only enriches the structural details, but it also endows the entire space with a certain integrity. Even so, the very tangible European style of the church looks out of place in the surrounding scenery, so how could it be integrated as an everyday space for local residents, and become a part of their community? The way in which this happened is perhaps the most interesting of all.


Reinventing piece by piece an alien concept of the local

bohm_church_3All the plans by Böhm were completed in Germany, and he never set foot on Taiwanese soil. In the plans, with the exception of a few embellishments like a few palm trees in the background, and a few notes in German detailing the interior of the church, like "Formosan window lattice" on the plans for the main chapel, it's not known what image he had of this exotic island, and how much of this imagined image that he incorporated into his design concept. For example, the altar in the church is octagonal; according to the present Parish Priest, the inspiration for this design was the Eight Diagrams derived from the Classic of the I-Ching, which is familiar to all Taiwanese. However he also mentions that many altars of many European churches are octagonal, said to symbolize the Eighth Day of Creation, which is often used within the church as a metaphor for new beginnings or rebirth.This ambiguously double layered symbolism helps to bridge the gap between foreign architecture and localism.

There is also a more active local reclamation of the church, which manifests itself in the addition of “native” features after the fact.The incense burner is a good example of this; as one approaches it, the burnt remnants of joss sticks are clearly visible. The priest states that incense has been used in the mass traditionally, so using an incense burner during rituals is not particularly inappropriate. However, due to its proximity to an icon of the Holy Mother, this attacks our notion of what constitutes “the Western Church”, with the appearance of red ancestral tablets sitting on a table inscribed “These tablets are in commemoration of the ancestors of Houbi township”. Despite the fact that Catholic Church permits an altered form of manism amongst its Chinese congregations, seeing this kind of offering in plain view gives an uneasy feeling of novelty. Since Vatican II, which advocated the integration of local customs into the Church, incense burners and manistic tablets have been pouring into churches, which is very effective in decreasing the distance between the church and the people.

The current appearance of the Jingliao Church is actually the result of the 40 intervening years of reconstruction efforts. First, the humidity of the climate caused certain parts to collapse and come apart, the only solution was to switch to more climate friendly materials to repair them. The belfry by the entrance had collapsed in a natural disaster and was rebuilt, the new pillar was painted in five colours, and it bears a striking resemblance to a part of the neighbouring kindergarten.The window behind the altar has been boarded up, the reason for this being that a former priest of the parish had found the light too irritating to the eyes during mass.As for the steeple, the internal structure of which was formerly visible, due to rotting of the Chinese juniper timber used, the steeple began to leak, so it was sealed off. Faced with the rigours and demands of regular use, the aesthetic beauty and creativity of the design cannot but yield to practicality.


Returning to the realities of life

From the perspective of local residents, this compromise is not wholly inappropriate; to them, this bizarre church has already become an integral part of their lives. On weekdays children come to attend the kindergarten, adults come to mass to hear the priest preach in Taiwanese. On holidays the tourists flock to catch a glimpse of the famous church, and they are also the object of the discussions of residents. When the annual "Jingliao Dowry Culture Festival" (菁寮嫁妝文化節) arrives, couples clad in phoenix crowns and scarlet gowns can come here to be married, as the priest holds a stick of incense, and prays on the altar laden with the ears of rice plants. When attending a festival, there's usually an old resident who is familiar with the history of the church who will inform whoever will listen of the "Formosan window lattice" once changed for a dull aluminum door, fortunately now changed again for a red oriental style window lattice, they will point at the stained glass and remark that every pane is different, and ask visitors if they think it’s pretty, and without waiting for a response they will mutter, “it’s much more fitting with the style”.

It is evident therefore, that Böhm's aspirations were realized: the church is able to survive in a foreign land, it subsists not as a result of its unique aesthetic, but rather as a result of its incorporation and adaption to the reality of the local setting.


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Photos: Jingliao Church and C. Phiv
Plan provided with courtesy of Taiwan National Museum

Wednesday, 06 October 2010 18:13

An Expo-lent Australian Adventure

In early September I spent a day at the Shanghai Expo.  Bracing myself for crowds of up to 300,000 jostling queue-jumpers, I was relieved that the venue was not too packed. Most pavilions (especially later in the day) did not require any considerable time lining up.  The vast number of unused crowd barriers snaking around entrances that I bypassed at various stages of the day were testament to just how bad the queues might have been.  That said, there were still a hell of a lot of people there.

Arriving a little too late to snap up the special tickets required for China’s gargantuan pavilion (a great design actually, and one that I hope primary school kids around the world can mimic with Paddle Pop sticks), I had to settle for some of the less grandiose pavilions.

The South Korea pavilion had a great mix of 3D and interactive technology, all set to an infectious K-Pop soundtrack.  The hosts remained unflinchingly gracious in the face of relentless questioning (“Are you really Korean? REALLY? But how can you possibly speak such good Chinese?”), even managing to diffuse a vicious brawl between two frazzled and possibly queued-out ladies in the theatrette.

The India pavilion offered a snapshot of Indian civilisation from ancient times through to the recent period of economic development, but my lasting memory was of the handicraft bazaar and the tantalising smells from the curry kitchen that seduced guests meandering around the venue.

The Singapore pavilion was slick, if somewhat forgettable, and the Denmark pavilion had the actual Little Mermaid statue, shipped all the way over to China, and some bikes for visitors to cruise around on.

