While visiting Taiwan two weeks ago to judge the Keelung Harbor Building submissions, I had the pleasure of seeing the results of a competition I helped judge almost a decade ago. The architect Gene King, who organized the "landforms" competitions in 2002–2003, took Jesse Reiser, who won one of the other of those commissions (though it was never built), and myself to see the Sun Moon Lake Visitor Center. Recently completed to designs by Tokyo-based architect Norihiko Dan, it is a wonderful example of what I have called "landscrapers."
Sun Moon Lake is Taiwan’s foremost recreational lake. Like most such places around the world, its deep blue shape, enhanced by a dam the Japanese built during their occupation of the island, is surrounded by an almost unbroken strip of hotels, beaches, restaurants, and other detritus of the tourist trade. The visitor center sits at the northern end, where all that stuff dissipates just a bit and the hills around the lake flatten out for a moment into a deep site large enough not just for the Sun Moon Lake offices, exhibition spaces, and even a few guest rooms, but also for the necessary parking area.
We approached near sundown on a Saturday, and visitors seemed to occupy every surface. That was partially because the visitor center is almost all horizontal or sloped planes. Two interlocking boomerangs rise up under earth roofs from the north, where they come out of the parking area, towards the viewing platform from which you have a view beyond a shallow pool to the whole lake. The two sloped, concrete buildings enclose a grass area where college students were playing a game and families were picnicking. You move through the first structure, which opens up to an arch, then you cross into a band of light between the two shapes, walk under another arch, and finally emerge onto the water’s edge. The "marche" or unfolding of the spaces makes the view all the more dramatic.
You can also choose to climb up the buildings on ramps that rise up along their sides, though I must say the experience there is less satisfying, especially as the two buildings are separate, forcing you to retreat at the top of each ramp, rather than looping around the whole complex. Equally unremarkable are the interiors. This whole building is about gathering, focusing, and framing, rather than containing and housing.
Another of the visitor center’s unfortunate aspects is the quality of the construction. A little more than a year after its completion, much of the concrete is already stained and discolored, while some of the sweeps and curves that create so much drama resolve, at closer inspection, into sharp and crumbling segments. Such quality control problems may be the result of using a foreign architect, as some local designers claim, but it is also characteristic, I am sorry to say, of much construction in Taiwan, in general.
None of this matters enough to detract from the Sun Mook Lake Visitor Center's beauty. Dan has manipulated land and concrete to create a building that heightens the place’s beauty, unfurls itself with delicious drama, and acts as an engine to focus viewers’ attention. By the time you are standing at the rim, you are ready to see Sun Moon Lake, both because of where you are and the information and background you receive in the building, but also because of the way Dan has shaped the forms to put you in that position. It is a single-minded and effective strategy into which the whole building disappears as much as it dissolves into the landscape.