Taiwan Architecture: A Festival of Junk

People milling around during the 'reopening' of Treasure Hill in Taipei last month. Photo: Trista di Genova
How and why the island’s modern-day architecture evolved into such a sad state — an aesthetically offensive living museum of bile-inspiring monstrosities

By Trista di Genova
The Wild East

A few years ago, when producer Will Tiao and his crew were scouting locations for the film ‘Formosa Betrayed’, they discovered to their chagrin that present-day Taiwan looks “nothing” like it did in the 1970s. Virtually nowhere could they find the look or feel of olden days. They ended up filming in Thailand.

My first impression of Taiwan in 2002 is constantly reconfirmed: It’s like Mexico, except you can’t read the signs. Everywhere you look is a Festival of Junk — flimsy, corregated metal sheet add-on structures; people here use the damned stuff for walls, fencing, roofing, illegal rooftop structures, ceiling overhangs, in their gardens.

Then, for decades, the Taiwanese found some kind of sadistic pleasure in incorporating bathroom tiles into every aspect of modern architecture; not just for bathrooms of course, but in everyone’s kitchens, living rooms, surfacing the walls, and entire exteriors of buildings. Sometimes nearly every surface is covered in these bathroom tiles, leaving you with the nagging feeling of never leaving the crapper in Taiwan. It’s dreary, impersonal, and conjures up feelings of uncleanliness and impersonality. Not only depressing, the tiles are dangerous in a country constantly prone to earthquakes; they shatter and fall upon victims in the streets below, like shards of glass.

A dilapidated building with some character ensnared by ever-present wires, next to a lavatory-inspired crapacious architectural monster in Dihua Street area, Taipei. Photo: Trista di Genova
A dilapidated building with some character ensnared by ever-present wires, next to a lavatory-inspired crapacious architectural monster in Dihua Street area, Taipei. Photo: Trista di Genova
Foreign observers often wonder: What the Hell??

Over the years, I must have asked a score of other people, from professors to expats and ordinary Taiwanese, why this is so. In one of the most advanced Asian countries and with a higher standard of living, the Taiwanese still, for some reason, seem to enjoy living in such squalid conditions; somehow “they don’t mind living in a garage,” as one friend put it. They may have millions in the bank but their walls are still empty-white. The Taiwanese often throw away hand-carved rosewood furniture at the Chinese New Year – pieces worth sometimes thousands back home in the West – and usually replace it with some naff version in plastic, yes plastic (Formosa Plastics seems to have a flourishing domestic market in this regard).

With some trepidation regarding the feng shui of using old things, or sometimes of ‘the ghosts’ that they may bring, the Taiwanese, with more money in the bank than just about anyone per capita in the world, will surround themselves with worthless crap of no artistic value whatsoever. Or just as often nothing at all. Blank, crumbling, white-paint-flaking walls. White concrete box apartment buildings with no sense of design, history or comfort. Corregated metal. Bathroom tiles. It feels like some kind of delayed, silent Cultural Revolution, self-imposed. Sounds depressing, no?

The reasons behind this architectural mystery are more complicated than at first glance. Sure, people tend to use the most inexpensive of building materials, and the ones available to them on an isolated island; they may have even found some popularity at the time, for some reason. Some believe it’s easier to keep the grungy buildings clean, or safe from the elements, if there are bloody tiles all over them.

By contrast, early visitors to this island in the 17th century marveled at the beauty of Formosans’ living quarters (“Formosa Under the Dutch”). Formosans, indigenous peoples especially, used slate stone, wood, bamboo; the houses were sturdy, stood up well to time, rain, wind, typhoons.

The Tao tribe on Orchid Island had a literally cool, clever solution; they built their homes half-submerged under the earth. Under the Japanese occupation (1895-1945), Orchid islanders and their ancient culture and customs were left unmolested by the colonizers (although entire villages were forced to relocate in other cases), as part of some kind of experiment in anthropology.

When Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek later visited the island, according to local accounts, they were dismayed to see their subjects living half-underground, and ordered concrete structures to replace them. This unfortunate snap decision led to bulldozing most of these ancient, traditional dwellings, carefully constructed with a knowledge borne of untold centuries of experience. What transpired was disastrous; the new concrete structures immediately began to crumble and turn into ruins. Read more about it here.