All good stuff but in spite of the smorgasbord of global morsels that were at my finger tips, the one pavilion I really itched to visit was that of the land of my birth – Australia.  Not just to reconnect, but to see how Australia had decided to pitch itself to what former Prime Minster Kevin Rudd famously called it’s “true friend (zhēngyǒu)”.

pf_shanghai_expo_1Upon arriving at the giant undulating pavilion, which looks a bit like a corrugated tin off-cut left to rust in a paddock, I was able to breeze in through the door, unhindered by any queue. Here I was greeted by a friendly Akubra-clad avuncular type with “G’day! When watching the movie, you might wanna sit at the back so you can see the subtitles”.  Thanks for the tip, mate.

Spiralling up a ramp around the inside of the pavilion I was treated to a potted history of Australia in series of cute dioramas. Unsurprisingly, there was an emphasis on the relationship between Australia and China.  If you were looking for any information about Aboriginal Australians, you had to wait for the last section, where the landmark 2008 apology to ‘the stolen generations’ was highlighted.

Australia’s first inhabitants were excluded from the diorama of when the English landed in Australia.  Instead of Aboriginals, as are normally included in such stylised versions of this event, the pompous-looking Englishmen were confronted with a stick-waving Koala and a stern Kangaroo with crossed arms.  Crikey!  Look at claws on that one!

While there were brief explanations of the diorama scenes, no one really seemed to be paying much attention to them. Unlike the other more hi-tech pavilions I visited, there were certainly no snazzy gizmos here to keep the punters entertained.  The crowd hurriedly snapped photos of each of the dioramas and then barrelled on up the ramp, to where though, no one seemed to know.

pf_shanghai_expo_3As it turned out, at the top of the ramp was the theatrette, where we were rounded up like cattle (how very Australian).  Once in the proverbial cattle yard, some burly Aussie bloke did his best to keep us placated until the next screening, cracking jokes in Chinese and exhorting us to be orderly “for your own safety”.  I found this guy to be pretty funny, but the people around me seemed mainly to be sniggering at his pronunciation.  Perhaps something was lost in translation.  I’m not sure how well the average Chinese person understands the Australian sense of humour.  Some didn’t seem to understand his safety instructions either, with a couple of people trying to push through the queue, even though there was a closed door at the end of it and we had been told that there were enough seats in the theatre for everyone.  The queues at the Expo were generally much more orderly than I expected based on my previous experiences lining up at various Chinese train stations and tourist venues. Nevertheless, some people still found the need to fruitlessly try to push through, only succeeding in pissing everyone else off. I’m surprised that I didn’t see more fights on the day.

The Australian movie was passable, but nowhere near the level of South Korea’s all singing, all dancing, roller coaster ride. Not that the crowd, many of whom were quite young, cared.  They all seemed very happy to be there.  The spritely attendant even managed to cajole them into chanting a mangled version of the dire Sydney Olympics-era chant “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!”.

My favourite image from the movie was towards the beginning. Just after the characters had been introduced and the audience subjected to a montage of dodgy computer graphics, the side of an open-cut mine was spectacularly blown up.  This led in to a sequence of heavy machinery carting rocks out of the ground and onto the marketplace.  The market of course, as Australia’s recent recession-proof prosperity might testify to, is China.  What better symbol to represent Australia and China’s current relationship.  I loved it.

After the movie, we were herded down the ramp, out of the theatre and into the gift shop.  There was also some dinky-di Aussie tucker – meat pies, fish and chips, beer and other imported delicacies.  Despite my strong urge for a pie and sauce, it was all a bit pricey for me, so I skedaddled out the door and to find something a bit cheaper and possibly more tasty.

pf_shanghai_expo_4Judging by the chirpy crowds hanging around in the foyer and checking out the tacky merchandise for sale, I think the organisers had a done a good job.  The primarily Chinese guests seemed happy.  However, the Australian government wants to do more than just flog off a couple of overpriced fluffy kangaroos and tinnies of VB.  The real impact of the pavilion will be felt in the years to come, as Chinese students head to Australian universities or Chinese and Australian companies enter into business deals.

While appearing to be solid, Australia's relationship with China is not without hiccups. The level of China-awareness among the Australian public is low and at times paranoid.  My only lasting memory of China from my childhood education is of the prospectors who came out to Australia in the Gold Rush of the 1850s.  A reciprocal Chinese pavilion in downtown Sydney or Melbourne might help raise the general level of awareness of our looming northern neighbour.  You wouldn't get the full story on China, that's for sure, but at least it would be a start.  However, it is not only the Chinese government that emphasises some aspects of the country at the expense of others in order to paint an attractive picture.

Staging the Australian Expo pavilion in China means pitching the message to a Chinese audience.  If the 2010 Expo was being held in Australia, the pavilion would undoubtedly be significantly different. Australians can be very sensitive about how the nation broadcasts itself to foreign nations.  Witness the  domestic controversy generated by each new iteration of advertisements selling our wide brown land to the global tourist market.  Some Australians wish to entice foreigners with our cosmpolitan metropolises and sophisticated urban lifestyle, while others think that the beaches/bikinis/kangaroos/koalas model sells the nation best.  Given this unfortunate and out-dated dichotomy, those Australians affected by the dreaded  ‘cultural cringe’ would be best served by staying well away from the Australia pavilion.  Do yourself a favour and go to the South Korea pavilion instead.

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