Architecture of Taipei and Taichung During a School Field Trip
November 3, 2013
Han P. Lee
“Guggenheim Bilbao is as much a tourist attraction for the fame of its architect Frank O. Gehry as it is for the museum’s architecture itself, generating considerable economic revival for the Spanish city of Bilbao,” according to Dr. Lee Min-Ha, who, along with Dr. Cho In-Soo, escorted the Korea National University of Arts art theory departmental field trip to the Taiwanese cities of Taipei and Taichung from October 30th through November 2nd, 2013 and was addressing the group at Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, situated in a repurposed former tobacco factory building. This idea represents a parallel between art and architecture, as the artist’s fame and persona are integral factors not only in our appreciation and valuing of artworks, but also in academic study. Having made this connection, the invisible steel skeleton of Taipei 101, Asia’s tallest and the world’s third tallest skyscraper, suddenly feels warm and human. The above-mentioned field trip was a well-designed manifesto of its student organizing committee, strongly supported by evidence of not only what high levels of wondrous, for the purposes of this academic field trip review’s scope, architecture accompanies if not accommodates art and culture, but also what an elite extent extracted excellence can be weaved together for a tour lasting only four days.
The National Palace Museum of Taipei greets viewers with imposing stature in a neo-traditional East Asian style including a green tiled roof with orange trim, its radiant white marble presenting itself as if a surrogate for the sun itself. Housing the famous Chinese treasures Chang Kai-shek had not only brought from the mainland to Taiwan following his political-military defeat to Mao Zedong, but had also transported throughout much of China during his many battles for Chinese independence from Japanese colonial ambitions and an attempt to democratize the Chinese people, its collection highlights include Qing dynasty tea ware of, according to one student observer participating in the field trip, “completely modern” colors which may not easily be found in the PalaceMuseum of Beijing. A special exhibition on view of the Qianlong Emperor’s personal cultural artifacts, including paintings over which the emperor had personally penned his critiques, stood as a testament to the most historically prominent Qing emperor’s cultural refinement and artistic aptitude. A visit to the restaurant and tea house, in equally neo-traditionalist fashion, inside the museum with fellow art theory students for some novel Taiwanese refreshments and conversation perhaps placed the vessels and tea wares categories of the museum’s displays in context against an example of a, to an extent, ceremonious and customary enjoyment of refreshments.
The Longshan Temple of Taipei will strike many Korean eyes as totally novel in its curved, elongated and upward-pointing eaves ends and decorative spires. One might even be under the impression that this is a very unusually building even for Taiwan, but according to Dr. Cho In-Soo, this is typical of the traditional buildings of not only Taiwan but also all of southern mainland China as well. Sketching the main religious building in the Longshan Temple complex while sitting on a stone footstep at dusk, I caught a local man slowly walking by and, noticing my activity, stopping to glance at my work over my shoulder and gently nodding to himself with a slightly solemn but self-assured expression after concentrating for a moment on my drawing, and proceeding to sit by me to gaze at the temple building himself as if partially in prayer. I was debating to myself whether to give up finishing my drawing to see if I was not late in reuniting with the group to leave for our next destination, but the presence of the gentleman seated next to me somehow told me that I should stay and complete my drawing. I did, and in hindsight it only made sense to, even considering time. Perhaps it was the neo-traditional appearance of the temple complex’s architecture which allowed for this infusion of a more natural, primordial sense of pacing to my otherwise typically contemporary, artificially technology-influenced usual pace of life, and I am glad for it.
The main body of Taipei 101 is vertically separated into eight segments, all of which are wider on all four sides on the top than toward the bottom. This is a counter-intuitive design for a skyscraper and suggests the shape of spikes on a lizard’s back or the tiles of a traditional East Asian roof. The reason for this, according to our local guide, was for the occupants of the building to enjoy a measure of shading from direct sunlight. In such case the building still leaves the lowest physical rung of its occupants, sheltered in by walls of the opposite slant, left to feel the full force of the day’s burning sun. There is an exposed structural shaft at the center of Taipei 101 that maintains the building’s integrity through Taiwan’s frequent earthquakes, and this idea of a central shaft for structural support harks back to traditional Japanese pagodas as discussed by Jonathan M. Field in “The Central Core Structural System: A Three-Dimensional Analysis of the Five-Story Pagoda of Hōryūji.” In Field’s analysis, the central core shaft of the five-story pagoda of Hōryūji does not touch the rest of the pagoda for most of its length and its base is in fact detached from the ground due to decay. However, the shaft still serves a structural purpose other than the one previously imaged by scholars before these discoveries, one perhaps more effective than if the shaft were more thoroughly connected to the rest of the pagoda structure and planted firmly in the ground according to Field, in that the shaft’s relatively free standing weight alone helps stabilize the entire pagoda when the ground is shaking. In Field’s theory the shaft would have snapped if it were connected to all of the pagoda’s structure and also to the ground, and thus left to bear the brunt of any seismic shock, leading to the pagoda’s collapse. Taipei 101’s central core would not snap because it is made of steel, but there was nonetheless a half-exposed, gilded metal ball flexibly connected to it near the top of the building for effective weight shifts during earthquakes.
