Erenlai - Marco Casagrande
Marco Casagrande

Marco Casagrande

Basically I am a Finnish architect, although my work seems to move rather freely between the different disciplines of art and science with maybe the heaviest elements coming often from the directions of environmental art, some sort of collective drama and urban design. I grew up in Ylitornio Lapland and this is important. The clean big voice of nature resonates with the child of me. This is the source of all creativity. This resonation is also the connection to the rest of the people and this is why my work is so easy. We communicate like insects. On this level I can work where ever. I find it disturbing, if architecture does not resonate with nature. It has then lost its promise of being an environmental instrument and mediator between the human nature and the rest of nature. Modern man is hiding in quasi-architecture from the nature. Often a city resonates better, because of the collective presence of the masses of individual people with their urban rituals and accidents. They accidently bring the nature into the machine; they are ruining the industrial control. I find this interesting and want to join this force of Local Knowledge on the way towards the Third Generation City, the organic ruin of the industrial city.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011 14:07

Taipei from the River

Taipei is here because of the river. The clear, drinkable water of the Keelong, Danshui and Xindian Rivers is still in the living memory of the communities along the rivers. For these people and for Taipei the rivers have been the everyday source of life. This is time before the flood walls and time before the city was separated from its natural environment. Taipei still carries the river in its collective memory and so the city has not yet become a total industrial fiction. But new memories need to be made and fast. The rivers must become again the lifeline and nerve system of the urbanized Taipei Basin. A new kind of urbanism must be created living in straight dialog with the river nature; landscape urbanism from the viewpoint of the river: Taipei River Urbanism.

Local Knowledge

The Jiantai fishermen have been operating on the Keelong and Danshui Rivers for generations fishing, crabbing and transporting cargo and people on the rivers. They used to carry their Local God with his temple to higher grounds when the river was flooding. The river was so clean that they could drink the water. Floods came every year, the boat building master told us, but it was not so bad since there were no flood walls: the water had plenty of space to spread around. He showed the level below his knee where the water used to rise during the typhoon.

Then one time the dictator’s home was flooded, he tells us, referring to Chiang Kai-Shek. The dictator got mad with nature and built the walls. The Jiantai fishermen remained with their shrinking settlement close to the river while  the mad dictator with his city was walled up from the river. Still today the fishermen don’t see a reason why the walls were built. “The Japanese had better ideas for the rivers. They for example thought of digging the Keelong River deeper. When the KMT came the river got polluted and then came the wall.”

Mrs. Chen has been living together with the Xindian River all her life. She and her husband used to work for a construction company that harvested sand from the river bottom. Mrs. Chen participated in the work and she also cooked tea for the working men. These working men founded the Treasure Hill community together with the KMT veterans from Mainland China.

The illegal community by the river built their own houses and farmed all the flood plain from Treasure Hill to the river. The water was so clear that at low tide they could walk to the other side of the river because they could see the bottom and where to step. Children used to cross the river on top of buffaloes. All the families also had to have a boat according to Mrs. Chen, to visit their relatives and to go to markets to sell their vegetables. “Sometimes an uncle was so drunk that we didn’t know how to send him home in the dark to the other side of the river with his little boat.”

Because of the flood the Treasure Hill settlers did not build valuable properties in the flood area down the hill, but used that for secondary buildings such as pig houses and storages, but even then the government wanted to “protect” them and bulldozed the houses away and in the end forbid them from farming.

The pollution comes from the up-stream, Mrs. Chen says. Suddenly the river got so dirty that they could not eat the fish anymore. Even the dogs don’t eat the fish today.  Before the pollution they drank the river water, washed their clothes and vegetables in the river and ate the fish and crabs. The river was their everyday life.

The Amis spokesman of the Xi Zhou village is a representative of a very brave riverside community.  The descendants of the original three families from the Taidong Amis community have been fighting for their rights to live along the river. First the government destroyed their riverside farms and built a bicycle track instead. That is the same pattern as with Treasure Hill.

Then the officials tried to kick the Amis from their homes and “resettle” them, as they did with the Treasure Hill’s original community. The Amis refused and have been fighting ever since. Now they are in a dialog with the government, who have proposed to move the village a bit further from the river and build to them new homes. The Amis think that the government houses will be nothing compared to their self built houses that form a unique organic community that is as much a garden as it is architecture. The Amis prefer to build their new homes by themselves too in the same organic way as the community is built now and keeping the same dialog with the neighbors and collective spaces.

