“An era without freedom brings absence in good architecture.” –Architect Fujishima Gaijiro lamented the loss of good taste at the height of Japanese imperialism.
I am no artist.
In fact, after visiting the Picasso museum, I suddenly realized that Pablo Picasso can definitely draw, he simply chose to draw like a crazy person sometimes. His brilliance reached beyond the detection of my vulgar eyes, because for the life of me I could not figure out what in the world anyone could possibly make out of Guernica. I am no architect, either, but buildings are a different story, and for me, sometimes a richer story.
Even when buildings are designed as art, they often serve practical functions while occupying public space. I am no fan of Antoni Gaudí, and I more or less agree with George Orwell that Sagrada Familia is “one of the most hideous buildings in the world” although I am not quite in accordance with his assertion that “the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up.” Art lives in the eyes of the beholder and preservation is the least that non-artists can contribute to humanity.
Spain is a country full of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, consisting of Roman ruins, natural splendors, and modern architectural wonders. In Barcelona, buildings constructed during the Catalan Modernisme, led by renowned architects such as Antoni Gaudí, Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch, are particularly highly regarded and well-preserved. Exquisite historic buildings can be found across Barcelona, even in the least assuming neighborhoods. It was not until a quick search on the internet, did I realize that the civic center down the street, Casa Golferichs, was built in 1901 by an architect named Joan Rubió i Bellver, who was the talent behind a long list of gorgeous work throughout Catalonia and the Balearic Islands. It is truly magical when a city is filled with well-preserved story-telling buildings that reveal not only the genius of mankind, but also reflect the historical artistry of the land. Certainly, the Catalan architects were inspirational visionaries, but it was really a series of fortunate events that led to our encounter with the past. Historical artwork would have vanished with the past without the relentless effort that goes into preservation, and unfortunately, setting up conservation laws has not been the top priority for some countries during its stages of development.
Gandhi has once said that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. The idea is that if even animals have rights, it is without question that human rights have already been secured in place. In the same way, humans move up Maslow´s hierarchy of needs once survival related issues have been solved. If we recognize our need to make sense of our culture and heritage, then the length our society goes to preserve, protect, and acknowledge history reveals the extent of its greatness.
Unfortunately, for a serial colony like Taiwan, historic preservation has been a complicated issue. Each settler wanted to out-do the previous settlers whom they presumably defeated. The truth is that memory is ultimately mutable. It is so mutable that if something can be knocked down, it can be eradicated from our memory of the past. Taiwan´s historic preservation has come a long way from the days when the Japanese intended to erase all traces of the Qing Dynasty, followed by the Chinese Nationalists that tore down Shinto shrines so everyone knew who owned the place. The relatively recent awakening of civic culture successfully led to the restoration of many important landmarks, which are instrumental in constructing a coherent past for the people of Taiwan who have lived for decades in political and historical uncertainties.
China, during the Qianlong period (1735-1797), overlooked Taiwan entirely, as it considered Taiwan “a savage island, free of wonders, yet full of hazards,” (臺地前為夷島，本無奇勝，有災異叢談) showing that the Qing Dynasty knew extremely little of Taiwan. Fort Santo Domingo and Fort Provintia had already been constructed by the Dutch in 1629 and 1653 respectively, and the Confucian Temple in Tainan was completed in 1665, along with other buildings exemplary of high civilization during the Koxinga era. From 1895 to 1945 during the Japanese rule, Japanese anthropologists paid little attention to artifacts and culture of Han origin, and if any considerations were given, the general attitude leaned toward destruction rather than preservation (the demolition of Ximen, the West Gate of Taipei built during the Qing era, met with strong resistance which put a stop to the original plan to demolish the other four). The scholars were, however, rather fascinated by the way of life of the aborigines. Extensive anthropological work on the aborigines had been conducted in the early 20th century, with architectural sketches and books published on the topic. Although the construction of Taiwanese temples were encouraged during the relatively liberal Taisho era (1912-1926), the period of kominka (Japanization of the Taiwanese people, 1939-1945) called for the demolition of buildings from the Qing Dynasty. To the confusion of the Taiwanese people, the arrival of the Chinese Nationalists in 1945 brought the onset of another round of “historical realignment.”
The Chinese Nationalists suffered great loss in the hands of the Japanese in the second Sino-Japanese War and were not thrilled to see reminders of Japanese presence in Taiwan. The speaking of the Japanese language was immediately banned in the public sphere, and over 130 Japanese Shinto shrines were torn down. In the following years, urbanization led to the destruction or relocation of many historic buildings. The Chinese Nationalists had little interest in Taiwanese history, and saw no importance in preserving the remnants of the past. Although many historians, artists, and anthropologists heavily lobbied for conservation, it was not until 1981 did the government establish the Ministry of Culture as a response. As a result of the work of the Ministry of Culture and civic groups, the revival of historic preservation finally took off in Taiwan. Shamefully, political follies such as designating the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, a site that is slightly older than me, but a lot younger than, say, the Kagi Gunyakusho (which has since been demolished), as a temporary historic site to satisfy partisan agendas make a mockery out of preservation laws.
Still, we cannot overlook the recent progress of historic preservation in Taiwan. The Qianlong era Lin An Tai Ancestral Home in Taipei, for example, embodies the impressive workmanship of reconstruction after having been moved from its original site (violating the principle of discouragement against removal of monument from its original site stipulated in the Athens Charter of 1931, an international guideline for the restoration of historic monuments) and nearly faced destruction due to urban expansion. The restoration of the Bopiliao street lined with baroque style buildings in Wanhua (also known as Bang-ka, or “Monga” for you movie buffs) serves not only as a reminder of Taiwan’s Minnan roots and Western influences, but also houses a museum of education, where children can play vintage games while learning the history of education. The Kagi Shrine in Chiayi, an old Japanese Shinto shrine built in 1915, has since been repaired and now operates as a historical relics museum. As a result from strong urging of experts and scholars and the support of locals, the former Huwei Magistrate residence built during the Taisho era has been converted into The Yunlin Storyhouse, a wonderful civic center serving the Huwei community.
Historic preservation is an ongoing effort, as buildings crack, sag, and oxidize with time, and constant maintenance is required. Conservation projects are not exactly always on the front burner of budget allocation. The skyrocketing property value in the cities has caused some private owners to disregard city ordinances and tear down buildings of historic values in order to turn a profit through sale. Opponents to historic preservation argue on the principle of property rights for individuals, high cost to the society in both project expense and land value increase, and obstacle to architectural advancement. Challenges lie ahead, and while ignorance and self-interest may accompany humankind to the end of time, if you take a walk through the former sake distillery that is now known as Huashan Creative Park, you cannot help but feel hopeful, that this generation sees beauty and value in even the most abandoned corner of Formosa, a land that has been dying to tell her story.
(Feature photo of Lin An Tai Ancestral House, by Chiya Elle)