Taipei Rising

Virgin Voyeur

March 2015


The Taiwanese city has been named the next World Design Capital thanks to its reinvigorated urban landscape and cultural infrastructure. It’s time to take a closer look at this evolving metropolis. Words Tatyana Leonov.

Turin, Cape Town, Seoul, Helsinki... and now Taipei. The Taiwanese capital has become the fifth metropolis to be named the World Design Capital, a biennial ‘high-five’ awarded to a city that uses design in a way that improves the social, cultural and economic life of its residents.

Taipei won the honour for 2016 and, with the slogan ‘Adaptive City — Design in Motion’, its campaign will “leverage the power of design and inspire citizens to redesign and rejuvenate every aspect of their daily life”. The city will host a number of key events throughout the year.

Once a place known only for its bubble tea and street food, the city got the world’s attention in 2004 with the Taipei 101 tower (formerly known as the Taipei World Financial Centre), a landmark skyscraper in the city’s government Xinyi District. 

It proudly held the title of the world’s tallest building for a handful of years and came to represent ‘modern’ Taipei.

Today, the capital is an eclectic, lively urban space where old is new, tradition can be modern and peaceful sits side-by- side with chaotic — and its design reflects those contradictions. “Taipei is continually changing yet comfortable chaos,” explains architect Kris Yao of Kris Yao Artech. “It’s unlike any other place in the world.”

Disparities between the traditions of Eastern design and modern Western culture are celebrated and sometimes fused together to great effect. Elderly women dressed in floor-length silk robes walk alongside giggling girls clad in tight Hello Kitty tops. Traditional tea houses are just as popular as the cool and quirky- themed restaurants. Chinese calligraphy has been reinvented in exhibitions, on buildings and in subway stations. 

In the historic area of Bopiliao in the Wanhua District, peddlers hawk their goods in shops with traditional facades from the Qing period (1644 to 1912) while, just minutes away in Ximending — often called the ‘Harajuku of Taipei’ — bright flashing billboards, pumping music and flocks of young things who seem to never sleep make for a rollicking party vibe.

On the outskirts of the city, along the Keelung River with the Datun Mountain as abackdrop,oldandnewliveinharmonyat the Water-Moon Monastery (89, Lane 65, Daye Rd, Beitou District), a striking study in simplicity and minimalism. It was designed by Kris Yao and has won an avalanche of awards since it was completed in 2012.

Yao acknowledges that designing the monastery was a difficult task. “Master Sheng Yen, the founder of the monastery, asked me to design a modern temple. I asked him, ‘What do you have in mind?’ He answered, ‘I have seen the monastery in my dhyana [a deep form of Buddhist meditation].’” Yao pauses then, perhaps for effect. “I was shocked because anything that you see in dhyana cannot be described. So he gave me six words.” The six words — flower in space, moon in water — convey the spirit of Zen Buddhism.

Yao incorporated techniques that weave together elements of shadow, light, wind and reflection in his design. “The challenge for us as architects is to express illusory aspects with tangible and solid materials,” he explains. “When I eventually showed the design to master he said, ‘Yes, that’s a bit like what I’ve seen in my dhyana.’”

It’s that dynamic mixture of tradition and new-age dazzle that makes Taipei tick.

Adaptive Action

When Brandon Gien, president of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, named Taipei the 2016 World Design Capital, he said: “Taipei demonstrated a willingness to transform itself through design processes for the betterment of its citizens, which reinforces its status as an adaptive city.”

This willingness is evident across the city. Take the Artist-in-Residence Taipei (AIR Taipei) program, an initiative which provides a platform for the collaboration of global artists from different disciplines. International artists are invited each year to be immersed in the city’s arts scene, where they work with local artists to create ‘intercultural and interdisciplinary dialogues’. Dutch poet and writer Erik Lindner has participated twice, once in exchange with Taiwanese artist Michael Lin, who created a gigantic tulip floor in the atrium of the City Hall in The Hague.

Sustainable architecture is also gaining ground across the city. Take Taiwan’s first certified green building, for example. The Beitou branch of the Taipei Public Library (251 Guangming Rd, Beitou District; +886 2 2897 7682; www.tpml.edu. tw) received a diamond rating under the government’s EEWH certification system, which covers ecology, energy saving, waste reduction and health. The stunning building, constructed of managed-forest timber, is cleverly designed and features a sloping turf roof that preserves humidity and moisture and drains water to recycling troughs, as well as balcony coverings and perpendicular wood window latticing that reduce thermal radiation inside.

Then there are bold new works such as the Taipei Performing Arts Centre by leading architectural firm OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture), of which Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is one of the partners. The multi-million-dollar project, due for completion this year, will comprise an elevated cube with a corrugated glass exterior. “TPAC engages a wide public not only by providing spaces for performances, but also through exposing parts of the backstage to the public,” says OMA’s David Gianotten. “The general public will have a glimpse of performing arts production and a new theatrical experience.”

In the period before the Taiwanese government started channelling funds into arts spaces such as the TPAC, the country’s artists created their own design visions. Sculptor Ju Ming, now 76 years old, was one of those artists. He began working with wood and paint at the age of 15, carving by day and drawing by night, and hasn’t stopped since. Fame found him in the 1970s and today his thousands of mainly abstract pieces are on display at the open-air Juming Museum (Jinshan District, New Taipei City; www.juming.org. tw), which was designed and built at his own expense. The museum also houses art pieces by Ju Ming’s mentor Yuyu Yang, as well as works by world-famous artists such as Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol.

City Sights

Across town, at one of the most-visited attractions in Taipei, the National Palace Museum (221, Section 2, Zhishan Rd, Shilin District; +886 2 2881 2021; www.npm.gov. tw), you’ll find one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese artefacts and, on the fourth floor, the Sanxitang Teahouse.

Taipei-born designer Ray Chen, director of architecture and interior design at Ray Chen International, created the teahouse and has weaved Eastern aesthetics into the minimalist design. Pops of colour in the form of modern-day furnishings and a mahogany-ebony colour scheme make for a soothing effect. Reflection is at the heart of Chen’s design philosophy and he hopes his projects offer respite from the perpetual buzz that’s synonymous with city living.

The racket of city life isn’t always unwelcome, however. The popular seafood market Addiction Aquatic Development (18, Alley 2, Lane 410, Minzu East Rd, Zhongshan District; www.addiction.com. tw) offers the chaos of a bazaar but in a way that defies a typical fish market. It is unconventional — more gallery space than market place thanks to additions such as lights constructed from fishing nets — and also features a collection of chic eateries under its roof.

But to best gain a sense of Taipei’s design culture, visit Huashan 1914 Creative Park (Zhongzheng District; www.huashan 1914.com). It began in 1997, when a group of thespians stumbled upon one of the oldest and most well-preserved structures in Taiwan, a former wine factory built in 1914. Soon, the factory’s open spaces and natural light started to attract the best art and literary talents from around the country and eventually it morphed into the creative powerhouse it is today, hosting experimental presentations, music recitals, ceramic courses, markets and more.

Huashan is not only at the heart of the city’s creative pulse — it’s a bridge to its unique architectural past and an ideal starting point to understand the adaptable design ethos that characterises Taipei.

Getting There

Virgin Australia offers flights to Taipei with its codeshare partner Singapore Airlines/ SilkAir. To book, visit www.virginaustralia. com or call 13 67 89 (in Australia).