The era of big building projects in Taiwan seems to be over. For more than a decade, this small island hosted experimental architecture projects produced by some of the most innovative and thoughtful designers from around the world. Now the ones that have not made it from the competition board to completion have stopped or will never be built, and the prospects for new competitions—for instance for the expansion and reorganization of the National Palace Museum, a maze-like disaster of a structure with a spectacular collection and huge visitors amounts—seem dim.
The one exception is the construction of Terminal 3 of Taipei’s airport, designed by Richard Rogers, Hon. FAIA, and his London-based firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Controlled by the airport and paid for by the airlines, it looks set to proceed, and appears from its renderings to be quite beautiful. I only wish that the airport would turn back to Terminal 1, whose landside areas were beautifully expanded and renovated to a competition-winning design by Norihiko Dan, but whose fluorescent-lit hallways after security drown visitors in banality.
The development also necessitates (or so the government says) a third runway and the development of an “aerotropolis” of transit-oriented business such as surrounds most international airports. It is, however, a planning project with no clear design dimensions.
Meanwhile, Taipei is home to two major public projects that have stopped construction, their steel armatures partially clad and partially enclosed by scaffolding. The Taipei Dome, a 40,000-seat sports stadium encased in a liner of shopping and apartments designed by Populous, has stood like that for two years after authorities decided the building did not meet code requirements. It has become part of a major political spat involving the city’s mayor, Ko Wen-je, and local developers but, whatever the truth of the matter, it just sits there, a dark gash in the middle of what is otherwise a bustling city.
The Taipei Performing Arts Center, designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, stopped construction late last year after the contractor filed for bankruptcy. The building has gone over budget, but the contractor blames the complexity of the technical requirements for his woes: one hall is a giant globe suspended in the middle of the building, while two performance halls cantilever out from the central box, sharing a backstage in the middle. Mayor Ko claims bad faith on the part of the contractor and, again, I do not understand the intricacies of local politics and building regulations enough to know the true culprit, but the upshot is another hole in the urban fabric.
The source for much of my background information is the architect and critic Gene King. He has helped to organize several major competitions and, through the magazine he used to edit, Dialogues, promoted good design throughout Taiwan. As we drove past these failed attempts during my recent visit to Taiwan, he and his wife and partner Erin were much less ebullient than I had experienced them to be in the past. We at least saw two workers on site at the Taipei Pop Music Center, an ambitious complex of three venues sprawling across several acres to a design by RUR Architecture, but King told me that work has slowed there as well as the building struggles with cost overruns and a lack of support from the government.
Meanwhile, I am hoping to see some movement on the Keelung Harbor building, an office, hotel, market, and cruise terminal building Neil Denari, FAIA, won in a 2012 competition on which I was a juror. As far as I can tell, nothing has happened there either and I was not able to obtain any confirmation that the building will ever proceed.
While in Taiwan, I also visited the newly opened National Taichung Theater, designed by Toyo Ito, Hon. FAIA. It opened three years later than planned and was also plagued by massive cost overruns. Though its interior spaces are beautiful in conception, the quality of construction is in places atrocious, with what were meant to be smooth curves spouting what look like goosebumps and pipes criss-crossing the ceilings with no apparent plan.
A piece of infrastructure that does work is the high-speed train, which started connecting Taipei to both Taichung and the southern port city of Kaohsiung in 2011. It is fast, efficient, and affordable, but both the trains (imported from Japan) and the stations look like they were designed by efficiency engineers with no concern for either human occupation or the niceties of wayfinding or ergonomics.
It is all a far cry from the heady days of the early aughts, when a new government, led by the Democratic Progressive Party and the first not formed by the Kuomintang who had taken over the island after fleeing the communists in China, set about proving Taiwan was its own country with building projects that would create identity as well as amenities. I was on the jury for several of the resulting design competitions, and the results were at times exhilarating. Dan’s first project in Taiwan was the Sun Moon Lake Administration Office of Tourism Bureau, a beautiful landscraper in the country’s mountainous core. Vicente Guallart designed a fish market for Fugee, a small village in the north, though construction overruns and shoddy building also marred this project. Best of all was Ito’s soccer stadium in Kaohsiung, which was built on time and on budget and still serves as model for how to integrate such massive structures into their surroundings.
Now a new Democratic Progressive Party government, which took over from the Kuomintang party again last year after eight years back in opposition, has said its emphasis is on building more social housing, eschewing the task of image-building and communal structures for creating the basic building blocks of shelter and community. That is a laudable goal, of course, but the island’s recent track history of government-funded construction is so mixed, to say the least, that I fear that nothing of quality will be built.
Taiwan once stood as an example of a country seeking to design itself through architecture projects. Now it stands as an example of how difficult it is to use that strategy in a consistent, cost-efficient, and productive manner. I would also say that it is an argument that bottom-up building and planning is better than plunking down modern monuments.