Thursday, July 15, 2004

Taipei Operations…

The Asian city defies most conventional (western) urban analysis – identifiable structures and street patterns, or an easily traceable historical lineage – which often prompts generalist descriptions such as ‘dense’, ‘rapidly developing’, ‘chaotic’ and ‘ad hoc’. Taipei Operations provides an alternative model for examination, speculation, and projection, which is based upon an intimate connection to the material at hand, the city, as opposed to the imposition of a formalist overlay from above or afar. This is not a language of hyperbolic qualifiers: extra-large or mega-Dutch; it is an opportunity to question our methods of engagement and provide an alternative to the master plan.

The book charts the research of thirty-three architecture students from Tamkang University in Taipei and RMIT University in Melbourne. Observation is the operative process; all responses to the city are considered valid. The mapping of these individual preoccupations is rigorous, often obsessive – a type of forensic study in the search for clues that reveal hidden phenomena. The studies flip between small and large, from a personal reading to a universal understanding. A specificity of time and place is required in order to avoid generalisation and simplification. Issues become identified, and patterns are revealed from within the system.

Whilst it is often considered a problem to work outside one’s cultural milieu, for fear of a lack of understanding, or misinterpretation, we use this as an opportunity for discourse. The work strives to find common pleasures within the city and to accommodate different readings; what some regard as strengths, others may consider weaknesses. The seemingly banal is reconsidered. This dialogue becomes a paradigm for the city; the issue is that of negotiation, for different voices to be heard and to allow for multiple narratives and complexity. The architect and urban designer can assist in this act of curation.

I fell in love with Taipei on my first visit. It reminded me a little of Paris with its hierarchy of streets: magnificent tree-lined boulevards protecting the smaller grain of the interior of the blocks. The buildings decrease in height as the streets narrow to a network of lanes. What the plan doesn’t tell you is how the city is used – of the quantities of motorbikes loaded with all sorts of goods, or the time when the car got wedged in the lane. 7-11’s are ubiquitous - globalisation at work – but where else would you find fairy lights 24-hours a day? Taipei has adopted the chain as its own (town hall); you can pay your parking tickets and bills there as well as buy snacks. It’s when you get up close that the city is really revealed: the way they stack goods, the smell of the food (delicious). How does one reconcile these two extreme scales? And how does one avoid becoming seduced by the image.

The plan of Taipei produced by the Department of Urban design is an extraordinary document. Building lines and city blocks are delineated; streets and pavements are drawn. However this is where convention stops. Only the hatched buildings exist legally, with approvals from the statutory authorities and in accordance with the master plan. All crossed-hatched structures are illegal in this context, and have been constructed according to the rules of some other system. Laneways are filled in, or become internal courtyards; the footpath disappears completely at times. New typologies are created: arcade kitchens, doughnut buildings, and wrap-around commerce. Any open bit of land is up for grabs. The authority of the map is challenged by the entrepreneurship of the inhabitants. The planners recognise (and draw) this dilemma; they are both rule-makers and citizens who, too, delight in great food available any time and everywhere - the spirit of street-life Taipei.

Urban diary: ‘The World Famous Mango Ice Store’. A 24-hour ‘stake-out’ reveals not only the entrepreneurial spirit in the (illegal) appropriation of the public space of the street, but also a social code in the system of negotiation with adjacent businesses. The structure opens at 11am and begins to gradually unfold onto the adjacent lot and footpaths: tables and chairs, service stations, the overflow from the kitchen. The popularity of this fruit and ice treat grows throughout the day; the crowds build, and illegally parked cars and service vehicles expand deep into the neighbourhood. By 6pm an employee from the ice store arrives to establish an unobstructed frontage to the Japanese restaurant next door when the queues get long. This grass-roots response appears to provide a viable alternative to the systems of legislation and planning.

The diary is a summary of our methods. We start small. An object, event or a district is selected and located specifically in time and place. From there we ‘zoom out’ to locate the investigation within a larger space and longer time frame to determine the site or context of the work, and how ‘big’ the idea is - the issues arising. (My views about the architectural project is that it exists somewhere between the scales of 1:1 and 1:100,000 and should be considered within the time frames of a moment and a minimum of 100 years.) All observations start from the personal reading, and rely upon our ‘being there’. We make catalogues, stay in one spot (over time), trace routes, see things in motion, compare them to where we have come from, and position them within the map of the world. The data is broken down, edited, analysed, - compiled as a list, arranged by colour, categorised, and seen over time in order to reveal the particularities of Taipei.

The process of depiction or making the map is undertaken consciously; it is not a neutral activity. All maps lie, to paraphrase Robert Smithson, and reflect the bias of the mapmaker: one set of data is privileged over another; the means of representation selected offer some possibilities for interpretation and exclude others. The construction of the map is the construction of the city - the design of the site of speculation – and the initial intervention. Propositions thus flow seamlessly from the analysis of what is already there.

