Beyond the Pale: Architecture in Taiwan

by on Friday, 29 April 2011 5425 hits Comments
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Visitors to Taiwan are often left wondering: why is the architecture so ugly? With its unbridled commitment to urban renewal, architecture in Taiwan does not respect the contemporary urban aesthetics of most 'advanced' cities.

As architecture in Taiwan becomes evermore systemized, formulized and conforming we ask: what is left beyond the pale? We search for the improper buildings, those beyond the accepted standards of decency, unwavering in the face of an all-dominating, gung-ho development policy and architecture as a product of market forces. Where is the life, character and impulse? Has the house that humans built in Taiwan become completely disconnected from humanity or is there still something left beyond the pale. This question touches upon the alienation and de-alienation of man. The concept of owning ones own house, really having a stake in the environmental and social state of ones local community seems to have largely been defeated by enslavement in a system where many people will never own their own homes. People lose the right to evolve the property that they occupy and in the end we are left with a neo-serfism of sorts. Man is no longer the king of his own home. Housing becomes a mere commodity and is thus dominated by the lowest common denominator – money and markets. Building design and store layout, also guided by the profit principle, follow the simplest ideas of customer psychology, fermenting a shortsighted worship of convenience and comfort. Quantity and conformity win over quality and originality. Bigger is better. People place there pride on the poignancy of Taipei 101 rather than the sensuality and imperfection of the human tree house. Yet, beyond the pale, often invisible to the unripened eyes of visiting tourists, businessman and students;  beyond these lines of high street conformity; hidden in alleys, behind walls and on rooftops, lay countless pearls of beauty. Whether it be decaying ruins awaiting their destruction, remnants of various colonial periods or endlessly regenerating pockets of illegal architecture, this island has a unique historical mix and diversity of people and buildings, and for the willing explorer, it is an island full of treasures…

Indeed there are ever more willing explorers. In fact ‘urban exploring’ is developing into a whole subculture of people fascinated by the stories left over in the remains. Chen Po-I, aka King of the Ruins, considers his explorations to be a form of urban archaeology using satire and hyperrealism with his prize-winning photography and motivated by a passion for documenting the poetic history of the soon-to-be destroyed. Urban exploration has even developed to the extent that Snappershot – a loose group of people interested in photography, ruins and exploring – depart on their scooters from Tainan’s Lutai one Sunday each month to capture the best snaps in the chosen area. I myself spent three awe-inspiring days based out of Tainan’s Lutai, with my host Gao Pu-chi, trying my own hand at Ruin Raiding. This short journey took me into a ravaged hospital, cinema and even a strip-club, all of which were obsolete before I was even born. Back in north Taiwan, French radio host Hubert had fish and chips eyes before he finally saw the beauty behind the beast of Taipei urban development, but since having his revelation he has found that there is still humanity flooding beneath the seams of the urban jungle. Having heard the legends, but unsatisfied until he knew the complete story, Chris Collins went in search of the abandoned alien pods of the Futuro Formosan village in Sanzhi. Also Cerise sees poetry in these walls with her short story .... Beyond these explorers there are people at the top of the trade pushing forward new architectural directions. Earlier in the year we interviewed former professor at Shih Chien University’s Architecture department Roan Ching-yue on the state of architecture in Taiwan.

In March, Roan curated an exhibition and debate ‘Illegal Architecture’ in Taipei, perhaps signaling a new era in the way we perceive the relationship between human nature and artificial structures. At the debate Hsieh Ying-chun and Wang Shu talked about the limits of the official, legal city in the urban development paradigm and the insuppressible impulsive, natural Instant city. Whether beautiful or ugly, these examples of illegal architecture show the people's unwillingness to be told what to do after the strict rules of martial law, it's a way of undermining authority. Wang Shu, was made famous for designing the Ningbo Historic Museum in China made out of recycled bricks from the surrounding area, when he came to Taipei, he revealed to eRenlai the role of illegal architecture in civil society. In 2008 Hsieh Ying-chun won the Ricci Institute’s Sustainable Life Award for his challenge to the urban development dream with his building of affordable and sustainable houses using local materials in the rebuilding of post-typhoon destruction villages. His architecture is revolutionary in the sense that it is overflowing with social justice and nonetheless respects the cultural autonomy of the tribes he works with. Following the mountain mudslide destruction from Typhoon Morakot in 2008, Chen Bo-I also went to a ravaged tribe, the Nansha-lu community, not to build new homes but to capture the mud traces on the walls, imprinting the tragedy in the collective memory.

Ruin Academy principal and Finnish architect Marco Casagrande is more radical still in his vision for Taipei, which he introduces in Taipei Organic Acupuncture. He also tries to re-wire Taipei’s relationship with its life source - the river. In addition to auditing a few classes with the Ruin Academy, one of their architects, Frank Chen, also took me to visit some of the works they had completed that were representative of their Third Generation City concept where they return humans to nature and reality. In each aspect that we explore in this Focus, there is a prevailing humanity, if these architectural designs accept human nature and the rules of nature, if they engage the two rather than do battle with the latter, only then can we continue to live as engaged stewards of the land.

Photo: Chen Po-I

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:33
Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.

出生於英國西南部,海邊的天堂為Torbay。目前在台灣的街上,公園,廢墟尋找世界之荒謬與世界之美,努力盡量在各方面跳脫框框。透過我們的游牧空間「洞」我們不斷地用藝術與行動來挑戰早已僵化的體制。

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