When I returned from my trip to Peru, I enthusiastically showed a picture of Agua Calientes, a serene, little town nestled at the foot of Machu Picchu to my boss. He left me perplexed when he exclaimed, “Oh my God, what a dump!” Then I realized that he was utterly appalled by the cheap steel structures which the Taiwanese eyes have been trained to automatically crop out of sight. I wonder what he would say about the streets of Taiwan, a supposedly developed country.
IMF ranks Taiwan as one of the most advanced economies in Asia, with high purchasing power parity and a poverty rate impressively low at 1.5% as of 2012. Yet, for a pretty rich girl, Taiwan sure doesn’t dress like it.
Exposed electrical chords, and streaky concrete or tiled façades decorated with blindingly colorful neon signs on the corner of every visual frame, adorn Taiwan’s poorly planned cities. If you manage to escape the chaos of the cities into the mountains, you are likely to be immediately confronted by makeshift structures of metal sheets and plastic, or Chinese-opera style gazebos painted in a red I cannot describe except with the word menstrual. My personal all time favorite man-made atrocity is the bamboo railings commonly spotted on hikes or country roads. They are thick, they’re concrete, and they’re painted as bamboos. Considering the light and shadow depicted by a combination of spring green and forest green, one simply cannot say that an effort has not been made to convince people that they were real bamboos, oddly attached to wood (also concrete).
Taiwan’s Architectural History
The most self-evident truth about Taiwan’s architecture is that its cultural heritage is confused. When the Japanese arrived in Taiwan in the late 1800s, they proceeded to rid Taiwan of its Han heritage by dismantling Qing era structures such as the Taipei city west gate, and only abolished the plan to tear down the other four gates due to strong protests. The Japanese began their plan of modernizing Taiwan, which included building railways, public clinics, and schools. The colonial government intended to model Taichung after Kyoto due to the similarity of their river embankments. Now, those who have been to both Kyoto and Taichung would struggle to spot their resemblance though, and that’s because before Kyoto could happen, the KMT arrival happened.
The Chinese Nationalists (KMT) originally intended only to make a quick pit stop in Taiwan before marching on to recapture the Chinese mainland. Thus,extensive development of the island was not penciled in on their agenda. As the pit stop turned into a permanent stay, the new rulers of Taiwan were forced to reevaluate how they should redecorate their new home, which in the KMT’s eyes, reeked of Japanese imperialism.
Anti-Japanese sentiments of the Chinese Nationalist army led to mass destruction of Shinto temples, and later on, replacement of train stations and iconic buildings. Moreover, along with guns, troops and corruption, the Chinese officials brought nostalgia for China with them. It was decided that buildings in Taiwan should embody classical, proper, Chinese elements. Yenping Shrine in Tainan (延平郡王祠), for example, was altered from its original Minnan style to resemble northern Chinese structures. From the 1970s onward, mass reproduction of buildings with minimal planning or regulation, along with the liberal usage of cheap building materials, planted the seed of the rusty cityscape we see today. Iconic baroque architecture that the Japanese had favored had been replaced with the cost-efficient industrial look the Chinese preferred.
No Material Excuse
Concrete, steel, and plastic have been the favorite building materials during Taiwan’s economic and construction boom, for their durability and low costs. Due to Taiwan’s geographic location in the sub-tropical climate zone, typhoons, earthquakes, humidity, and frequent rain need to be taken into consideration in construction. This common defense of shoddy buildings, however, unfortunately does not quite hold water. Are prices and durability alone sufficient in explaining the wall-to-wall bathroom tiles that grace the façades of Taiwan’s buildings? The omnipresent metal sheds that can be spotted from the middle of a rice field, to the almost unaffordably expensive residential areas in the capital? Not quite.
What country, other than Taiwan, just can’t get enough of industrial building materials? The answer might surprise you.
Corrugated steel and iron have been used for building construction in Iceland since the 1800s because they are known to endure the harsh climate while requiring low maintainence. No one goes to Iceland just to admire their industrial architecture, but their houses are certainly easier on the eyes than some of the metal shacks found in Taiwan.
Taiwan is also not the only country that uses tiles on the outside of buildings. Portugal is famous for using patterned azulejos outside of churches, ordinary houses, schools, and bars. The technique of using tiles on walls in the region started in Seville, Spain in the 13th century, but the original usage dates back to 4000 BC in Egypt. These tiles are not only durable but also uniquely beautiful. They were often glazed in a single color then cut into geometric shapes to form decorative patterns on buildings. The Romans, the Greeks, Persia, China, India, Syria, Turkey, Tunisia, to name a few, embraced this enduring material and further built on the art of tiles. It is important to clear their name. By “their” I meant the tiles. Tiles are wonderful. Tiles are blameless.
Redemption and Takeaway
The issue at hand, in 2016, is not the lack of resources nor material practicality. The issue is, inherently, an underdeveloped sense of style and taste. Taiwan need not be like Portugal, Iceland, or Japan. In fact, the word taste has little to do with imitation. It does, however, imply sewing high standards of beauty and creativity together with rigorous discipline.
There is still a glimmer of hope for Taiwan. Take a 7-11 in Tainan, for example. The appearance of this unassuming storefront is designed rather tastefully (I would do away with the giant protruding 7-11 sign, but that’s perhaps asking too much too fast). The fact that the materials and height of the building are chosen with the surrounding in consideration is a huge step toward a clean, harmonious streetscape.
Many decrepit, long forgotten Japanese and traditional houses and temples have also been restored all across Taiwan. Other than the Chiayi Shinto Shrine which now houses Chiayi City’s archives, and Huwei’s former Japanese official dormitories now converted into the Yunlin Story House, new life has been breathed into Liang House in Taipei which now serves as a civic center. Dihua Street in Dadaocheng, Taipei, has also recently experienced an exuberant revitalization effort led by cultural activists such as Jou Yi-cheng along with local artists and small businesses.
The movement had already begun, but the struggle is still very real every day. Beyond the persistent crime of callous negligence disguised as cost-effiency or practicality-on a-large-scale, people also encourage poor taste by ignoring the pervasive unsightliness. At the end of the day, the issue of urban planning and nation building extends beyond heritage preservation. It’s about cultural legacy, or what the people in their 20s, 30s, or 40s today will leave behind for generations to come. As a relatively recently developed economy, a period of poor taste and corner cutting is excusable, but at some point, excuses will run dryer than the cement of the botched patching job around this sewage cap.
(Feature photo of Chiayi in the Japanese era)