Creative Urbanity in Taipei

Treasure Hill

Treasure Hill, Taipei. Photo by the Kozy Shack

When Chou Yu-jui was growing up near Yongkang Street, an old part of Taipei near two of the city’s universities, it was a quiet neighbourhood of wooden Japanese cottages, small shops and back alleys filled with potted plants. Ten years ago, it started to change. Small cafés, boutiques and bakeries opened and lent the area an eclectic charm.

“It’s interesting, because you have a lot of shops that sell things you won’t find in a department store,” says Chou, an industrial designer who specialises in products made from recycled and sustainable materials.

Last October, Chou was leading a group of foreign designers on a tour around Yongkang Street and nearby Treasure Hill, an old squatter’s village that has been transformed into an art district. Similar tours were happening around the design shops of Zhongshan, inside the Red House creative centre and at the wholesale market around the Taipei Rear Train Station, where industrial designers hunt for raw materials.

The message from the tours was clear: Taipei’s creative scene is not only alive and well, it’s changing the very face of the city. The transformation began just over a decade ago and has accelerated in recent years. In 2007, a century-old public market known as the Red House was renovated to include a theatre, music venue and retail space for emerging local designers. 2010 saw the conversion of Treasure Hill, an informal village once threatened by demolition, into a collection of exhibition spaces and studios. Most recently, an old tobacco factory was restored and reopened last year as Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, home to the Taiwan Design Museum and the focal point of the 2011 World Design Expo — a coming-of-age event for Taiwan’s design industry.

The new creative spaces have been accompanied by the growing involvement of artists and designers in Taipei’s urban life, especially the informal city of night markets, street hawkers and illegal structures that thrives in the Taiwanese capital, something the Finnish urbanist Marco Casagrande described as the Instant City, in contrast to the Official City.

Six years ago, graphic designer Agua Chou launched City Yeast, an ongoing project that puts the city under the microscope of Taiwanese designers. “One day I stopped to think — I’ve been a designer for 17 years already, but I have never done anything for our city,” says Chou. City Yeast’s projects are whimsical yet grounded in the city’s reality. One of its early initiatives focused on the balconies and balcony-like additions found on most Taipei apartments, raising questions about how to make them more useful and how to bridge the gap between private and public spaces. Another project asked city residents to create their own yellow chairs, which were then displayed in a public park — serving as both a critique of official street furniture and a celebration of the diversity of urban experiences.

City Yeast’s exhibitions have drawn more than 800,000 visitors, with 682 designers, architects, artists and academics participating in its projects. Two years ago, the initiative drew the attention of Taipei’s city government, which has since collaborated with City Yeast on projects like Tea Time With Animals, which studied Taipei’s urban wildlife and proposed ways to improve the city’s biodiversity.

Last autumn, the Taiwan Design Center took a cue from City Yeast and asked international designers to help students devise ways to improve Taipei’s urban environment. In one case, Savannah College of Art and Design dean Victor Ermoli asked students to improve the experience of the Shida Night Market, a popular destination for food and shopping. One group of students found that the market’s official maps were inadequate, so they developed an mobile application concept to help shoppers find their way to specific shops, see which food stalls are busiest and remember where they parked their scooters at the end of the evening.

Casagrande has called this type of bottom-up regeneration “urban acupuncture,” which differs from the large-scale urban renewal projects typically favoured by city governments. When he was a visiting professor at Tamkang University in 2003, Casagrande came across Treasure Hill, an illegally-built community overlooking the Xindian River. At the time, the village was threatened by demolition and many residents were moving away, but Casagrande joined forced with Taiwanese architects, artists and designers to lobby for its preservation. In 2007, the Taipei government renovated the village’s buildings and infrastructure, converting vacant houses into studios and exhibition halls for artists and designers. Public areas are now used for community gardening and outdoor cultural events.

“It’s a new idea for an old village — not to remove it or redevelop it, but to reuse it,” said Chou Yu-jui as he walked through Treasure Hill last October. The village’s narrow, hilly footpaths have been decorated with new murals and mosaics; houses left empty by departing residents are now used by artists-in-residence and design groups like City Yeast. All in all, 29 families opted to leave Treasure Hill, while 22 stayed put. Visitors are encouraged to explore as long as they don’t stray into residential spaces.

Treasure Hill’s transformation wouldn’t have been possible without government support. Thats also true for many of the other large-scale art and design initiatives that have taken place in Taipei. That isn’t necessarily a good thing, says artist and curator Larry Shao, who returned to Taipei from the United States in 2007. “Unlike the United States, where there is a lot of private philanthropy and investment, in Taiwan it’s all government,” he says. “There’s a lot of old spaces that are renovated to make public art spaces, but not a lot of professionals that know what to do with them.”

Privately-funded initiatives are taking shape, however. Just a few minutes’ walk from the Red House, a block of shophouses will be demolished later this year. Two years ago, after acquiring the block for development, JUT Land Development allowed a group of cultural organisations to turn it into the Urban Core Art District, which included art galleries, exhibition and performance spaces, a reading room, café and much-needed office space for groups like the Association of the Visual Arts in Taiwan.

The project ended in March, but it serves as an illustration of the extent to which Taiwan’s creative scene has become embedded in the fabric of the city itself. It’s a movement that Agua Chou thinks will only gain momentum. “We as designers should think about how to build up value in the areas where we live,” says Agua Chou. “Taipei still has many things to build up. From a designer’s point of view, it is a city under construction. It has wonderful basic qualities, but what we can do for the city is enormous. I love it because of that.”

This story appears as part of a special report on Taiwanese design in the June/July 2012 edition of Surface Asia.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday July 10 2012at 05:07 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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