Any society that reaches a level of decadence would cease activities intended solely for the purpose of sustenance. Instead, one can expect a heightened awareness of self, and an aesthetic reconstruction of identities. One would no longer wear hats to simply shade from the sun – but now look for fancy hats.
Architecture is not dissimilar in this respect. As Taiwan experience early stages of becoming a fully developed economy, the cities and its citizens are working towards ways to construct the representations of its society through architecture.
Over the 2000s and into the early 2010s, Taiwan saw a string of international architectural competitions. Built or unbuilt, a sudden influx of strong ideas entered the world of architecture in Taiwan. For an economy that consistently ranks in the top 10% of the world, it is natural that the cosmetics of its cities begin to seek needs beyond simple shelter and warmth. Some of the significant imports include Neil Denari, Jesse Reiser, Phillippe Rahm, and Toyo Ito.
Neil Denari won the competition for the Keelung Harbor Service Building in 2012. As a gateway to the nation, this project can be thought of as a continuation of a lifelong research that Denari began on the fluidity of lines and the collapse of the machine aesthetics.
Similarly, we can trace a lineage in the work of Reiser Umemoto. Their winning entry to the Kaohsiung Port Terminal can also be thought of as a realization of a lifelong research. The early work of Reiser had an engagement to the piecing of dissimilar parts sequencing a forced continuity in a productive way.
As a younger architect, Phillipe Rahm’s experience cannot be a better example of a manifesto being set forth into action in this context. The Taichung Jade Eco Park will materialize an amazing feat – nearly in a story of mission impossible, the energy flow that produces exterior micro-climates will become a building material that separates program without erecting a single wall.
In the case of Toyo Ito, the Taichung Metropolitan Opera House has become a major benchmark in his career. The porous condition perhaps has a relationship with the ongoing advancements of the single surface project, and surely places the Sendai Mediateque within a larger legacy of work we can now discuss: the loose-fit plan.
The plan of this project clearly delineates a figure-ground relationship of solids, voids, and the doubly-curved surfaces that anticipate swells and craters.
Although the Rolex Learning Center from SANAA was built earlier, can we argue that the pursuit of the loose-fit plan could be a collective effort between the master and the pupil, and that a very sophisticated version of it is about to be built in Taichung?
In the U-House, the first built project by Ito, can we argue that a clear interest in the inscription of void within a solid was always present, and that a setting up of boundaries between inside-outside as a figure-ground study was given birth over 30 years ago? And, after a long way, Ito has now taken this project to an extremely mature state in the case of the Taichung Metropolitan Opera House?
If Taiwan has become a platform that great architects are given the welcoming chance to heighten their lifetime projects, who are the cultural gatekeepers on these juries? Michael Speaks is currently Dean at Syracuse University, and has been for many year finding himself Mr. Taiwan as he is repeatedly on many juries of these international competitions. In some ways, he is the guy behind the guys, and an imported intel to assist the other people looking for the new fancy hats.
The more important question might be: who are the masterminds behind these imports? There is a clear expert knowledge of quality amongst the decision-makers in Taiwan. Who identified Denari, Reiser Umemoto, Rahm, Ito, Speaks, and very many others including UN Studio, Allen, Ingels, JDS, Mostafavi and Koolhaas? How have these insights been obtained, and who are the cast of people behind these aforementioned people?
To answer this question, one could look at the landscapes of academies of architecture within Taiwan. More specifically, this documentary will focus on the two schools I have come to know better, as well as the few interesting people I have met along the way. NCTU (Kung Shuchang, Tseng Wei, Chi Jr Gang), NCKU (Hsueh Cheng Luen), Enta Yang, and other odd balls such as Alice Wang and Yinhua Chu.
The culture at the National Chiao Tung University (NCTU) is under the leadership of David Tseng and Kung Shuchang. Kung is one of the premiere Taiwanese architects today – a master of geometry, theory, particularly exemplified in his astute treatment to a relationship with the ground in the Radix House project.
Within the gang of people that Tseng and Kung assembled, we can detect a strong youth movement with the likes of Chi Jr Gang and Tseng Wei. Tseng Wei graduated from the Architecture Association and was the curator for the 2010 Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Architectural Biennale. A master of playful interactions between urban instruments and the curiosity of citizens, his work embodies a Taiwanese sensibility that takes interactive qualities of architecture and produces social transformations between people.
In the case of Chi Jr Gang, a highly intelligent research project on scale and size is taking place. Through his playful approach of urban toys and refined sense of line work in his drawings, there is a subtlety to the controlled, well-tempered environment that he creates. He formerly taught at Ohio State University, and currently teaches at Tamkang University.
