Beyond Buildings


Taiwan Abandons Good Architecture

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National Palace Museum in Tawain unveils designs for Southern Branch by Artech. Courtesy: World Construction Network.


Six years ago, I was a juror on a panel that helped pick the architect for the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. The winner of the multistage competition was Antoine Predock. He produced what I thought was a visionary design, soaring in its spaces and yet appropriate for its setting, while taking the ambitious program into spatial realization. Now word comes that construction is about to start on the renamed Asia Museum, to a design by one of the competition losers, Taipei-based architect Kris Yao at Artech. I cannot help but be disappointed.



Antoine Predock's proposal. Courtesy: Antoine Predock Architect.


I knew that Predock had resigned the commission in 2008 after a tortuous history of difficult contract negotiations and design development conflicts. I also knew that the foundations has already been laid, however, and was apprehensive that a value-engineered version of his original concept would arise from the sugar cane fields in Chaiyi, a rather undistinguished part of Taiwan. Being far away from the place and the process, I did not know who was to blame for what, but I did know that this was a project very much the result of a push by the former government, and that the current powers-that-be had little sympathy for such endeavors. Moreover, the site was severely impacted by a major typhoon last year.


Apparently, sources tell me, the government decided to abandon the former scheme altogether and to hold a national-only competition. Kris Yao is certainly one of the most talented architects in Taiwan, and his original proposal, which consisted of a group of seemingly separate pavilions grouped around a human-made lake, was not the worst of the 2005 competition finalists’ designs. The one image of the new design that has been released, however, increases my apprehension. A misshapen, distended curve of a building and a thinner structure squeeze an inner courtyard. It seems to be a collection of badly resolved curvilinear shapes.


Sun Moon Lake Pavilion. Courtesy: Norihiko Dan and Associates.


 Kaohsiung Stadium. Courtesy: Toyo Ito & Associates


I realize it is unfair to judge a design by one image (I tried contacting Artech, Yao’s firm, but received no response), but I have to admit this outcome will only add to my disappointment at the way that Taiwan seems to be throwing out years of fascinating architectural experiments. I was part of judging several competitions there, but the only built results have been Norihiko Dan’s delicate and poetic Sun Moon Lake Pavilion and Toyo Ito’s Kaohsiung Stadium, whose open ends’ gentle curves stand in strong contrast to the swells of most overbearing sports venues. The rest of the projects, including projects by Zaha Hadid, Vicente Guallart and Reiser Umemoto, have faded away. A new crop of buildings—including a larger one by Reiser Umemoto, for a Pop Podium in Taipei—have cropped up, but my experience there makes me skeptical about their chances.


Perhaps this process shows the folly of flying in both jurors and architects from around the world to work in such a foreign situation.  On the other hand, I would argue that the built results argue for the fact that a good process and a good design can make a major contribution to any site. After many decades of building mediocre buildings and cities, Taiwan has had a few possibilities to raise the quality of its built environment. The local jury members and architects I worked with there seemed to share a sincere interest in figuring out how to develop an architecture that would both be expressive of the island’s exceedingly complex political and social history and current conditions, and of its landscape, while also providing specific character to the kinds of programs that are by now part of a global culture and economy. I hope they will continue to do so, instead of abandoning good design for what appears to me to be something that will potentially be, at best, mediocre.



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 4:47 PM Wednesday, August 31, 2011

    I am proudly Taiwanese but I have to agree with you. These decision makers dont know what they doing.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.