The Taipei Fine Arts Museum is municipally operated and its external façade is in the Bauhaus fashion with floor-height horizontal bands of white, rectangular blocks jutting in different directions while encasing windows at their ends. The museum’s floor plan is quite different from that at most museums in the U.S. or Korea in that it appears to have niche rooms at every side of a gallery for video screenings. There was a video of two people moving their bodies against the confines of the mostly vertical wall spaces on either ends of a gallery entrance- art adjusted to architecture- and a maze room with convincing plaster walls- art imitating architecture. Of course the installation pieces fitted perfectly into each gallery, blurring the answer to the chicken-or-the-egg question of their alliance with their architectural environment. A photography exhibition on the top floor was notable for the highly accomplished sense of composition in the spatial arrangement of the framed black and white photographs mounted on the walls, a sense of composition which in itself appeared to possess all the qualities of high art.
The National Museum of History in Taipei was also in the neo-traditional style, but it might as well be considered fully traditional instead in how complex its dense rows of multi-tiered bracket sets for its double-tiered roof were. In a structure such as this, the first glance may be deceiving, misleading one to dismiss the building as another conceptually bland, visually exhausted remnant of mid twentieth century Sino nationalism. However, a closer look or any attempt at sketching the building with pencil and paper will reveal just how technically refined and complicated the structural details are. In short, the architectural façade of the National Museum of History in Taipei reflects its founders’ intense zeal for cultural, if nationalist, edification of the people of Taiwan. Whatever their motivation, these people were serious.
The Songshan Cultural and CreativePark, as mentioned above, is located in what was formerly a colonial-era tobacco factory. The tobacco factory included a magnificent courtyard of ample greenery. To the Taiwanese, according to Dr. Cho In-Soo, Japanese colonialism was not as bad as it was to Koreans because it was to an extent in continuation of Taiwan’s long history of foreign government. In fact, the Taiwanese are said to have viewed the Japanese imperialists as an improvement on the previous controllers of the Qing dynasty. With a tree-lined grass courtyard the size of a soccer field in the middle of a tobacco factory, this is perhaps universally understandable. The Songshan Cultural and CreativePark’s stone building is notable for its grand floor area and houses exhibition and event venues for various disciplines in visual arts, film-making and other creative media, the Liuli Gongfang Shongshan Gallery, Taiwan Design Museum and a restaurant and a café. Dr. Cho also mentioned that refitting abandoned buildings and sites for exhibiting art is a relatively recent trend with notable early success, regarding which Dr. Lee Min-Ha explained to the group some relevant recent trends in visual arts museum architecture worldwide.
On the third day of our four-day field trip the group visited what was arguably the architectural highlight of the entire tour in the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung. A relatively non-descript brick building typical of plainly planned art museums in Bejing on the outside, nothing in the line of one’s experiences to the point of entering the Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts may have prepared the person for what awaits on the inside- a grand science fair of novel and innovative designs bordering on the structural and aesthetic throughout. The entire first floor was a galleria surrounded by a walkway along, not a straight corridor as in the respected architect I.M. Pei’s soundly designed Museum of Fine Art, Boston West Wing, but an open space with a ceiling height to rival that of the MoMA lobby in New York and consisting of a jumble of at least a couple of airy boxes, each as large as an entire mid-sized art museum, and integrated corridors. The structural system of the ceiling was left exposed while painted black and a number of small rooms scattered throughout the museum’s first floor in surprising locations held single works of video, installation or sculpture. The building’s program included a “teacher’s resource center,” and auditorium and a library as well as a restaurant and a café. The museum demonstrated a perfect harmony between high-end technical structure and a free, most organic user experience of it.
