Sun, May 12, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: The dilemma of the ‘poetic architect’

Western-educated architect Wang Da-hong’s winning design for Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall was deemed ‘not Chinese enough’ for Chiang Kai-shek, who only approved it after nearly two years of revisions

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

A portrait of Wang Da-hong in his later years. He would live to become almost 101 years old

Photo courtesy of Hsu Sung-ming

May 13 to May 19

After browsing over Wang Da-hong’s (王大閎) plans for Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, then-president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) nodded, smiled and even offered a few words of approval.

“He was polite; he knew my personality,” the China-born, Europe and US-educated Wang recalled, referring to a 1961 incident where his insistence on his ideals cost him the chance to design the National Palace Museum (NPM).

A few days later, Wang received a call from Chiang’s secretary — the president thought the building was too Westernized; it needed to be more Chinese. The submission guidelines specifically asked for a building that would reflect Chinese culture while drawing from Western elements, but having lived in Europe and the US from the age of 13 to 28, Wang’s thinking was probably too progressive for the conservative government bigwigs.

It was late 1965, and China was on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, which would soon smash many things traditional. Chiang’s government in Taiwan was still clinging to its spot in the UN as the legitimate ruler of China, and it would benefit Taiwan to portray itself as the rightful heirs of Chinese culture. The NPM was completed earlier that year, and Sun’s memorial was Chiang’s next pet project.

Wang was unhappy with the request, but after the NPM debacle, he had learned to compromise. It took almost two years for Chiang to approve what Wang considered his “most difficult project ever,” breaking ground on March 12, 1968 and opening on May 16, 1972.

FIFTEEN YEARS IN THE WEST

Wang was born in Beijing to a prominent family as the son of Wang Chung-hui (王寵惠), a close associate of Sun who joined the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in 1912 and held a number of important positions during its time in China. After the KMT fled to Taiwan, the elder Wang served as minister of justice until his death in 1958.

Through his father’s work in Europe as a diplomat, the younger Wang enrolled in a Swiss academy as a teenager, later completing his master’s degree in architecture at Harvard University, where he studied alongside I.M. Pei (貝聿銘) under Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. He returned to China in 1945 and set up shop, moving to Taiwan via Hong Kong in 1952.

Wang’s first attempt at public architecture was the proposal submitted for the NPM in 1961. While the authorities chose his design, Wang’s ideas were too progressive for the committee, leading them to hand the project to one of the jurors. According to an article on Wang by architecture professor Hsu Ming-sung (徐明松), Wang commented: “Politicians should be politicians, and professionals should be professionals.”

Wang died in May last year, leaving behind an architectural legacy in Taipei. He was responsible for a number of buildings on the National Taiwan University campus, the Lin Yutang House (林語堂故居) at Yangmingshan, numerous structures at Academia Sinica, the Asia Cement building as well as the current Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Education.

His private residence on Taipei’s Jianguo S Road (建國南路) was his first project in Taiwan, representative of his combination of classical Chinese design elements with modern techniques. Demolished in the 1970s, it was rebuilt in 2017 at Fine Arts Park as the Wang Da-hong House Theater.

IMMORTALIZING SUN

Chiang first brought up the idea for a memorial hall for KMT founder Sun Yat-sen during a Central Standing Committee meeting in 1963, calling for a task force to prepare for Sun’s upcoming 100th birthday on Nov. 12, 1965. One of its five directives was “construction of a memorial hall.”

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