Monday, October 3, 2016

Taiwan's Old Buildings Get a New Lease on Life (En Voyage)

Not long ago, if an abandoned building occupied prime real estate in one of Taiwan’s cities, demolition so the site could be redeveloped was almost inevitable. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, when the island’s economy was white hot, countless structures of historic or aesthetic importance were bulldozed. Attitudes have changed, fortunately. Taiwanese people now embrace their architectural heritage, and are trying to carry the best if it into the future. Rather than consign old homes and factories to the wrecking ball, dozens of places have been done up and given new roles.

One of the best known examples is Huashan 1914 Creative Park in downtown Taipei. This former winery was established in 1914 (hence the name) and slated for razing when, in an episode much celebrated by social activists, a theater troupe marched in and took over. The actors argued that the warehouses were ideal spaces for rehearsals and performances. The government relented, and the Creative Park was born.

There’s a similar story behind Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, 4km to the east. The surviving part of a 1930s tobacco-processing complex (much was cleared to make way for not-yet-finished Taipei Dome), the park hosts the Taiwan Design Museum as well as temporary exhibitions. The pond and surrounding foliage sustains valuable biodiversity in a neighborhood dominated by concrete and motor vehicles. As society becomes more health conscious, it’s very appropriate that places which used to make booze and cigarettes are given new and entirely wholesome reasons to exist. 

The main part of National Taiwan Museum was built in 1913-15 to commemorate the achievements of Japanese officials who ruled Taiwan soon after it came under Tokyo’s control in 1895, but the museum’s expansion makes innovative use of nearby landmarks. The NTM first took over a columned monolith that served as a bank branch between 1933 and 2006. Inside, there’s lots of information about dinosaurs, fossils, and the land reforms which had a radical impact on rural Taiwan in the 1950s. More recently, the NTM opened its Nanmen Park campus, just over 1km away on a site where the Japanese colonial authorities processed camphor and opium. The oldest extant building there is the two-story “White Palace.” It dates from 1902, and was constructed using stones retrieved when the Japanese authorities demolished Taipei’s city wall.

For decades, sugar accounted for more than half of Taiwan’s exports by value. However, because other countries are able to produce the commodity far more cheaply, the industry has gradually dwindled to almost nothing. The number of active sugar refineries across Taiwan has fallen from 49 to just three. Several have been demolished, but some are now cultural facilities. Two of the latter in southwest Taiwan are easy to reach by train.

Between 1901 and 1999, the refinery at Qiaotou in Kaohsiung processed up to 1,000 tonnes of sugarcane per day. The 20-hectare complex - which includes staff dormitories and air-raid shelters, as well as buildings in which the cane was stored or crushed - is almost totally intact. Baroque and Japanese features excite architecture buffs, but go unnoticed by many visitors. Most of the latter come for a short ride on one of the narrow-gauge trains which used to bring in cane from nearby plantations, or to see a performance by the resident Ten Drum Art Percussion Group.

Qiaotou is the second former sugar refinery utilized by Ten Drum. Since 2007, the group’s main base has been what’s now called Ten Drum Culture Village in Tainan’s Rende District, near Chimei Museum. Under the terms of their contract with Taiwan Sugar Company - the state-run corporation which still owns most of Taiwan’s refineries, as well as a great deal of land - Ten Drum is also responsible for preserving the local ecosystem and the site’s sugar-industry relics. One of the performance spaces at Rende is brick-lined cistern where water heated during the refining process was left to cool. Another is inside the principal building; as the audience enters or leaves, they pass immense vats and a tangle of pipework.

In terms of visitor numbers, one of the most successful (and in design terms quite radical) building-repurposing projects of recent years is Miyahara Ophthalmology. Built in Taichung’s old downtown for Takekuma Miyahara, a Japanese-born ophthalmologist, this 1927 red-brick structure long served as an eye hospital. By 2008, however, it was in a terrible state due to neglect compounded by typhoons and tremors. Then a local confectionery company saw an opportunity, purchased the ruin, and gave it a thorough makeover. 

The facade was cleaned and preserved, but missing corners were not replaced. Inside, holes in the brickwork which once held wooden beams were left unfilled. However, the building was extended upward to make space for a restaurant above small shops which sell pineapple cakes, tea and other edible souvenirs. If one looks only at the street-level arcade, Miyahara Ophthalmology resembles an “old street” like that in Kaohsiung’s Qishan District. But from across the road, its hybrid personality is obvious.  

In the same part of city, the government has established Taichung Cultural and Creative Industries Park (where both photos here were taken), part of its efforts to nurture startups in broadcasting, design, and related fields. Many of the park’s buildings used to form part of a winery, and this aspect of the site’s history is celebrated in the Liquor Culture Museum (admission free; displays in Chinese and English). As at some other ex-industrial sites, artists have been invited to add vibrancy and color to what would otherwise be drab infrastructure. It’s easy to spend an hour exploring the park. 

Kaohsiung’s cultural-creative industries hub is its old waterfront where, thanks to the relocation of the harbor’s cargo-handling facilities, a great deal of land has been freed up. A warehouse here once used solely to store bananas (another of yesteryear’s major exports) is now known as Banana Wharf; the shops inside are often the first place visited by disembarking cruise-ship passengers. 

Another set of warehouses has been refashioned into Pier-2 Art Center. It’s a venue for performances and exhibitions, but real work also gets done. Among the digital-content outfits which have established a physical presence near Pier-2 are companies from the US and Japan. Pier-2 is the location of another interesting structure. It isn’t a repurposed building as such, but a building made of 12 recycled intermodal shipping containers. The lower part of this experiment in “cargotecture” is a lounge for tourists waiting to join boat excursions. Atop two vertically-positioned containers, there’s an observatory which offers good views over the harbor and the ocean. 

In addition to alluring edifices which have gained a new reason for being, there are also old buildings which, after an interval of decades, have had both their appearance and original function restored. One is the 92-year-old Xinhua Butokuden in Greater Tainan, on which almost US$700,000 was lavished between 2011 and 2013. In the daytime, visitors take photographs of this graceful and quintessentially Japanese structure. During the evening, the springed floor shakes as young people practice kendo and judo, just as it did in their grandparents’ childhood.

This is the unedited longer version of the article I wrote for October's En Voyage, the inflight magazine of EVA Air. To see the published version, click here.

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