The position of the author is reflected in the bias of the map, and it is only through a considered social and political agenda that meaningful contributions can be made within the built environment. This is demonstrated in the work of an Australian woman who was uncomfortable with the lack of clear distinctions between the public and private realms. What could she photograph? How does one determine the (public) space of the street where on one hand a shop’s merchandise blocks the footpath while next door domestic rituals take place (in full view)? How could she reasonably operate in an environment without a full understanding of the culture? A series of drawn delineations of her perceptions reveal the nuances of occupation she discovers - alternative plans and sections to those indifferent documents issued by the city, which register property ownership and buildings.

Through representation and critique, the observations of the existing conditions are evaluated; the particular becomes general as the (larger) issues are raised, allowing others to engage in dialogue. All opinions are acknowledged and respected. In some instances phenomena can be considered both positively and negatively. I, personally, remain charmed by the garbage truck that heralds its arrival in my neighbourhood on Monday evenings with a digitised version of Mozart’s A Little Night Music. The neighbourhood congregates to load their rubbish in the ‘village’ square.

The authors of an alternative proposal to rubbish collection in the Yong Kong District are less romantic than me, realising that this ‘ritual’ poses a nuisance to those with large families, during a monsoon, and for the elderly or handicapped. They pose questions that avoid an over-simplification of the problem(s) and thus an expedient response. (They are not seduced by the image.) Their strategy to create neighbourhood recycling centres instead of dumping waste on the city’s periphery not only maintains the community spirit, but also ensures a continuing economic mix with the introduction of additional local employment. Abandoned historic Japanese houses are co-opted and recycled in the process; urban typologies such as the shop house and the light-industrial unit maintain their relevance in the face of impending high-rise development. This is far from preservationist position, yet it enables the urban fabric to remain intact. By dealing with the complexity of the site phenomena at both the local and city scales, and over a period of time, they create a truly sustainable project with its requisite breadth of concerns.

It becomes apparent that starting with the particular does not preclude the scale of the proposal. A fascination with traffic flows and motorcycle culture (the scale of a pedestrian with the speed of a car) starts with time-lapse photography from a bedroom window and concludes with the redevelopment of the movement systems within an entire district. The coexistence between these scales – ‘being there’ and the master plan - becomes the issue as does the varying and often contradictory needs of the population. Zoning and pedestrianisation are deemed to be oversimplified solutions in this context. By using the language of the ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ appropriation of public space a physical system of negotiation is established by reordering the existing; nothing is qualified or removed – only rearranged. Surgical incisions and the subtle addition and subtraction of hawker stalls, kiosks, small structures, stairways, balconies, and roofscapes provide an alternative to the heavy demolition and construction of most infrastructure projects. An evolutionary process is set in place, over a much larger time frame, much like the way one might design a landscape.

The explorations by the individual authors (as outlined above and graphically throughout the book) become part of a larger body of work on the city – and a composite map of Taipei. The specificity of these fragments becomes abstracted into patterns when the work is seen as a whole. The 1:1 scale is read simultaneously with the map at 1:10,000; the phenomenological coexists with the physical. Taipei is perceived as a series of specifically located moments with strong identities and character. These observations build up, as does the work, to reveal a complexity of issues, attitudes and responses that range in scale and types of strategic intervention.

An installation of the work in Taipei and Melbourne disseminates the outcomes of the workshop, and summarises its spirit. A series of identically-sized folio plates are placed on an ‘examination table’ in the centre of the gallery. They can be read as a series of individual projects, by negotiating the piles. The loose plates by their nature have no hierarchy; they become rearranged, reconfigured, added to, or deleted. Velcro installations on the gallery wall invite the visitors, as well as the authors, to ‘curate’ the city by affixing the plates by issue, by location, by program, by project, by media, by accident, and by desire. Overlaps, adjacencies, comparisons, contradictions and tensions amongst the plates underscore the fact that there are many readings of a good city and that anyone can and should be encouraged to contribute.

Curation best describes our activities in Taipei. Who needs a designer in the face of such inventive entrepreneurs? And what is the role of the planner when neighbours can negotiate? And who are we (whether foreign or local) to swan in from high with our bird’s-eye views? Our traditional spheres of operation as architects, at 1:200 scale in plan and section, for instance, are of little use to the growing complexity that practitioners in the built environment are faced with today, such as the scale of a highway or the time frame of a sustainable agenda. When working at a larger scale we are often distanced from our subject matter and create the sorts of disenfranchisement that are addressed by ‘urban agitators’ such as the Situationists in Paris and the Stalker group in Italy. Questions of authorship, and the responsibility that this entails, remains clear in our practice, but we need to remember the common pleasures we share as citizens. It is our responsibility to enable and empower our constituents in the curation of their cities.

Sand Helsel
(Taipei Operations, Human Environment Group, Taipei, 2004, pp4-9)