The National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Weiwuying) on Friday last week was honored by Time magazine as one of the “World’s Greatest Places.”
It is a worthy candidate for Taiwan’s first appearance on the annual list, not only for its title as the world’s largest performing arts space under one roof, but also for its observant design that incorporates both natural elements and public need.
Good architecture has countless benefits, one of which is evidenced by Weiwuying’s success. The center, like Taipei 101 before it, is helping raise the nation’s profile with positive international attention.
However, massive buildings are not the only way to generate acclaim, and Taiwan’s builders must think smarter, not bigger.
Public space is the heart of any city, but having too many that offer the same services dilutes their effect. Aside from the national theaters in Taipei, Taichung and now in Kaohsiung, Taoyuan, New Taipei City and Taipei’s Shilin District (士林) are soon to open their own large performance venues, while each county has a cultural center that is too often used just for a handful of days a month.
While large performance spaces are necessary, the number of these massive venues is optimistic, given the nation’s relatively small population of patrons.
Performing arts companies and audiences must first be cultivated, so perhaps construction funds should be spent on small, well-equipped theaters that are better for artists and for engaging communties.
When deciding what types of spaces to build, public planners should spend considerable time speaking with locals and experts to determine real need, rather than gravitating toward the flashiest solution.
However, incorporating public need does not mean sacrificing international acclaim. Smaller-scale projects could also generate buzz, if creatively designed.
Green architecture presents one such opportunity. While green building codes for public buildings have already been implemented for more than a decade, Taiwan could take a bigger lead in championing new technologies and choosing designers and contractors that prioritize environmental impact.
The Beitou Library, the nation’s first certified green building, is an excellent example. It was built with recyclable materials and wood, features rooftop solar panels and has a rainwater collection system, earning the structure a spot on various international rankings.
The library continues to draw tens of thousands of patrons and visitors every year, and it is not just because of its certifications. Its bright and airy design is appealing, especially when many in Taiwan live in dark and crowded apartments.
As the library shows, the government should promote good architecture for its public health benefits as well as a source of acclaim.
Numerous studies have found that built environments directly affect well-being, with city dwellers twice as likely to develop schizophrenia and significantly more at risk for depression and chronic anxiety.
Social and environmental isolation seem largely to blame, but can be helped by sensitively designed spaces that encourage interaction and interface with the natural environment.
Taiwan has long been saddled by the scourge of bad architecture built to accommodate its booming population in the latter half of the 20th century, leading to a maze of concrete and metal.
Both public and private actors should consider improving the built landscape a matter of public health that requires care for every structure, not just major projects.
While international acclaim is welcome, building smarter and more beautiful architecture would create livable spaces that foster engagement and creativity, which in turn would enhance the nation’s international profile more than any single arts center.
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