Building on the past

A small, yet historically important part of Taiwan Normal University is currently at the center of heated debate over its plans to modernize

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sat, Jun 21, 2003 - Page 16

Over the past nine months a number of students at Taiwan Normal University (台灣師範大學) have had more than simply education on their minds.

Led by Chen Fen-yu (陳芬瑜), of the Graduate Institute of Environmental Education (環境教育研究所), members of the student body have been busily campaigning to save one of the university's oldest and most historic buildings, Wenhui Hall (文薈廳), as well as several trees that stand nearby.

While an agreement regarding the trees, one of which -- the Indian red sandalwood -- is 70 years old, has been reached and permanent homes have been found elsewhere on campus for them, the future of the hall itself remains a hotly debated issue.

Although the university doesn't intend to demolish the near 80-year-old, single-story structure, its plans to dismantle it and rebuild it as part of a massive modern building has become the focal point for widespread discussion, especially among the student body.

"Over a three-day period we got over 1,000 students to sign our petition asking the university to reconsider its plans," explained Chen. "We all feel the university considers modernization and prestige more important than [the university's] and Taipei's history."

Part of the university's redevelopment plan, the construction of the Yuezhe Building (樂智大樓) -- a 12-story building that will house lecture theaters, a post office, a personality testing center, as well as university administration offices -- is seen as crucial to the faculty's continuing growth.

The number of students studying there at present numbers roughly 9,000 and is expected to surpass 10,000 in the coming two to three years. The university also plans to open several new departments in the near future.

Located on the easterly flank of the university's striking main administration building, the Putong Building (普通教室大樓), Wenhui Hall was constructed in 1926. Originally serving as the

university's student activity center, the red brick building, which is approximately 30m in length and 12m wide, is now home to the university's oldest on-campus bakery, which has been selling its breads and cakes to students for 70 years.

The Japanese-built structure features elements of colonial architectural style that many feel are important aspects of both the university and the city's cultural heritage.

Features such as the brick pillars, which run along the structure's front porch, as well as the concrete flower-patterned window frames and ornate green lattice widows that adorn the building's northern and southern walls, are seen as irreplaceable.

According to Wang Yi-chun (王逸群) of the Taipei City Cultural Affairs Bureau (台北市文化局) -- the department responsible for the preservation of the capital's 106 protected buildings -- the university does not have the right to simply do as it pleases. It must submit plans to both Taipei City Government and the Ministry of Education (MOE) for planning permission.

It appears that while overseeing the nation's educational policies the MOE does in fact have little say as to what Taiwan Normal University does. A spokesperson for the MOE informed us that contrary to Wang's statement the matter is one for the university itself and does not concern the ministry.

A report issued by the university in March cited the lack of on-campus space as the reason for not being able to relocate the building. A lack of off-campus space and capital to purchase new land were cited as reasons for opting for the on campus site.

All of which is something that Chen and other students find somewhat hard to believe.

"I'm sure if they wanted to move it they could find space somewhere, even somewhere off campus," continued the research student. "Building over and around it might be a simple compromise to leave the building standing. The feel and genuine historical value of it in relation to the surrounding area and its environment will be lost forever, though."

According to a local architect such a move is, while plausible, both a costly and time-consuming process. Each individual piece of the structure has to be tagged and numbered and the slightest damage to one piece could seriously mar the rebuilt structure forever.

When the Taipei Times contacted the university to talk about the plan, we were given access to several reports concerning the new development. Further questions regarding the pros and cons of the matter, however, fell on deaf ears as our messages went

unanswered.

Regardless of the faculty's tight-lipped stance, the great debate moved off campus two weeks ago, when the city government held a public hearing.

Sentiment over the future of the small structure was strong. Over 100 people turned out at City Hall to air their views; a far greater number of people than initially expected.

"There were about 120 people there, which is pretty high, as on average these hearings attract between 20 and 100 people, depending on the issues," Wang said. "It was a very heated debate, with people airing strong opinions about the future of the old building."

According to Wang, both sides of the argument were well represented and it was an evenly balanced debate, leaving him to conclude that the entire affair has put his department is in a catch 22 situation. Whatever the ruling, which is set to take place at the month's end, one side or the other is going to feel that the cultural bureau let them down.

Although feeling somewhat disappointed by such an outcome, as his department doesn't wish to offend anybody, Wang feels the entire affair is sadly indicative of the problems that arise when modernization and development the city clashes with its heritage.

"It is important to keep and maintain our old buildings and the environments in which they stand. They're part of our city's history," he said. "But then, on the other hand, we do need to look to the future. It's a fine line and one that is guaranteed to annoy one side of the argument or the other."

The students opposed to the university's plans are already prepared for the worst; they do have a word or two of warning. Feeling that such plans could spell disaster not only for several other buildings on the campus, but also for other historical buildings throughout Taipei in general.

"If this can happen to one small building, then how many other buildings of historical value will suffer the same fate?" said Chen as she shrugged her shoulders in front of the 80 year-old Wenhui Hall earlier this week.