Erenlai - Focus: Beyond the Pale, Architecture in Taiwan
Focus: Beyond the Pale, Architecture in Taiwan

Focus: Beyond the Pale, Architecture in Taiwan

In this month’s Focus on Architecture in Taiwan - Beyond the Pale - we search for the “improper” buildings, those beyond the reach of authority, those with humanity, character and impulsiveness; yet, despite this non-conformity, they appear to be in harmony with nature.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

San Zhi: Ghost town on the coast

On the ride up from Taipei, I wondered if I had chosen the right bus. There was a group of girls sitting next to me, dressed for the beach. "我要去一個地方...很多大樓,可是沒有人. 你知道嗎?" I asked them. "I want to go to a place with many buildings, but no people. Do you know it?" They shook their heads no, and asked me a question in Chinese I couldn't understand. But just then an old woman a few seats up swiveled her head back and pointed a bony finger at me. "那裡有鬼魂," she told me in a grave tone, worry sweeping across her features. "There are ghosts there."

These pictures are of a strange complex of buildings on the outskirts of Taipei that was abandoned in the early 1980's, before it could be completed. There is something pervasively odd about the site. Or rather, there was something pervasively odd about the site -- it has since been torn down. The crumbling flying saucers seemed to come from the future, but this was a forgotten future, a failed one. To visit this place in person was like stepping into a 1960's sci-fi film. It was the future as the past once imagined it could be: the ruins of retro-futurism.

The pod city was visually stunning in an unearthly way. Some of its buildings had been completely destroyed, others merely gutted by the harsh rain and wind of Taiwan's north coast. From inside the pods you could enjoy some truly spectacular views of unspoiled coastline juxtaposed with apocalyptic visions in pastel red, yellow, and blue.

Even on a sunny day, you could not escape a vague sense of dread hovering before you, just out of reach. And so it was often told that a series of mysterious accidents led to the deaths of several of the pod city's construction workers, causing the project to be abandoned. Some locals, including the old woman on the bus, believed that the ghosts of these workers haunted the site.

It is easy to understand why these stories spread. The sheer strangeness of the place challenges our sense of reason. But no construction workers died in the making of San Zhi's pods. There were no ancient burial grounds, no angry ancestors. The site was intended to be a vacation resort for the rich, but lack of funding halted its development. The only ghosts that were haunting San Zhi were the ghosts of financial failure.

Still, though there was nothing at all supernatural about these buildings, the intense weirdness of walking among them was undeniable. And now, looking back on my experience there, I feel the reason for my unease has taken a more definitive form. With a global recession spreading fear and panic, the real history of these buildings seems far more poignant than any ghost story ever could be; this place was a graveyard for dreams.

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Friday, 21 January 2011

If these Walls could Talk

Translated from Chinese by Jason Chen

Abandoned houses are probably some of the most common ruins we can see in Taiwan. From the things left inside these houses we can briefly understand the life style of the previous owner. Although we might feel some shame or guilt by invading other people’s privacy, by getting into their memories and private life we can adorn our curiosity with a sense of intimacy.

The past appearance of these luxurious ruins

If a certain abandoned house once belonged to a member of the gentry, the memory of the house would also bring out the local history of the place, making the ruin even more valuable. An example would be the Chi Qay Residence in Wurih in Taichung: This red and white mansion was built in 1919, and is the former residence of a well known local poet, Ro-Shi Chen. The county government appointed this house as a Third-Level historical site, recognising its excellent condition. The mansion combined both the Baroque and the Taiwanese traditional courtyard houses styles, making it a very unique building in the history of Taiwanese architecture.


What is special about the Chi-Qay Residence is that it is a historical site under management but at the same time, no one really looks after the place. During the holiday periods one can find many photographers and people from the wedding industry there. The house even has exclusive stamps for people to stamp, making it a sightseeing spot. Not under strict management, there is a sense of “freedom” in this place. Although there are security guards watching and it is only open during certain times, the guards normally turn a blind eye for tourists to slip in from the side door, not really obeying any rules.

The Chi-Qay Residence is almost too luxurious compare to other ruins. However, as you go deeper into the mansion, you start to see some old furniture, wrecked outdoor bathrooms, tilted beams and walls that are exposed of bricks, making tourists feel like they are really in a ruin. Interestingly enough, many visitors take photos of the pin-up calendar hanging inside the mansion (some of the models are shockingly sexy, to their amazement), to prove they have been to the place. The Chi-Qay Residence brings out the memories of the past beyond space and time and beyond social class, smiling warmly at the public.

Collective memory that fades

moment2If there is not just one but several abandoned houses in an area, it gives people a totally different feeling. One lone abandoned house only leaves traces of the families who lived in it over the generations. The ruins of a whole village, however, hide the collective cultural memory of an entire group. For example, the military dependent villages in Taiwan.