The Spokesman is 37 years old and tells us that he spent all his childhood with the river, who provided the community its everyday food. The collective farming along the river was as essential to the community sense as the river itself and those two cannot be separated in the Spokesman’s childhood memory. Then: the river got polluted.

Official Mistake

The Official aims in coming in-between human and nature; also in-between human and human nature. The official city is modern and inhumane. It wants to clean up the back-alleys of Taipei and beautify them.

It prevents people from farming on the river banks. In fact it forbids any kind of plantations on the river banks, because they belong to the flood protection area. Mrs. Chen has been farming all her life on the Xindian River flood plains. So have the Amis settlers. For them the floods are natural and they kept on farming until the government came to “protect” them, as the school head-master came to protect naughty Alex “from himself”. (Stanley Kubrick: A Clockwork Orange) In  official point of view when human gets close to nature including human nature, he approaches danger. He can get out of control.

The river can get out of control - at least out of human control. It is almost as if it supposed not to be controlled by humans. The industrial city is an ultimate manifest of human control, a machinery to regulate human life. This machine and the hydraulics of nature seem to be in some sort of conflict trying to fit together in the same Taipei Basin.

The river is flooding, which is something that the city doesn’t want and the city is polluting which is something that the river doesn’t want. An easy, almost fast-food solution was to build a wall between the city and the river. The flood and the rest of the water is supposed to stay on the other, “organic” side of the city-river coexistence and the wall also keeps the stinky and polluted water out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind.

The wall has been up already a couple of generations. For the young Taipei citizens the river hardly exists, nature has become a fiction. Now the city government has admitted that building the wall and polluting the river has been kind of an “official mistake” and tries to find strategies to make this up for the citizens. They build bicycle ways to the river banks and paint official graffiti on the wall. Riverside parks are being created and citizens are encouraged to cherish the “blue highway”. At the same time, citizens are not allowed to create spontaneous community farms along the rivers and the wall has not moved anywhere. The river is allowed to exist only under the official's control as the citizens are only allowed to be with the river under the same official control.

Taiwanese nature, as any nature, is against any kind of control. The only rule of nature is existence maximum, to produce maximal life in the given conditions. This goes for the jungle and this goes for the communities in the Taipei Basin. Organic human settlements can find a way to coexist with the rest of the nature. This has been the reality  in Taipei before the hyper-industrialism.

With the industrial-economic growth the co-existence with nature has been forgotten and the people and communities living along the environment are seen as garbage. Now that environmental consciousness has become an “international trend”, Taipei has come to realize that it is actually a river city.

Now the big question with this urban ecological awakening is whether urban nature (river, mountains, jungle, wetlands…) is continued to be seen as an almost virtual ecological amusement park, or can the official Taipei accept nature to be real? Can the river be real and are the citizens allowed to do real things with real nature? Is a grandmother allowed to establish a vegetable garden along the river and take clean water from the stream?


Participatory Planning

A lot of water needs to go through a city in order to keep it alive. In Taipei it goes like this:

  1. Fresh water from the mountains is collected to the sweet-water reservoirs of Wulai and Taoyuen from where it is directed to the purification plants in a couple of points around the city. From these water centers the drinking water is then directed to the households and other water consumer units.
  1. After the consumption dirty water including sewage and grey waters are collected to the Dihua, Neihu and Bali sewage treatment plants from where the clean water is again released either to the rivers or into the Taiwan Strait.

Officially 63 % of the Taipei Basin is connected to the sewage treatment system. The rest 37 % is still released straight into the rivers and these are “official numbers”. The un-official real volume of river pollution is higher. According to the Dihua sewage treatment plant “there is a lot of small factories in the mountains who release their pollution to the rivers at nights.”

The natural river restoration in Taipei’s urban conditions requires knew kinds of socio-ecological knowledge building and decision making. The different river related departments of the city government (river, hydraulic, environmental protection, urban development, urban design, public works etc.) admit that they are lacking cross-disciplinary co-operation and that they don’t see any participatory planning around the urban river restoration issue, but that they want this. They want to get out from their corners and also give space for the other department to come to their territories. They want to co-operate, but the problem is: every corner has a king.

