Postcard from Taipei.
Those who have visited Beijing approach Taipei with deepest foreboding. Is it going to be a smaller, offshore version of the dreadful city on the mainland? Initial impressions are not propitious. The highway from the international airport is lined with an uneasy mish-mash of disjointed buildings punctuating what can be imagined once to have been an innocent agricultural landscape -- the sort of non-place corridor that connects almost every airport to its city, though in tropical Taiwan, prolific and intensely green vegetation partly softens the relentless aggressive mediocrity. Huge object buildings rear themselves out of the plain, shouting at each other over the precise geometry of the remaining paddy fields, which will doubtless soon disappear under more hulks.
After a while, the landscape improves greatly. A pass through hills is flanked by deep emerald forests, where the dense texture of shrubby evergreen trees is enriched by slender waving patches of bamboo and the pale green formal curves of tree ferns. The hills turn out to be a ring of low mountains that surrounds the city, which gradually reveals itself through thick smog. Taipei sits in its bowl of mountains on a plain created by the wide Tamsui river, at the point where it is joined by two tributaries. Rapidly, it is clear that Beijing's long, horrendous procession of lurching PoMo monsters is not echoed here. Of course, there are such huge beasts, but soon Taipei is revealed as having a much more connected urban structure.
The texture has much to do with the Japanese. Taiwan was seized by Japan from the decaying Chinese Empire in 1895 as part of the settlement of the Sino-Japanese war. Japan had been opened to Western industrial influences since Perry arrived with his black American battleships in 1853. Imperialism was one of the drives the Japanese took from the West, and the war was the result. Since the sixteenth century, Japan had been launching expeditions to annex Taiwan and, when it finally succeeded, its harsh regime flourished rapidly. Provided with infrastructure, the island soon became more prosperous than the mainland.
What had been not much more than a recently walled market town was developed into the colonial capital. The walls were soon demolished and a grid imposed, fundamentally based on the Japanese east-west axis, rather than the north-south of Chinese feng shui. In fact, differences are so slight that they are visible only in slight twists of streets around the Japanese Governor's palace, now the President's office. Finished in 1919, this red-brick rectangle is dressed in pale stone, and its mutedly classical facades are dominated by a tower that tends towards abstraction, almost like an Arts and Crafts version of an Indian railway station. (Japanese architects of the time were allowed to experiment with new ideas in the colonies, although innovation was frowned on at home.)
Old Taipei was largely a rambling tight-knit mat of one- and two-storey Chinese courtyard and shop houses, with a temple or military building here and there. Amazingly, small pockets of this old texture still exist, some quite close to the presidential building. They are tatty slums now, and will probably be swept away soon (at best, a small area or two may be preserved in plastic for tourists). But in the first half of the last century, the Japanese had begun to impose another urban order, with six- or eight-storey tenements lining a tight grid. Beijing largely lacked such dense multi-storey fabric, and so its structure has been jerked in a couple of generations from low-rise high density to high-rise (with probably rather lower densities). In Taipei, the early twentieth-century structure was sufficiently dense and efficient to prevent such radical transformation, at least in the west of the city around the presidential headquarters. New tall buildings have, of course, been inserted, as have much more divisi ve elevated highways and rail tracks (few cities of any size between Cairo and Sydney managed to escape the manic attentions of Americanized traffic engineers in the '70s and '80s).
But where medium-rise prevails, intense urban life continues. Ground and sometimes first floors are devoted to retailing: from Seven-Eleven neighbourhood stores to little garages for servicing Taiwan's s universal motor scooters. These roar in relentless shoals down main roads, and wander individually in low gear down pavements, apparently trying to winkle out the feeblest pedestrians, but somehow managing to miss after elaborate pantomime ballets that slalom round pavement hot food stalls. At night, street markets become almost continuous brightly lit restaurants, with booths selling different kinds of food punctuated by little shops selling shoes or CDs.
First floors are devoted to offices and professional chambers (judging by the ads, dentists seem to be particularly prevalent in poorer quarters). Above are flats, with balconies (often behind barred grilles) overflowing with lavish plants, small children, whistling birds, flapping screens of drying washing and endless chatter. It is a good (if not beautiful) urban texture, not as clean as Singapore, or as tall as Hong Kong, but clearly a remarkably vigorous Chinese model. Main shopping streets are enlivened with magic patterns of vertical advertisements as lively as anything in Tokyo's Shinjuku or Roppongi. Carved into this matrix are boulevards, often eight lanes wide with one-way traffic. No one could call them instruments of civilized life, but their effect is mitigated by lavish planting of palms and oleanders, which in the older boulevards, where they are well-grown, mask and absorb some of the row and stink of traffic. A Metro network is being completed, but few believe that it will seriously reduce th e amount of road traffic.
Taipei is one of the greenest of Asian cities, partly because in the hot, wet climate all you have to do is drop a seed and it will grow. There is also a tradition from colonial days of public parks -- the first, or New Park, was founded next to the site of the Governor's palace in the early twentieth century. In many ways, it was remarkably innovative, as neither Chinese nor Japanese civilizations have traditions of public open space (apart from the forecourts of temples); there were large parks of course, but they were high-walled and reserved for emperors and aristocracy. In modern Taipei, some of the old shanty neighbourhoods have been razed to make way for new parks, and every long view is terminated by the ring of green mountains. The New Park has now been renamed 2-28 to commemorate the thousands of victims of a massacre on 28 February 1947 when the Kuomintang governor, who took over from the Japanese at the end of the war, decided to suppress local dissent. Renaming the park is symbolic of the fact th at the Kuomintang (the KMT, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist party, driven from the mainland by the Communists in 1949) is no longer in government.
Sadly, the potential of the traditional city has been lost in the development of the new CBD to the east of the centre. Here are most of the new, expensive hotels, City Hall and prestigious office blocks. Because the Taiwanese regime has been so strongly supported by the US, some of the worst aspects of American urban culture have been fervently embraced. The CBD could be in Texas, with clumsy tall buildings -- raw extruded capitalism -- replacing the dense low-rise texture of the earlier city with unrelated mess: brute Modernism is enlivened only by occasional vulgar touches of PoMo. The few green areas seem to be meaningless bits of land left over after cramming as much as possible on to each plot. I was in Taipei as a member of the jury of the international competition for the surroundings of the presidential building. Results (to be published in the AR soon) are inventive and, if adopted, could make a big difference to professional and popular perceptions of urbanity. It may not be too late to save the ci ty from becoming another Americanized east Asian nowheresville.
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|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2001|