Monday, December 19, 2016

New life for Taichung's old buildings (Compass)

I’ve long been captivated by architecture, concerned about the environment, and fascinated by Taiwan’s past. These interests converge neatly at dozens of locations where the authorities or private landowners have decided to preserve old buildings, and adapt them for modern uses. Thanks to surging interest in local history, sites becoming available as old industries wither, and Taiwan’s booming tourism industry, several such projects have been completed in recent years.

These repurposed buildings add diversity and beauty to the cityscape. At the same time, the environmental argument is compelling. Professor Lin Hsien-te, one of Taiwan’s leading practitioners of sustainable architecture, points out that many buildings on the island are knocked down before they’re 30 years old. This obviously represents a massive waste of resources. 

The great majority of new buildings in Taiwan are reinforced concrete (RC). Not only does cement have a huge carbon footprint, but on average each square meter of floor area for an RC structure generates 1.8kg of dust and 0.14m3 of solid waste during construction, and then another 1.23m3 of solid waste when the building is demolished. Even the most thorough of renovations, therefore, has a smaller environmental impact than destroying a building and starting again from scratch. 

In Taichung, one of the first repurposing projects transformed a row of warehouses immediately behind the old railway station. What’s now called Stock 20 was built around 1917; since 2000, they’ve been made available to artists for exhibitions and performances. Air-conditioning and modern bathrooms were added, and if you look up while inside you’ll notice a lot of work has been done to make the roof safe.

How much you’ll enjoy Stock 20 depends a lot on whether the current events appeal to you. If industrial heritage rather than art floats your boat, walk five minutes southwest to Taichung Cultural and Creative Industries Park. It’s quite easy to spend an hour or so looking at and inside the buildings which dot this 5.6-hectare former winery.

Since 2011, the complex has served to nurture startups in various fields such as broadcasting, design, and digital content.  A couple of sizable new structures have been added to the site, but the original infrastructure - including 50,000-liter tanks in which rice wine was fermented - remains in place. Bilingual information boards explain how the architect took into account both Taiwan’s hot, humid climate and the frequency of earthquakes. Even if none of this interests you, you’re sure to enjoy wandering around in search of photo ops.

Aficionados of Japanese-style architecture should head next to the Natural Ways Six Arts Cultural Center, a landmark so gorgeous it’s hard to believe it was once part of a prison. The main attraction here is the dojo where, before and during World War II, prison staff practiced martial arts such as kendo. The building now hosts classes and lectures on a variety of subjects; its current name alludes to the six disciplines Confucius regarded as essential to a good education.

While here, it’s worth taking a quick look at the old dormitory buildings a stone’s throw to the south. Several dates from around World War I, and only a few are still occupied. One of the uninhabited bungalows is being torn apart by an immense banyan tree. If preserved, it could easily be turned into a smaller version of Tainan’s Anping Tree House.

In a different part of the city, not far from National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts and the Calligraphy Greenway, is Shen Ji New Village. The buildings here aren’t especially old, but they’re very typical of the housing provided for government employees and their families between the 1950s and early 1970s. Each has two floors, and there are two housing units per building. Unlike more modern homes, there are no balconies, and no external shelves to hold air-conditioners...

I wrote this article at the same time as this piece about repurposed buildings throughout Taiwan. To read the entire article, pick up the December issue of Compass (a very useful bilingual city guide for Greater Taichung), or visit the publisher's website. I took the top photo at Taichung Cultural and Creative Industries Park; it also appears on the cover of Compass. The lower photo was taken at Natural Ways Six Arts Cultural Center.

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