These kings lay down the disciplines and official power hierarchies that cannot tolerate any changes and that feel every spontaneous move as a threat. These kings make sure their officials protect their territories against the other department. “No, you cannot plant here anything: the river banks belong to the river department.” And to make things even more complicated around the river is not only all the Taipei City departments but also the Taipei County and the Central Government fighting for their rights to control. Meanwhile: nothing happens.

In the middle of the Danshui River should be set up a boat. A new Noah’s Ark where the representatives of the shareholders of the river would gather for participatory planning. Besides the different city, county and central government officials there would be scholars, scientists, NGO’s and the representatives of the Local Knowledge. Mrs. Chen would be there, the Jiantai fishermen and the Amis.

This participatory planning would lead to decision making concerning the river restoration and the relationship between the city and the river. Maybe the participatory planning would be chaired by United Nations? The UN-HABITAT is looking for an urban river case that could be used as an example for other similar kinds of cases around the world. Taipei could lead the way. Cleaning the river and creating sustainable River Urbanism is not a technological question, it is a question of communication and participatory planning.

Five Elements

The Taipei River Urbanism will be cooked up with five elements: Local Knowledge, Collective Ownership, Environmental Technology, Natural River Restoration and Architecture.

Local Knowledge anchors the future of Taipei's sustainable development to the real memories and site-specific knowledge of living together with the river nature.

Urban farming and community gardens have always existed together with the river. This Taiwanese phenomenon should be encouraged as a vital part of the River Urbanism. The gardens can be connected to more complex systems of citizen initiated constructions and even alternative communities along the rivers following the examples of the Amis and  Treasure Hill.

Fishing, crabbing and aquaculture will restart automatically after the water quality reaches an acceptable level as will boating, swimming and other physical activities with the rivers.


Collective Ownership binds the citizens to the restoration process by taking them into the development as shareholders. The ownership sense is critical to the reunion of the city and the river. In case the citizens do not feel as the shareholders of the future river nature the city will remain behind the wall and the river as drive-in amusement park.

Environmental Technology will provide solutions for various sectors of the River Urbanism with sustainable energy production, pollution control and treatment and flood management.

Different sustainable energy solutions will be examined in the river corridors. Small scale wind energy can power local installations such as community gardens and alternative communities. Tidal energy can be an alternative in the river mouth area where the tidal pulse effects the river all the way to Zhuwei-Guandu. Fast growing bio-mass can be grown on the river banks and harvested from boats to fuel bio-energy plants in selected locations. The Taipei climate and the fertile river banks are optimal for bio-mass cultivation. The biomass and tidal energy must be tuned together with the free flooding plan. Taking steps too fast may increase the flood level while the flood-walls still exist. Solar energy can be produced also on floating installations.

Environmental technology will increase the effectiveness of the existing sewage treatment plants and help to take care of the remaining sources of pollution. Local purification installations and dry toilet systems can be offered to the areas still out of the sewage grid.

Natural River Restoration will apply the existing knowledge of river restoration but in urban conditions. The River Restoration is based on free flooding which will eventually mean the removal of the flood walls after the community scale flood control infrastructure is completed in Taipei.

The sedimentation pollution will be removed from the river bottoms and treated. The river bank soil will be either removed and treated or the pollutants will be tied into vegetation as for example part of the biomass production. Wetland areas will be introduced together with riverbank vegetation and eventually connected to the mountain jungles as green corridors in order to increase bio diversity and to treat the water and soil.

Probably the most challenging part of the natural river restoration will be the element of free flooding. Community scale underground storm water reservoirs will be built in the flood areas of the Taipei Basin mirroring the Tokyo underground typhoon reservoir mega-structures but as a de-centralized system. After the underground storm water capacity is in function the flood-walls will be removed; city and the river will be reunited.

Architecture will still define the human built environment of the Taipei River Urbanism, but in closer connection with the organic growth and the water movement. The Local Knowledge will give solutions into more organic construction and community sense.

The free flooding will present new challenges for housing and infrastructure where also the static and industrially built architecture has to give up in order to let nature to step in. The urban environmental conditions will not be aimed to be fixed and controlled, but flexible and Open Form.

Taipei and Taiwan has a high standard of illegal citizen built architecture. This spontaneous culture or gardening buildings should be encouraged and supported. The River Urbanism will step back from the developer or official initiated construction and make more room for citizen architecture. The DIY architecture can start in small scale on the river banks as part of the community gardens and it can also start building mediating areas over the flood wall connecting the city to the organic side.