The KNUA Taiwan exploration team visited the campus of TunghaiUniversity on the same day and met Dr. Wu Chao Ran, a friend of Dr. Cho In-Soo’s, who gave us an architectural tour of the campus, beginning with the Luce Memorial Chapel. The Luce Memorial Chapel was designed by Chen Chi-kwan and I.M. Pei in 1954 and built in 1963. The building is essentially a tall, vertically elongated gabled roof divided down the middle on either side where one of the halves is slightly elevated above the other- basically an ingenious feat of imagining the most innovative form of anything, from scratch. The duo, together with Chang Chao-kang, designed the entire original campus of Tunghai University, Tawain’s first private university and second university overall. Of note other than these three architects’ Chinse-tradition-inspired buildings was the new, concrete fine arts department building, also of a sophisticated arrangement of smooth yet distinct formal elements.
The Presidential Office Building in Taipei was open to visitors and our group took a guided tour on day four. Dr. Cho noted how contrary to Korea’s policy of demolishing the building that served as the seat of the Japanese colonial government in Seoul, Taiwan decided to keep its colonial remnant in its central government building, then and now. In support of his other argument that Taiwan and Korea have shared strikingly similar twentieth century histories, Dr. Cho added that leading opinion shapers in Korea have intensely debated whether the old colonial symbol should stay or go until it was finally removed from its site in 1995. Elaborate gilt patterns decorate the interior walls while red bricks add vitality to the majestic and stately, neo-Renaissance exterior and its two-story portico with a row of double pilasters, ionic colonnade with rectangular bands across each column and along the arches, and a bell tower some stories above the rest of the building. To the visitor from Seoul, the Presidential Office Building is definitely an impressive asset of Taiwan which perhaps implicitly explains with thoroughness the legacy of the Taiwanese people’s historic political mindset.
The Taipei 2-28 MemorialMuseum presents a rather unexpected element for a memorial museum of its nature, commemorating the victims of Taiwan’s civilian massacre of February 28th, 1947 in the bumpy process of the Chang Kai-shek government’s assumption of power which led to tens of thousands in fatalities. That element is the high-tech appearance of the interior architecture featuring a floor-to-ceiling polygonal display structure filling all of one modestly sized exhibition room except for a walkway around it and the museum’s overall impression of an effort toward creative innovation in forms. That such a tragic incident from the early modern era of Taiwan can be officially commemorated with such new interior architectural forms was an education in itself. The message here is that while the Taiwanese will commemorate the victims of “2-28,” the living must go on living and remember what age they live in even as they visit the incident’s official memorial museum.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei, our next and final destination, was housed in what by appearance resembled most a Korean school building. The building’s long, straight hallways allowed access to several modest rooms on a single side of each hallway, rooms which were large enough to exhibit a single video or installation piece and were often darkened for the purpose. This is perhaps in reference to the status of contemporary art, at least in East Asia, as arguably something the general public must learn as opposed to having an innate understanding of, but in any case making for an uncanny and quaintly pleasing setting. The best part of the floor plan there was that visitors may pace slowly toward one end of the museum, taking their time to appreciate each piece along the way, and then almost instantaneously zip their way back to the central entrance and lobby area when they are done. The architecture of the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei as described above perhaps had a role in my wishing the institution much success in opening the Taiwanese public’s eyes to the rich aspects of contemporary art, which beyond doubt is an integral element of the museum’s mission.
With theory of art in Andy Warhol’s repetitive representation applied to writing in describing above each of the major sites the KNUA Taiwan field trip group visited in chronological order, with a focus on architecture in which there is also generally a distinct aspect of repetition, particularly when compared with fine art, this trip review has demonstrated how the school trip’s organizing team succeeded in collecting some of Taiwan’s finest cultural experiences into a temporal setting of four days. A central value of this exploration of Taipei and Taichung lies in the participants’ exposure to novel architectural ways of exhibiting artworks in a fashion and tempo completely different from those of the U.S. or Korea- an alternative vision- in the context of Taiwan’s traditional and innovative architecture as a whole, which will surely serve these students in their future intellectual endeavors in art, and perhaps also in architecture, quite possibly also in high-end epistemology, via an appreciation of what makes art really tick, across cultures including one more than the almost too typical limitation of Korea and the West. The next time someone in art almost insistently assumes what we have in Korea is all there is, alumni of the KNUA field trip to Taiwan will know better. This person will make judgments and envision and follow visions informed by another world that is part of the greater world. We will thus march toward the pinnacle of human achievement in art, architecture and culture, and may this review, and our life-lasting memories of this most valuable experience in Taiwan, help us gain followers and support in the process. Here is to our advancement one step closer toward an ever brighter promise in our wonderful lives ahead.