Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) said that Taipei is ugly, that it can no longer compare with the most advanced cities in China and, therefore, it is time for the city to speed up its urban renewal.
Would urban renewal solve the ugliness problem? Urban renewal in Taiwan is only about replacing old buildings with new ones or applying to build new skyscrapers, but it is not certain that these buildings would be better.
As for the ugliness, old structures are sometimes prettier than new ones: Zhongshan Bridge, which was dismantled in 2002, is just one example. What is missing is a landscape law, but a proposed bill has little to say about regulating the aesthetics of buildings.
Beginning in 1930, the UK restricted the height of buildings around historical sites to allow them to be seen from every direction. As a result, the height of buildings around St Paul’s Cathedral in London was restricted so that they would not destroy the skyline. Rome, in its master plan from 1970, restricted the location, materials, size and lighting of advertising, billboards and shop windows.
To protect certain sites, private property rights might be restricted, and anyone altering or destroying such properties would be required to restore them to their original condition at their own expense. Although this is constitutionally controversial and there have been many protests against it, judicial precedent focuses on restricting private rights to preserve certain sites, and authorities think this is only natural.
Such precedent is the opposite of a controversy surrounding Zhishanyan (芝山岩) in Taipei’s Shilin District (士林), which has been going on for more than 20 years. Restrictions on the height of buildings have triggered a strong backlash from some residents who are keen to profit from urban renewal. Two 14-floor buildings have been built next to a historical site at Zhishanyan, and in March, a court ruled in favor of the residents.
Even worse, an application has been filed to “renew” a building adjacent to the yard in front of Huiji Temple (惠濟宮), which the city has designated as a historical site, and replace it with a 60m-tall building, which would be 20m taller than the temple. Is this what Ko means when he talks about urban renewal?
The trend in Taiwan seems to be that wherever there is a well-known attraction, a tall building will be next to it. There is, for example, the Taipei Dome across the street from Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. It sticks out, and it is also a bit frightening, as it looks like a mushroom cloud that follows the detonation of an atomic bomb, and it destroys the memorial hall skyline.
When entering the memorial hall grounds from Renai Road, there is no way to avoid seeing the silvery dome, and it is jarring to the eye. An official has said that trees would be planted along the road to block out the dome: Is this what is meant by improving the urban landscape? It is just a matter of hiding the ugliness.
This kind of building should be in the outskirts of a city, but this is what happens when there is no landscape law: We now have a “Taipei tumor.”
Ko’s urban renewal might not be able to make the city more beautiful; instead, it could cause an even greater loss to the skyline and make the city even uglier.
Lu Ching-fu is a professor in Fu Jen Catholic University’s applied arts department.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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