The presentation at the Ruin Academy, Taipei 26.3.2011 is a result of research and workshops conducted in co-operation between the Aalto University, SGT Sustainable Global Technologies, Finland + Tamkang University Department of Architecture, Taiwan + National Taiwan University Department of Sociology.

Sincere thanks to all the researchers, students and professors – especially Professor Chen Cheng-Chen from Tamkang and Professor Tseng Yen-Fen from NTU.

The Taipei River Urbanism research and workshop is kindly supported by the JUT Foundation for Arts and Architecture.

Photos courtesy of the Ruin Academy

Original text appeared in Marco's blog 26.3.2011 and was published by the Ruin Academy. For more about C-lab and the Ruin Academy read Taipei Organic Acupuncture or Nick's explorations of other C-lab projects.


Thursday, 21 April 2011 02:00

Taipei Organic Acupuncture

Marco Casagrande is now principle at the Ruin Academy at the JUT Foundation's Urban Core Arts Block as well as professor at the Department of Architecture at Danjiang University, Taipei. After his group was given a studio on the block, his group built the Ruin Academy, and even produced a whole magazine on the groups theory, practice and projects - Anarchist Gardener - the rest of which can be viewed here. Their conception of space are wildly beyond the current mainstream practice bent on urban development, beautification and modernization at all costs. Here, Marco lays out some of his main ideas in Taipei.

Acupuncture is the procedure of inserting and manipulating needles into various points on the body to relieve pain or for therapeutic purposes.

Urban planning integrates land use planning and transportation planning to improve the built, economic and social environments of communities.

Urban design concerns the arrangement, appearance and functionality of towns and cities, and in particular the shaping and uses of urban public space.

Environmental art is art dealing with ecological issues and possibly in political, historical or social context.

Sociology is a science of human social activity.

Anarchy is acting without waiting for instructions or official permission. The root of anarchism is the single impulse to do it yourself: everything else follows from this.

The community gardens and urban farms of Taipei are astonishing. They pop up like mushrooms on the degenerated, neglected or sleeping areas of the city, which could be referred to as urban composts.

These areas are operating outside the official urban control or the economic standard mechanisms. They are voids in the urban structure that suck in ad-hoc community actions and present a platform for anarchy through gardening.

For the vitality of Taipei, the networks of the anarchist gardens seem to provide a positive social disorder; positive terrorism. They are tuning the industrial city towards the organic, towards accident and in this sense they are ruining the modern urbanism. They are punctual organic revolutions and the seeds of the Third Generation City, the organic ruin of the industrial city.

Corners are windy

Claude Lévi-Strauss believes in the beauty of the human nature as part of nature. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno lost all the hope for the industrial development and said it has failed the promise of the Enlightment - it had corrupted humanity. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalke (Mosfilm, 1979) is taking sophisticated people into the Zone, where their deepest wishes may come true. The Zone which is the organic ruin mirroring the surrounding mechanical reality. For the Strugatsky brothers (Arkady & Boris) the Zone was a Roadside Picnic (1972, Moscow).


Missis Lee in the Gongguan community garden, an illegal garden farmed by National Taiwan University professors and staff.

The community gardens of Taipei are Roadside Picnic. Grandmothers can take us there, like Stalker. The honorable Lévi-Strauss could be happy to start new ethnographical research between the parallel realities of the cultures of the urban compost gardens and the surrounding city – the reversed modernization and focusing in Local Knowledge. Horkheimer’s & Adorno’s graves should be moved in one of these urban acupuncture spots of Taipei. Here even they would find hope, surrounded by the valueless modernity and hard industrialism. Prof. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila has said: “The valueless void of the society of today will be filled with ethics: the corners are windy.” With the recognition of the urban farms and community gardens Taipei has found its corners.

What is the ethics then pushing through these corners into the city? It could be called Local Knowledge, site-specific reactions building a bridge between the modern man and nature. The gardens of Taipei, these acupuncture points, are penetrating through the industrial surface of the city and reaching the original ground. The self organized community gardens are the urban acupuncture needles of Taipei. Local Knowledge is in connection with the first generation city, when the built human environment was dependent on nature and regulated by nature. Now the anarchist gardeners are regulating the industrial city.

