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A Room with a View—Part 1 Print
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01 June 2007

This series of articles will present individual accounts of Taiwan's architectural development by utilizing a horizontal approach to defining each era. The key period of observation will focus on several pivotal incidents that occurred during the late '80s as a direct result of the Taiwan government's decision to lift martial law. These include eliminating press censorship on New Year's Day 1988; lifting Taiwan's martial laws in July of that year; allowing the establishment of political organizations and political parties in 1989; authorizing the establishment of 15 new banks in 1991, etc. This relaxation of the political and economic environment produced a stimulating succession of lively cultural and artistic innovation in Taiwan which included a dazzling display of architectural aesthetics.

Due to the constraints of time and space required to present this series of articles, we must begin our series with the dramatic political, economic, and social changes that transpired during the early '90s, and continue through to the present era. Each article will introduce a single architect, focusing particular attention upon the creations of a central core of highly active Taiwan architects aged from 40 to 60 years old.

Beginning in the '90s, the aesthetics of Taiwan architecture witnessed a  comprehensive transformation evocative of that era in regards to building materials, engineering methods, space, and form. There was clear jettisoning of the post-modernistic trends that held predominance over Taiwan architecture during the ’80s, and a return to the axial precepts of modernism. In addition, architects struggled to maintain a dialogue with worldwide trends while taking into consideration their own position, as both sides of the dialogue became increasingly clear. The circumstances of the situation is worth our attention and continuing observation.

Taiwan today rests directly within the post-industrial environment that is transforming the entire world. Yet in terms of capital, technology, and discussions, it is still portraying an outmoded, supporting role by way of its system of the division of labor. Recently, we have witnessed the phenomenon of "horizontal transplantation," (seeking advice from the West or Japan), which seems an unavoidable necessity of the times. There is, however, the need for "vertical growth," (connecting with the ideologies of our culture and the realities of our society), not only in order to exhibit a change toward a more optimistic contemporary environment, but also to set into motion the emergence of our co-existing role in the world

By introducting a single architect in each article, this series eventually hopes to portray the more complete features of architecture, which may then act as both a platform and a springboard in a dialogue with the entire world.

PART 1: The works of Kris Yao (姚仁喜)

By creating a series of designs that return to modernism, echo the trends of the greater contemporary environment, and exhibit a conscientious and pragmatic approach to architecture, Kris Yao became Taiwan's representative architect for the '90s

Architecture in Taiwan during the '80s was leaning decidedly toward "post-modernism," (especially in commercial architecture). Through a series of projects beginning in the '90s, Kris Yao gradually ushered in a return to modernism as the predominant style.

Kris Yao's designs addressed this universal topic while maintaining a cordial and optimistic attitude in his active discourse. In artistic style and language, he dismissed any symbols that identified with the local customs, as his clear objective was to expand and connect with the international pulse, (especially through the impersonal characteristics of the international style prevalent in the world's commercial architecture).

Kris Yao's persistent idealism produced designs that continually expressed a commitment to the experimentation, by utilizing modern materials and engineering methods while simultaneously modernizing Taiwan's architecture in the area of methods that inhibited internationalization. His rigorous sense of personal responsibility allowed his designs to display a neat, fine, and delicately sophisticated quality rarely seen amidst Taiwan's mediocre and crude building environment.

Kris Yao's unique personality produced designs that emphasized a pure, clean, and commanding subjective nature, while at the same time displaying an anti-authoritarian, peaceful nature. His designs responded to the obvious chaotic and offensive environment of metropolitan Taiwan by revealing a beauty and anti-authoritarian spirit that would ennoble the visual aesthetics of the entire environment. He proved that even if a work clashed with the metropolitan environment, both could survive and flourish.

Another way of saying this, is that Kris Yao's architecture responded to the chaotic external environment by utilizing an attitude of internally contained, self-cultivated harmony, without braggadocio (or timidity,) and without arrogance (or compromise). His designs appeared satisfied and mature—as someone who has cultivated a refusal to be bothered by worldly affairs. His works were clear and distinguished—as a person who has closed his eyes to meditate and reflect amidst the noisy congestion. From his aloofness to external affairs and material things, his structures co-existed harmoniously with the environment. Kris Yao’s dual-natured expression of cloaked fortitude and palpable clarity revealed both his ambiguity and beauty.

