Project DescriptionThe approach to the Taichung InfoBox is unreal: Turn off a four-lane street lined with storefronts and rife with revving mopeds, and pass through a gate and into the 600-acre void left by the city of Taichung’s decommissioned airport. The site is as close to a tabula rasa as one can find in urban Taiwan. It’s flat, the runways lead nowhere, and wind provides the only sound. The only sign of life sits off the tarmac in a former hangar, where the InfoBox is nestled, looking like a top-secret aircraft—or a children’s fort—scaffolded in bamboo.
The 12,500-square-foot pavilion, designed by Brooklyn, N.Y.–based Stan Allen Architect, opened to the public this year to exhibit plans that will transform the airport site into a 620-acre mixed-use development called Gateway Park City. It also provides a platform for visitors to look out over the construction site and keep tabs on the construction progress. Despite appearances, the bilevel structure is steel-framed—owing to codes regarding public-occupancy buildings—and wrapped in bamboo. Principal Stan Allen, FAIA, chose the material for its cultural context—the sustainable material is stronger per centimeter than steel, and a staple on local building sites, where its use as scaffolding is highly regulated; it must be lashed together by trained installers. The InfoBox client, the city of Taichung, initially balked at thoughts of a bamboo façade, though not for safety reasons. “They wanted something that looked new,” Allen says.
Ultimately, Gateway Park’s focus on sustainability won the argument, as bamboo can be recycled. “The pavilion was also slated to be open for only two years, which was another reason bamboo made sense,” Allen says. “We wanted to have that sense of occasion. … In temporary buildings such as pavilions, you’re freer in the choice of materials, as you don’t have to worry about the weight of something that will be there 100 years from now. It’s an opportunity to experiment.”
The structure’s steel frame was anchored to the hangar’s existing concrete floor, then wrapped by a 75-centimeter-deep, three-dimensional grid made from roughly 40,000 pieces of bamboo. The plants, from central Taiwan, were cut, boiled, and dried for one month, giving the bamboo an aged, tea-colored veneer. Artisans cut the pieces to fit on site, a process that could not be explained via conventional working drawings. “We didn’t know how big the pieces would be,” Allen says, “so our drawings that show ends cut on a diagonal at the corners ended up overlapping as stitched corners.”
Upon entering the hangar, visitors must walk around the InfoBox to enter its first level on the east side. In this ground floor space, the exposed steel columns are painted white, and matching white screens are suspended from the ceiling. The space is used for local exhibitions and presentations, including those organized by the government to showcase green technology. Vermillion-colored concrete steps lead to the InfoBox’s elevated second level, which houses the main space, and is used for presentations about the larger master plan. Here, larger-scale steps form bleacher-like seats, and a series of openings frame views of the Gateway Park City site. At the top of the bleachers, doors open to a terrace.
While Stan Allen Architect had also designed the park’s master plan, the project’s timeline of 15 to 20 years gave rise to the thought of “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have something built on site right away, to get people here and see what’s going on?” Allen says. “We wanted to get people up to a balcony overlook so they could watch the construction, and make an event of going up, of turning the whole pavilion into an amphitheater.”
The client agreed, but was able to appropriate less money than it had hoped—just over $930,000 total, much of which went to updates to the hangar—a constraint for which the architect was thankful, ultimately. “The budget forced us to use an existing building on site. Initially, we looked at the terminal, then saw the hangar, and a light bulb went off,” Allen says. “Its foundation could support a lightweight pavilion, and instead of being an object on the site, the hangar itself would tie back its history as an airport. We were very excited about it.”
From contract to completion, the InfoBox—which won a 2011 Progressive Architecture Award—took nine months. “It was a nice way to bring the master-plan phase of Gateway Park City to conclusion,” Allen says. “Not just for the client, but for us, too. It’s visible, and not just drawings on shelves.”
Taichung Gateway Park City
Built by the occupying Japanese army in 1922, and decommissioned in 2004, Taichung’s former airport left 600 acres of vacant land in Xitun district, northwest of the city center. In 2007, Taichung’s government commissioned Stan Allen Architect to design the master plan for Gateway Park City, a mixed-use development anchored around a sinuous park, the shape of which creates four distinct neighborhoods—including a Gateway and Canal District, a Cultural District, an Academic Corridor, and a College Town—which together form a complex that is one-third green space, one-third culture, and one-third commerce.
“Barcelona [Spain] kept coming up a lot,” Allen says. “It was the example of a city that successfully used urban design and planning to resuscitate itself.” The firm’s master plan won a Progressive Architecture Award in 2008.
Three years later, general infrastructure work on the site has begun. A competition is under way for the park’s detailed design and implementation, and Romania’s Dorin Sefan Birou Arhitectura recently won a competition for Taiwan Tower—an anchor building in the larger plan—with a design that features observatories that look like tethered dirigibles. At 1,000 feet, the tower will be Taichung’s tallest structure, allowing views over Dadu Mountain to the Taiwan Strait. It will join I.M. Pei’s Luce Memorial Chapel and Toyo Ito’s Metropolitan Opera House as one of the city’s architectural landmarks.
Standing on the terrace at the InfoBox, Shwu-Ting Lee, director of the InfoBox of Taichung Gateway Park Development and the director of department of architecture at neighboring Feng Chia University, said that the city is focusing first on the roadway design, and then on cultural buildings around which development can be built at later stages. Unlike in Mainland China, Lee says, there is no rush to completion.
“There, development is happening so fast that no one has time to think about what really works,” Lee says. “But here, for years Taiwanese have been told to recycle and reuse, to create sustainable lifestyles. Now it’s time to move beyond the slogans, and make it part of our city planning.”
Lee notices movement; near Taiwan Tower’s future footprint, demolition crews are knocking down what until recently was the set of director Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Life of Pi. Gateway Park City’s design is huge, she says, but because of the cooperation of the city government, planners, and architects, it feels less like a blockbuster and more like an independent film. “Those,” Lee says, “win Oscars, too.”