Taiwan often feels overwhelmingly urban. While it has fabulous mountains, they are often hard to see in the mist and smog. It is in the cities that people live, work and play. Three modern buildings stand out for me – Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest towers; the new National Theatre at Taichung; and the Buddha temple complex at Foguangshan near Kaohsiung.
Taipei 101 feels like it is the signature building of the state. While it doesn’t really stand out in sprawling Taipei, it certainly is hard to miss once you are remotely close, or approaching from the south and east of the city. It is certainly not the prettiest of towers. It lacks elegance. But what it does state is that Taiwan has come of age – it can build monumental buildings. And while the Chang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall is also grand and modern, it is about power. 101 is about power, but is more about the power of Taiwan’s people than the power of an autocrat. Taipei 101 is abut modernism and today, not the past, but it still retains its link to the surrounding country by its slightly bizarre bamboo-stalk look.
Which brings us to the new National theatre set in Taichung’s city centre. Taichung feels a largely utilitarian city. It’s built round work, shopping and education, with few parks to speak of and little of cultural note. There is nothing old. So the construction of such a vast cultural building near the heart of the city is a real change. Designed by a Japanese architect, Toyo Ito, this is about space, harmony, nature – not about Taiwan’s past or commerce. So in many ways it is a departure from utilitarian buildings associated with Taichung. This is a place to explore and see things in new ways.
Finally, there is the vast Buddhist temple complex at Foguangshan. Part Disney-land, part shopping mall and part shrine, this place has it all. It’s modern, yet deeply traditional, aimed at attracting Buddhists not only from Taiwan, but from across the globe. It’s a reminder that for all Taiwan’s modernism, its religious roots still run deep.
Taiwan’s modern buildings are evolving. Aesthetics are becoming more important, but the test will be whether they are still valued in the future, or will they melt into the utilitarian background that dominates so much of Taiwan’s urban landscape.