Granted, throughout history, conquerors tend to destroy the architectural achievements of their predecessors. When the Dutch were excised from the island by Koxinga (pinyin: Zhèng Chénggōng, traditional Chinese: 國姓爺) in 1662, the pirate and his armies were quick to raze to the ground the Dutch Fort Zeelandia there. What little Dutch ‘influence’ remains today in Tainan, southern Taiwan, is nothing but a few high walls, an excavated piece of another. The new inhabitants built a Chinese-style building on the site that was thereafter used for civil servant examinations.

Over the past several centuries, Chinese and other foreign invaders – as well as new immigrants who fled war and famine in Southeast China to settle in western Taiwan — would habitually burn down entire villages when the inhabitants, universally known as ‘savages’ at the time, refused to cooperate or be enslaved into indentured labor. Indigenous survivors fled higher, into the Central Mountain Range (hence the name “flatlander” for the new immigrants, ping di ren). Records, family histories, untold numbers of artifacts were destroyed in the process.

TWpresidential-palace-taipeiJapan, in its attempts to transform Taiwan into a Japanese colony, actually succeeded in greatly advancing Formosa’s infrastructure. They built roads from ancient paths through treacherous mountainous regions north to south, implemented train services, streamlined industries; even the building used as the Presidential Palace in Taipei today was built by the Japanese.

By the time Chiang Kai-shek and the defeated Nationalist armies fled China in 1949 – boatload after boatload after boatload of soldiers, increasing the population by at least 2 million – Taiwan, as Japan’s colony, had become the most advanced economy in Asia. With its bountiful and efficiently exploited industries of rice, tea, camphor (and its byproduct of cellulose, used in film and early form of plastic, which was said to have launched the Hollywood film industry), the insanely fertile island was a cash cow, and actually had been for centuries.

In the book ‘Formosa Betrayed’, George H. Kerr, a US diplomat who’d been stationed in Formosa since before World War II, writes of Nationalist soldiers who would steal bicycles and walk away with them, since they didn’t know how to ride one. Others would stand for hours in wonder at one of the lifts in a downtown Taipei building, in awe of the advanced technology … compared to the Mainland.

Kerr also writes of how the Nationalist soldiers, who were often little more than illiterate peasants in their teens, first set themselves to the task of comprehensively looting Taiwan for its raw materials, even disassembling entire factories, railroads for iron — anything metal — selling and sending shiploads of these materials back to Shanghai on the Mainland.

[It would take decades for the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Army and its leader Chiang Kai-shek to give up the dream of taking back the Mainland. Even today, unification is still a controversial part of the KMT’s time-honored charter, tong yi chonguo, unification through democracy. By the 1990s, under KMT President Lee Teng-hui, the KMT changed its focus to changing the Mainland through democracy, keeping the prospect of a peaceful reunification on the table. In his 1991 presidential address, he said “Democratization characterizes our present endeavor, reunification with mainland China is most certainly our future aim. These two goals are not unrelated.” (Source)]

Like Koxinga, the new Nationalist armies destroyed many structures built by the Japanese before them. And since they believed they would soon return to The Mainland, they hastily threw up concrete, shoddily built structures. After all, this was not their ancestral homeland; therefore, Taiwan was seen and treated like one big waiting room until the glorious return to China.

So arguably, this sense of being here temporarily is the main reason why there is no craft, love or artistry in Taiwanese architecture today. What we are left with is the result of a Cult of The Temporary. These offensive-to-the-eye structures are seen all throughout modern-day Taiwan, and every community looks the same — run-down, dilapidated, a never-ending eyesore, structurally unsound and falling apart.

It doesn’t help that Taiwan building contractors don’t seem to know their head from their arses, endangering us all by their lack of knowledge and respect for basic construction standards. There is even a ‘Taiwan thing’ called ‘wall cancer’ (bi4 ai2), that affects countless buildings around the island, a phenomenon virtually unheard of elsewhere in the world. Moisture seeps through, creating unsightly bubbles and erosion, apparently caused from the mistake of using sea sand in older building construction.