Dominate the no-man’s land

The community gardens are taking over abandoned construction sites and ruined housing areas, empty city-blocks waiting for development, flood banks of the rivers and even grave-yards out of fashion. In many cases the gardens are flourishing on spots of land where the land-owner issues are unsettle or complicated. Sometimes the garden will stay in the spot for only a couple of years, as in the cases of soon to be developed areas and sometimes the urban farming has decades long traditions as with the river flood plains or on the island in-between Zhongxiao and Zhongshing bridges. The smaller urban farms are flexible and eager to overtake the empty spots of the city, eager to dominate the no-man’s land.


Treasure Hill in 2003 (Photo: Stephen Wilde)

One of the more famous urban farming communities of Taipei was the Treasure Hill settlement, originally an illegal community of KMT veterans. During its legitimating process Treasure Hill became so famous that eventually the original community was kicked away by the city government and the houses were taken over by artists and art related organizations. All the farms were destroyed on the process. Sounds like urban warfare against urban acupuncture. Treasure Hill was powerful and self-sustained when it was illegal. The community built its own houses and its own farms and it made its own rules. The official city wanted to eliminate this unofficial organic rival. NGOs found the issue sexy and stepped in to protect and legitimize the settlement. In the end the NGOs and artists took over the now-famous community and hooked up with the city government. The original urban farmers didn’t fit the picture anymore and had to leave. Now you can listen gansta-rap in a yellow plastic tent where the gardens used to be. Local knowledge died.

But Treasure Hill is not alone. Urban farming happens through different social classes and through out the city. The socially disordered citizens are ready to occupy land and start the community farms over and over again. Some acupuncture spots get hot and benefit the surrounding urban tissue while others fade away. The industrial surface of the city keeps constantly being broken up and herbs and vegetables are planted into the cracks. People are ruining the industrial city. Ruin is when man-made has become part of nature.

Urban Editors

Compared to Western cities Taipei plays in quite different rules. The aesthetics of the city is dominated by the functionality of a big collective machine and the urban mechanism is constantly being edited and rendered as with changing the micro-chips or other parts of a super-computer into more powerful ones. The urban data is people and this is what the machine needs to process. Mostly it goes smoothly, but also people get viruses – they get together to spontaneous demonstrations, they do tai-chi in improvised city-corners, they launch ad-hoc night markets or under-bridge sales on temporarily occupied streets or city corners. And they do farms – they are squeezing organic material into the machine like a creeper crawling into an air-conditioning box. Why they do this? Why does the nature want to break the machine?

Developers are the true urban editors. They are linked with the city authorities and necessary political powers and they make the urban editing. Architects are in a secondary role – something like the hyenas after the lions have made the kill. Money is a good consultant and the generating force of the developer run urban editing process. This is not urban acupuncture though; it is more like a western style medical practice – operations on the body removing, changing or maintaining parts – or even plastic surgery. (Oh, Shanghai has bigger tits than Taipei.) The body is not necessarily seen as one big organism.

In this rough editing process the anarchist gardeners seem to act as micro-editors, parasites benefiting of the slow circles of the big-scale development. They occupy the not so sexy areas of the city and they jump in the more sleepy parts of the development cycle. For example – the developer buys a whole city block with originally many land-owners. The process is slow because he has to negotiate with all of them. While the process is dragging behind the urban farmers step in and start farming the area. The developer doesn’t want to cause any more fuss and let it happen. It takes 3-5 years before the developer has got all the area to his possession and those same years the site acts as the community garden. When the actual construction starts the gardeners have already occupied a next vacant spot in the city.

Third Generation City

First generation city was the human settlement in straight connection with nature and dependent on nature. The fertile and rich Taipei basing provided a fruitful environment for such a settlement. The rivers were full of fish and good for transportation and the mountains protected the farmed plains from the straightest hits of the frequent typhoons.

The second generation city is the industrial city. Industrialism claimed the citizen’s independence from nature – a mechanical environment could provide human everything needed. Nature was seen as something un-necessary or as something hostile – it was walled away from the mechanical reality.

Third Generation City is the organic ruin of the industrial city. The community gardens of Taipei are fragments of the third generation urbanism when they exist together with the industrial surroundings. Local Knowledge is present in the city and this is where Ruin Academy focuses its research. Among the urban gardeners are the local knowledge professors of Taipei. Third Generation City is true when the city recognizes its local knowledge and allows itself to be part of nature.


The 101 Community Garden besides the Taipei Word Trade Center. Photo: Isis Kang.

Photos courtesy of M. Casagrande

For more information on the Ruin Academy and their projects in Taiwan, you can read the full content of the magazine Anarchist Gardener here


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