Going to the south of the island, the National Chung Kung University has the oldest school of architecture in the history of Taiwan. In this environment, we can find yet more intelligent voices from a different perspectives.
Hsueh Cheng Luen is one of the professors at this school. Returning from New York by way of Columbia University during the Bernard Tschumi Paperless Studio years, he brings with jim a very important chapter of architecture back to Taiwan.
But within the intelligent networks of Taiwanese architecture, there are certain efforts geared more directly at the fluid transfers of information and communication. Enta Yang, the founder of Forgemind, is an educator and an architect performing such a role. More than that, this communication network functions as an educational platform. Yang has led the rise of a far larger audience for interesting architecture.
in addition to these voices that form the discipline of architecture in Taiwan, I should like to also cover a few odd-balls whose work represent the cuteness, playfulness and pragmatic optimism that Taiwanese designers work through. The work of Chu YinHua is an example of this – her miniature photo journals of fictional accounts are works of art that play with spaces of the city and state of mind of its citizens.
Or, there are the furniture projects of Alice Wang – through strange narratives of characters, she designed custom pieces of furniture for dysfunctional people. For example, the chair for people with poor posture is missing two legs (since they are no longer necessary).
Most of the aforementioned locals of Taiwan who are doing interesting work share something similar – they received their education abroad. Like the tradition of the gap year in many cultures, going away and later returning home helped to enrich their thoughts on architecture and design. As well, the international experience allowed a much more diverse set of conversations from within.
But some of these young people, after studying abroad, stay where they are and do not make the return. I consider this an export of Taiwanese talents. Natasha Jen is a fantastic example of this – after studying at the School of Visual Arts, she stayed in New York and quickly rose as an emerging voice in the world of Graphic Design. She is currently one of the partners at Pentagram at the tender age of 36.
Rosalyne Shieh is a Taiwanese-American architect who spent time at NCKU doing research. The theoretical background from both Princeton and Bartlett gives a strong cerebral foundation to her work. She, and her colleagues engaged the housing crisis in Detroit and produced an installation that punctures through a foreclosed house.
Joyce Hwang was also educated at Princeton University. Her work has recently been recognized by the Architectural League of New York, as she was named an Emerging Voice – a highly prestigious feat for any American architect.
Jenny Wu, a Taiwan-born architect based in Los Angeles, alongside her partner Dwayne Oyler, has built a very successful practice specializing in the three-dimensional manipulation of lines. Thick or thin, the composition of these lineworks produce something both visually striking and spatially complex.
An Te Liu is a Taiwanese-Canadian artist trained as an architect. He identifies strong as being a Taiwanese person, having his roots traced back to a long and extensive family-tree. His work is widely published and exhibited around the world, with “clean-air” being one of his original processes. There is a sense of humor consistent with many of the Taiwanese artists we see, An Te Liu being no exception to the rule.
Finally, there are people like Alex Zhang – better known as Dirty Beaches. He is also a Taiwanese-Canadian. Though not an architect, his works of music often are based on the sensibility of cities. He re-creates the sensation of being in these environments through the compositions he creates.
Through the extensive travels, long-term, shorter-term, or invitation to our home, these Taiwanese kids meet interesting people and produce a network of friendships. These friendships could be based on mutual interests, attractions, admirations, pure respect, or all of the above…but they open the door for Taiwan as a society to become more exposed to what the rest of the world is exploring, and stages where Taiwan is at as well. In the 2014 Venice Biennale, we have many friends in other National Pavilions.
Eva Franch is leading the charge for this year’s US Pavilion. With an infinite amount of energy and curiosity, she has taken the imaginable feat of curatorial work to a whole new level of art that combines strategic thinking with generosity. Too much is never enough in this world. Such healthy appetites also inspired people like myself: there’s never too much to learn.
In the Spanish Pavilion, Lluis Ortega is one of the curators working on Spanish architecture through the past century. Professor Ortega is an architect who is very interested in the cybernetics of connectedness between interests, and works through a construction of systemic parameters such as the principles of agrarian geometries.
The British Pavilion will be led by Sam Jacob, an architect and professor. This will be the final project of FAT as they disband and find their own ways. Setting the course and dancing between the fine lines of objectivity and subjectivity is what sets Jacob apart from the people of his generation. Perhaps the greatest journalist-architect we know of, the writing of British Modernism will be his task at hand.
If Modernity and Modernism in the recent years saw us struggle with the Hardware that buildings represent, and the Software the citizens represent, then Taiwan is a fantastic platform where being Cosmopolitan has nothing to do with ethnicity, buildings or location – it has to do with an accepting mindset that mass-consumes.