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Taipei Culture Passport brings novelty to the city you think you know

By Eva Tang

Professor Lee Ching-chih gives a talk on Urbanology in the South Village on April 22 2011. (Photos courtesy of South Village)A city’s skyline is closely connected to its buildings’ architectural styles. Hence the change of skyline over time reflects the way a city develops. Take a look at Taipei City. Is our skyline getting wider or narrower?

“Different architectural styles give rise to the diverse landscape of a city,” said Lee Ching-chih, an architecture professor who made a photo presentation on buildings in Taipei at a recent seminar on Urbanology, one of some 100 activities in this year’s Taipei Culture Passport calendar.

Since 2004 the Department of Cultural Affairs, Taipei City Government annually holds Taipei Culture Passport activities with the aim of upgrading the citizens’ cultural knowledge.

There is a diversity of events but one can always select according to one’s cultural interests. This year, the theme “Having Fun in Taipei” is meant to allow citizens to experience Taipei with their senses. Several walking tours will take participants to some certain streets that they probably pass by daily without knowing their histories.

For example, from Lee’s photo collection, one can see the transformation of the Taipei skyline from the Ching Dynasty, to the Japanese colonial period, to Taiwan’s retrocession, and the Taipei 101 that dominates the present landscape.

The North Gate in Taipei, where the city first began, is a typical architecture in the Ching Dynasty. It is now a grade 1 national historical site after going through some restoration.

“The North Gate was the face of Taipei City,” said Lee. “But when economic development and infrastructure building were the priorities of the government, it wasn’t considered a valuable asset.”

Only in the 1960s when the city government felt the need to renovate some historical structures to boost tourism did remodeling start on the North Gate. The academic community objected to a plan to build a skyway which would have meant the demolition of the North Gate.

Ye Tang teahouse’s owner He Jian is seen in the photo taken on April 24 in the session of Taiwan-grown Pouchong tea. (Photos courtesy of South Village)The skyway was built right behind it and a lane from the skyway was later built circling the Gate and stood for more than a decade. In 1995, this lane was removed.

According to Lee, who has been taking photos of buildings, some old buildings in the Chengzhong District had been demolished for the same reason of pursuing modernity. “It takes a much longer time to build a house than to tear it down, which usually happens overnight.”

During the Japanese colonial period, Taipei had a “southern style” architecture with plenty of coconut trees planted around the buildings.

“Taiwan lay south of Japan and so the Japanese designed buildings here to fit in with what they imagined was a tropical southern country and this style has greatly affected Taiwan,” said Lee.

For instance, the Japanese architects of that time preferred to put a doorpost at street corners to mark the turn. If buildings in a region are designed with the same concept, the skyline looks quite rhythmic in a crane shot.

When Taiwan regained its sovereignty after the Retrocession in October 1945, the architectural style became more “palatial”. Lee explained that such a style was meant to present a more orthodox image of Taiwan against China’s adoption of the communist ideology and debunking of the imperial style. The Grand Hotel built in 1973 was a good example of that period.

“From phone booths to public bathrooms, the palace style was the trend,” he said.

The avant-garde, anything goes style came next. Lee showed a photo of a beer house where a huge synthetic dinosaur stood on the roof and another photo of a pool hall decorated with a huge figure of an Egyptian Pharaoh.

The early nineties saw the beginning of skyscrapers. The Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store was built in 1991. Thirteen years later the Taipei 101 building became the city’s landmark and an icon for skyscrapers in the world.

The skyway as the sign of progress in the 1960s and 70s, gave way to the skyscraper. Buildings went higher and higher, and the skyline became narrower and more monotonous.

“We are certainly not against progress; we just think that if a city kept its architecture from various stages of its history, its skyline would be a lot more interesting,” Lee said.

Local governments now offer incentives for builders to increase their built floor area ratios whenever they also or first build more parking and public spaces as well as green areas in the city. One of the results from such policies is the emergence of small parks in Taipei during the Flora Expo period.

But present government construction policies encourage the building of more tall buildings. In 1.5 to 2 years, those parks will most likely become tall buildings.

“We call them the fake parks built by construction companies to up their floor area ratios,” Lee said, “the point we want to make is that while progress is being pursued, what people want with the city should also be taken into consideration.”

More to come
Author Liu Ke-hsiang introduces wetlands in Guan Du on April 23 2011. (Photos courtesy of South Village)From May through September 23, there are 75 events in the calendar of the Taipei Culture Passport. They include seminars on various kinds of Taiwan-grown tea leaves to be held at Yetang Tea House on Yong Kang Street. May is also the month of literature where several prominent Taiwanese authors including Nie Hualing and Li Ang, will talk about their experiences and works.

Sitting down and listening to a speaker is an old fashion way to learn. Taking a walk or engaging in do it yourself activities has become the popular way to conduct a workshop.

Nature lovers should not miss the May 1st walk to Shezi Island led by author Liu Ke-hsiang, who knows the most about Taipei’s wetlands ecology. Learning walks in the Dongmenting Area, Wen-Luo-Ding Area, Zhongshan North Road blocks, Dadaocheng Area, and Tienmu will satisfy those looking to know more about Taipei’s past, present and future. There are also walks to experience the rich gastronomic culture of some areas in Taipei.

From late June, musical events include Siyu Sitar on June 25 in the underground walkway of Shida (National Taiwan Normal University) and the Oldie Goodie Band on July 2 at the same venue. Talks on popular music, independent music, jazz and musical are also in the program.

The website of South Village (http://www.southvillage.com.tw/curriculum_0002.aspx) provides all the information on the Taipei Culture Passport. Sign up online, or call 02-8369-2963 for enquires.