Almost nowhere on Taiwan proper can you see structures that are older than 40-50 years old (the outlying island of Kinmen, a.k.a. Quemoy is an exception). Once in a while, you may see a type of manor house from the Ching Dynasty, but they are usually no older than a hundred years old. These are red, low-lying brick, and would cost a fortune to renovate, although they are still a thing of underappreciated beauty. More often you will see these crumbling red brick structures by the roadside, usually abandoned. The value of the land is far more important to the owners, who often leave them to fall into ruins.

A rice shop in Jinshan, northern Taiwan. Owners don't want the trouble of having their property designated as a heritage landmark. Photo: Trista di Genova
A rice shop in Jinshan, northern Taiwan. Owners don't want the trouble of having their property designated as a heritage landmark. Photo: Trista di Genova
In Jinshan, northern Taiwan, there is an old rice shop in the central, old market street, very easy to overlook. Rice is still sold there, but not much. In the back are where huge bags of rice were once stored; in a cramped upstairs overlooking the street via a small window to check for bandits (described as a huge problem before and after the Japanese occupation), is where people used to sleep. This is one of the oldest buildings in the area, but you would never know it.

Cultural preservation or destruction? Bland concrete rooftiles replace the original ones in Treasure Hill. Photo: Trista di GenovaA more recent example is Treasure Hill in central Taipei. A KMT veteran’s community and artists’ squatting place for decades, it was closed for renovation, and just reopened to much fanfare last month. After touring the ‘new’ Treasure Hill, I was more convinced more than ever that Taiwanese people know absolutely NOTHING about historic preservation. Ancient red rooftiles that made up the area’s character had been replaced by — get this — colorless, characterless grey concrete ones. Quaint cobblestone alleys had been paved over, nice and smooth for the tourists… and now utterly insipid-looking. Alas, Treasure Hill became the latest casualty, another unmitigated architectural catastrophe.

This dilemma begs the question: Why aren’t places like these preserved as architectural heritage spots?

There are a few shocking reasons behind this. In the case of the rice shop in Jinshan, according to its owner, the designation of cultural or historic landmark would bring with it many new, unwelcome restrictions in new construction on or making alterations to that site.

Linda Arrigo, a Humanities professor at Taipei Medical University, has witnessed Taiwan’s facelift over the last 45 years or so. She has seen entire neighborhoods destroyed and rebuilt over time, and recounts how new roads with ‘no sense of logic’ have torn apart old neighborhoods, with corruption in construction running rampant and ramshod over any considerations of heritage or historical value.

Most importantly, she helps solve the mystery of why Taiwan architecture sucks so hard, observing that “people actually rush to raze their houses to the ground when there is the prospect it might be designated a historical landmark.”

5 thoughts on “Taiwan Architecture: A Festival of Junk

  • November 28, 2010 at 9:57 am

    Well, you gave yourself all the answers to the questions you asked. It’s Taiwan’s history of the recent 400 years: The colonization, the change of rulers, the uncertain political situation, bombs waiting to be dropped from the other side. I’m not sure if there’s any well developed country in such Kafkaesque situation right now. Your article hits the right spot, but I’d love to hear about the cases, where things are getting better. There’s certainly a lot of room for improvement in Taiwan. But some cities, even if they look run down at the first impression, have a certain charm, don’t you think?

  • November 21, 2010 at 2:33 am

    Yes, a nice/great article!

    From the personal to the general, from the subjective to the objective, a snapshot of East meets West.

    And … a lot of whys ….

  • November 20, 2010 at 4:12 am

    Oh hey – this was a great article! I’ve been driven mad by this question since I got here. Do you guys have anyone writing down in the South? I was at the Art gallery today and the thing was abandoned, it was so weird for a Saturday afternoon…Why?

  • November 19, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Nice article. Just sad that they don’t try to preserve some of the old character of Taiwan. Still, the scenery does not look like any familiar U.S. places, so it retains its own peculiar flavor. Hopefully they will at least make future buildings earthquake resistant.


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