Let us take Shih Chien University’s Dong Min Memorial Building (實踐大學東閔紀念大樓) as an example for discussion.

Shih Chien University's Dong Min Memorial Building conveys the cleanest of impressions, but with an entranceway that abuts the building at a 45-degree angle. The position of this tangent produces a strenuous clash with the existing lines. At the same time, the viewer is pleasantly surprised to find that this line interweaves both the greenery of Pei Ying Park (培英公園) and the scenery of Wu Chih Mountain (五指山) in the campus background. The design displays a subtle control of balancing the necessity to "take advantage of the location," with the need to "make evident the subject."

His use of engineering techniques and raw materials reached an ethereal level when he added "freshwater concrete" to the partially completed in-situ concrete walls. This displayed an extraordinary scheme to both challenge and explore, as too much exposed concrete would present an overbearing impression of weight. A delicate metallic sunshade of a fine rhythmic warp ushers in the harmonious relationship.

The entire building appears buoyant and yet weighted, crude but gentle, environmentally assimilated though distinct from its surroundings, externally exposed while internally composed; it presents beautiful constraint and self-control. This innovative architecture, though distinct from the Ta Chih community’s (大直社區)  scattered, vibrant, and crowded way of life, merges reincarnate within the community in a demeanor of quiet silence. The design never assaults the eyes, and like most of Kris Yao’s metropolitan architectural projects, it provides an embedded, positive, and enhancing energy to the environment.

The Continental Engineering Corporation Headquarters (大陸工程總部大樓) is another example of successfully established architecture in the Taipei metropolitan area. Expressed primarily through steel and glass materials, and paired sporadically with architectural concrete, it displays an unsullied, elegant bearing beside the disheveled and gaudy décor of the surrounding neighborhood. As for its functionality as an office building that conducts business, it successfully conveys the ideal characteristics of a trustworthy, professional businessperson.

Kris Yao's works contain a personality of self-cultivation and sublimation. Their external characteristics appear fully mature, fused together, and in complete accord; they exist unperturbed within the noisy marketplace. Admirers (and consumers) can palpably sense his innate desire to respond to people.

At the same time, however, we perceive a faint, unapproachable aloofness, as if meeting a mendicant monk within a busy market whose only desire is to assist in transforming the entire world through his personal esthetic practices, without any desire to board the same boat that ferries humanity to the other shore. (His desire to raise the quality level of the environment through his architecture perhaps may not be this same noble vehicle, but indeed, he does quietly assist others).

Whether or not one can actually assist and save others is a subject for continuous debate amongst scholars of Eastern religion and philosophy. Though I am personally inclined to believe that the mission of architecture within this society should gently illuminate the sentient life that resides in this dusty, mundane world, but within the limits of this article, I have no intention to offer an opinion either way. Within the greater environment of metropolitan Taiwan, however, Kris Yao responds via his architectural cultivation as his model for finding his way back to his unique self. This is not an easy task and is worthy of our respect.

Starting from the '90s, Taiwan architects became more adroit in addressing the world through the international media. Although this tendency grew gradually stronger, local projects lacked the disseminative force that bilingual publications entail. Architects continued to progress along outmoded, piecemeal methods to overseas broadcasting, and lacked the proactive capacity to foster face-to-face communication.

Within Taiwan's architectural community of the time, architect Kris Yao endeavored to speak internationally, and enthusiastically participated in this architectural dialogue. He secured his position of international stature, as he confidently and persistently explored challenging new designs. His dynamism and confidence was the best demonstration that the future of Taiwan architectural design could be more fully engaged in a worldwide discussion, and he was a pioneer in the efforts by Taiwan architects of the era to stand astride the world.

For more information about Kris Yao see Tzu Chi Humanitarian Center's English-language publication Tzu Chi Quarterly, Shaping Space, Spring 2005, Volume 14, Number 1.

Written by Roan Ching-yue
Translated by Mark Hennessy

Written by

Roan Ching-yue (阮慶岳)

Architect and writer
Lives in Taipei
Roan as an Associate Professor in the Architecture Department at Shih-Chien University (實踐大學) in Taipei. He is the author of over 20 books about architecture and literature which have been published in Taiwan and China. Roan was the curator of the Taiwan Pavilion in Venice's Biennale 2006.

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Last Updated ( 05 November 2007 )
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