Most buildings in Taiwanese military communities were illegally constructed. We can tell the people in the village have lived a difficult life by looking at the simple architectural structure of their houses and the scarce use of their little room space. When the houses were built, most people believed they would only be temporary accommodation and they would be able to “go back home” soon. However, after a period of time, these people started to realise that they were unable to return to their homes on the other side of the ocean. They would have to settle in Taiwan. Once the people living there started to age, die or relocate, and the commercial value of the land increased, these military communities began to be demolished one by one.

Thanks to the artistic skill of an old gentleman, the “Rainbow” military dependent village in Chun-Nam-Theun in Taichung became popular almost overnight. This old gentleman and his small group of neighbours live in semi-ruined houses in the Rainbow military dependent village. In their spare time they painted artworks on some of the abandoned houses. Unexpectedly, their efforts attracted a large number of tourists to come visit the village. Eventually politicians also became interested in the place and recognised its commercial potential, temporarily delaying the fate of being demolished.

For the time being the Rainbow village looks like it is not going the way of so many other military communities as the government has promised that the place will be preserved. However, the so called “preservation policy” actually forces the current residents to relocate before the village is transformed into a "leisure-village". Without the artistic skill of the old gentleman and the living traces of the original residents, what makes the Rainbow community unique? What if the memories of the community are removed and all that remains are the cold but colourful buildings? This scenario may be even more miserable than the community being smashed into ruin and redeveloped.

The survival of Wan-Chun Residence

moment3Post-disaster wreckage is a different type of ruin that can bring a tear to one’s eye. Normally, these kinds of ruins are formed after a natural disaster hits a place, completely destroying buildings, killing and injuring residents and a leaving a painful memory in community’s collective memory.

Some post-disaster wreckages are preserved to warn future generations and teach them a lesson. After the 921 earthquake in 1999, some earthquake parks were established in central Taiwan. Whether it is the remains of a elementary school building that has collapsed or the surface of a playground that has been uplifted, these spaces were all transformed by the horrifying power of the earthquake.

What is most scary about these types of ruin is that it is not only natural disasters that create them but also man-made, and therefore avoidable, disasters. In 2009, Typhoon Morakot hit Taiwan and the reconstruction process still remains difficult. Whenever heavy rains arrive in an affected area, the residents evacuate immediately, fearing the tragedy might happen all over again.

Mr. Wu, a blogger who has previously written for Renlai, made a special trip to Namasia Township, Nansha Lu in Kaohsiung County (the place most severely affected by the Typhoon), in order to film a documentary. From Mr Wu’s work we were able to see the area after the disaster, including the abandoned houses that were hit and partially buried by landslides.

Compared to the wreckage Mr. Wu saw, what happened in the Tseng-Wen River Across Territory Water Channel Construction Site was probably even more unforgettable. Although the tragedy of Tsiao-Lin Village and Nan-Sa-Lu Village that were destroyed during Typhoon Morakot could not be directly linked to this construction project, the two villages were closest to the site. For safety reasons, the government has decided not to carry out construction work for the next 3 to 5 years.

However, when Mr. Wu and his friends travelled near the construction site, they saw gravel trucks and excavators were still working there, even channelling the river towards the direction of Nan-Sa-Lu Village. While Mr. Wu was taking photos of the scene, a construction personnel came and queried them as to the department they work for. Mr. Wu wrote in his blog:

“I ignored the guy’s question and he turned to my friend and asked him the same question. My friend replied, 'we are only here to take photos, we don’t work for any department.'

The Construction personnel requested us to leave and pointed out to us that the south and north sides of the site are not related. We didn’t want to cause any trouble so we just left. Later we told President Lee (who is in charge of the Nan-Sa-Lu Village Reconstruction Committee) about what happened there and he said to us “You guys are lucky being able to made it out of the site without being bashed up!”

Photos: Lordcolus

Friday, 17 December 2010

Simulating Dereliction in Taiwan: An Interview with visual artist Yao Jui-Chung

Yao Jui-Chung (姚瑞中) discusses his interest in derelict buildings as well as the marketing in recent years of these"derelict" spaces which had previously provided creative space for art, like for example, the redevelopment of HuaShan from derelict stage for alternative art to a commercialized business front for middle-class consumption.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Sustainable architecture by the people for the people

Hsieh Ying-chun was born in Taichung, and grew up in Hualien. After he graduated from Tam Kang University, he devoted himself to the practice of architecture, and received many awards for high tech factory building and public building designs. Soon after the 921 earthquake took place, Hsieh Ying-chun went into the Thao’s tribe in Nantou County where the damage was most severe and conducted the collaborative rehabilitation with the Thao people, an ethnic group with only 300 people left. Hsieh has founded “Atelier 3” in Nantou’s Thao’s tribe and set up his way of practicing sustainable architecture. In recent years, Hsieh has promoted the idea of collaborative building in the Hebei, Henan, Anhui, and Sichuan provinces in China and is continuing to promote his idea of “collaborative construction” and sustainable architecture.

Hsieh Ying-chun thinks that sustainable architecture has three main axes: Social culture, Economy and Environment. It has to be conducted through simplified construction methods, open buildings, and establishment of an economically self- sufficient construction system, which is done by exchange of labor. Also he implanted the concept of environmental protection and Green building to the villagers, helped to construct self-consciousness and cultural diversity in tribal communities, and established local micro-economy units such as cooperatives.

“’Less architecture and more humanity’. This is one phrase I’ve always said. In another words, I tend to practice the simplest and least unadorned architectural style, so that the meaning of culture, society, and community can permeate into the space. It also means to “empty” architecture, and let Humanity, Spirit, and Nature retrieve their prominent position.

Throughout all these years promoting construction solidarity in Thao community and other 921 earthquake aftermath areas, and also practicing sustainable architecture projects in China in recent years, we always insist on our ideas and principles of sustainability. To build sustainable architecture, we not only need to consider technical problems of green architecture, but also the complicated mechanisms of society, culture, and economy lying beneath. It sometimes seems inevitable to give up tradition in the modernization process. However, in the process of rapid change, can we maintain the holistic thinking and arrangements of the whole environment, the society and the culture, like our ancestors did?

I always remember one time when our fellows were staying in tents to pass the winter. A Thao “Ina”(the respectful form of addressing elder women in Thao language) came, carrying an “ancestor spirit basket”(which is a representation of Thao’s religious belief) in her arms, murmuring the name of the ancestors, walking like this all the way into the community. The recently built bamboo houses were still green, and we could smell the fragrance of bamboo in the air. It was when the rehabilitation of the Thao Tribe was almost complete and the Thao families were just moving in that I realized for the first time how genuinely useful I could be to others as an architect.

I’m very grateful to the friends who support us in all kinds of ways!”

Read Hsieh Ying-chun's statement

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Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Middle Class Fetish for Immortality: An Interview with Roan Ching-Yue

Roan Ching-Yue takes a stern stance on recent policies by local government to gentrify disused and derelict buildings, including the commercialization of buildings like Huashan, which he points to as a kind of mummification or an attempt to defeat time. He also tries to analyze the causes of the contemporary fixation with construction and how the Eastern tradition is a resource for a new way of thinking about buildings.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

A Letter on Atelier 3

Dear Cerise,

You asked me about my short apprenticeship in Atelier 3 of Architect Hsieh Ying-jun (謝英俊). What can I say to you as I have only gotten to practice the labor part in architecture which has little to express in language?

As a part-time Chinese language teacher, I should have nothing to do with architecture, yet I have an interest of building houses through my various reading. As a philosopher doing logical research, Wittgenstein had designed and built a house for his sister in Vienna, so why can’t a linguistic student become an apprentice in an architecture company? So I searched on the internet and got in touch with Atelier 3 of Mr. Hsieh.

Mr. Hsieh has great ideas about sustainable architecture. The most famous example was the reconstruction of Thao community after the 921 earthquake. In the Thao’s case they used low processed, low cost natural materials, and Hsieh has adopted simplified construction methods, so that non-professional workers can engage in reconstruction work. Through the process of building a house together, the identity of a community becomes much more concentrated. Thus Hsieh’s architecture can attain a balance not only between the ecological and economical aspects but also the social and cultural aspects.

Though viewed from a more empirical scale, the Thao community is still in the context of modern state political governing and also dominated by capitalistic economy as anywhere else in Taiwan or in the whole modern world we live in. The fact now is that after a few years cheering for the successful reconstruction, few designers remain living in the Atelier in Nantou due to different construction projects scattered all around Taiwan. The Atelier, as an open architecture, is flexibly designed to be adjusted by the owners who live in it. When an open architecture has few people living in it, it can be quite lonesome. In fact the people who really live and work in it are the construction workers. I was kindly treated by A-guei, who is the manager of the construction work group, also a Thao person, and who is very likely to be elected as the headman of Thao’s ethnic group committee. A-guei and his work group are an essential part in the Dawen(1) construction company led by Hsieh’s elder brother. They conduct the greater part of real construction work of most houses built by Hsieh’s Atelier. They have just established a cooperative this year (2008), so that they may receive other building cases on their own in the future, though it doesn’t seem so easy to run a business on their own at the beginning.

In reality, to what extent can we say that architecture helps to maintain the social connection, or shape the social relation, or to what extent the community can preserve their tradition, or to what extent they can be a self-sufficient unit, remains a question to be argued. We need more people to be aware of the fact of how hard the aborigine culture is striving to maintain itself in this global modernization context. The question is huge. Yet the solution is so simple that you can do it in your daily life, just by adjusting a little in attitude. You may shed some concern to aborigine groups by attending their annual festivals, not in a touristic way, but by trying to make friends with the local people.

The two construction projects I participated in were two private houses located in Fulong, Taipei County and Yuchi, Nantou County. These two houses, though not as big as in the Thao community, still maintain the same manufacturing methods practiced by Hsieh with the simple light-steel structure, and wooden façade. The one in Nantou even has a solar-electricity board, providing household hot water on sunny days, and also there’s an ecological pool that can purify the waste water before it goes into the mountain stream.

Enjoy reading and live a cheerful life.



(1)‘Dawen’ means ‘home’ in Thao language.

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