Mecanoo’s National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts in Taiwan, houses four auditoria under the largest performing arts venue roof in the world, and another one on top of it. This futuristic mega-volume creates new public space and takes its inspiration from the banyan tree
Words by Herbert Wright
‘I remember empty barracks, barking dogs and banyan trees,’ says Mecanoo’s principal Francine Houben. She is talking about the first time she saw the site of the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Weiwuying), east of the centre of Kaohsiung, a city with working-class roots and Taiwan’s third largest with almost three million inhabitants. The barracks have long gone and any dogs are quiet now, but the banyan trees still grow in Weiwuying Metropolitan Park, created in 2010 from the military base, closed in 1979. It is the banyan tree that informs the vast new Mecanoo-designed arts centre, now commonly referred to as Weiwuying, which came in on budget at NT$10.7bn (£268m) and opened in October.
Under tropical sunshine, it’s good to have banyan trees around — their thick, horizontal crowns join the trunks below to make curvy caverns of shade through which cooling breezes blow. Mecanoo won the architectural competition for a new arts centre for Kaohsiung in 2007, and as Houben says: ‘The open, protective shape of the banyan tree becomes the springboard for the design’. And the concept dovetails with the banyan’s traditional Chinese role as a gathering point for people.
The roof undulates gently, with a design referencing the shapes of banyan trees. Image Credit: Iwan Baan
The arts centre is a vast object in the park, essentially a single, low, rectangular-plan volume with a gently undulating aluminium roof 225m by 160m. Beneath it, the building is layered and fluid within its straight edges. Approaching from the Metro station just to the north, or from the shorter sides east or west, the building is so wide that any big design idea isn’t immediately clear. The flat facade of the white metal cladding and linear glazing along each side of the second floor (3F in the local system) may look as anodyne as an airport terminal, but it cantilevers out from the two floors below in a way reminiscent of Mecanoo’s La Llotja Theatre (2010) in Spain. However, this is not a constant single storey — it thins out away from the corners, squeezed between the roof and long open stretches above the ground floor, which flow down into the internal Banyan Plaza, which we shall enter shortly.
Beyond Weiwuying Park and the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, the downtown Kaohsiung skyline rises up to the 385m-high 85 Sky Tower (1997) by CY Lee. Image Credit: Iwan Baan
On the north side, in a Zaha Hadid-like gesture, this floating edge has a sharp, storey-deep dip. The south side is where the elevation presents its full power. Here, the roof flows down at mid-point into a bowl with its base at ground level, bisected by the building’s edge. This is the Outdoor Theatre, a great semi-circular space which has steps for seating like an amphitheatre, capable of holding perhaps 2,000 people. The audience may even spill out onto the surrounding sloping grassed surface (a distant echo of Mecanoo’s breakthrough project, the grass-roofed TU Delft Library (1998) in its Dutch hometown). That’s big, but for even bigger events, the Outdoor Theatre stage can address an audience on its other side — out in the park, where at least 13,000 could get a clear view.
Spaceship-like, the arts centre glows within Weiwuying Park. The Outdoor Theatre is seen where the roof dips down to the ground. Image Credit: Iwan Baan
The second floor spreads flat and wide like wings from either side of this outdoor stage, but perhaps the most extraordinary outdoor space lies beneath them, within the building envelope. The Banyan Plaza is huge, its 17,446 sq m (paved with PU resin) almost exactly half of the vast roof above it, and extending to all sides of the building plot. This is public space, informal and open to all and to the air, so it channels the cooling breezes that blow in from the sea. It may not have been so — earlier in the project, the client had wanted the openings to the outside glazed, which would have not only compromised the concept but required ventilation infrastructure.
Looking into the Banyan Plaza, which slopes gently up to the north around the ‘trunk’ containing the Opera House. Image Credit: Iwan Baan
The space is all great curves, sweeping up where the structures, each containing one of the four internal auditoria plus the main entrance, rise from the ground, and spreading into the ceiling, just like banyan trunks. And there is another local reference. To realise the expansive 23,000 sq m of white curving steel surface, Houben reports, ‘we got in contact with the local shipbuilding industry’. Ching Fu Shipbuilding along with Dutch shipbuilders welded the 2,320 plates together and painted them white. You can see the joins of the plates — Houben notes that the aesthetic is ‘cargo ship, not luxury yacht’. Beside some of the entrances in the ‘banyan trunks’, there are vertical scales marking height above sea level, just like the waterline draft scales on a ship’s hull.
The plaza rises gently a whole storey to the north. Skylights channel natural light into the plaza, but, as Houben notes, ‘at six o’clock it is dark, so artificial light is very important’. On her first visit to the city, Houben was struck by the festive illuminations that animated places where people gathered in the evening, and so 12 futuristic, circular ring chandeliers hang above the plaza, which can fill the space with changeable coloured light.
Looking through Banyan Plaza to the park, the steel-plated canopy hosts programmable colour LED chandeliers and skylight openings. Image Credit: Iwan Baan
The Main Entrance in the plaza opens into a three-storey lobby. Here, white walls contrast with black ceilings, and become ribbon balustrades wrapping around the space and rising three storeys. It has something of Frank Lloyd Wright’s interior void at the Guggenheim New York but rather than a circular spiral, this has stairs one side of its curving triangular plan and is otherwise horizontal. At the top, we enter a fluid network of passages that connect each auditorium’s foyers at high level to the Crown Hall, a mingling space which connects all the foyers at upper level. There, daylight emerges from glazing below white tubes, a bit like salon hood hair dryers, rising into roof skylights. An expanded skylight opens into a tranquil courtyard, partially paved with glass through which you can peer down into Banyan Plaza.
Stairs rise to landings behind a ribbon of white balustrade which twists two storeys up from the lobby. Image Credit: Iwan Baan
Every auditorium has its own character. The largest is the centrally positioned Opera House. It feels like a traditional grand theatre with its red and black surfaces, 2,236 red seats, and two great U-shaped Circle tiers. Mecanoo’s technical director Friso van der Stein comments: ‘You can have a beautiful auditorium but if the backstage area doesn’t work, the theatre becomes shit.’ No such worries here — there is a 24m-high flytower and 72 flybars (from which suspended lighting and scenery can be moved), and there are large square wings either side of the deep technical area. One has windows onto the upper reaches of the Banyan Plaza, where it has risen five metres from its ground openings on the south side.
Francine Houben addresses an audience in the largest venue, the Opera House. Image Credit: Iwan Baan
The most intimate venue is the 434-capacity Recital Hall. Acoustic baffles that look like shapes from an Alexander Calder mobile are suspended over the stage, injecting an abstract dimension into the space. Paris-based Xu-Acoustique consulted on the acoustics, and in this auditorium their solutions are remarkably ingenious. Positioned behind a perforated upper wall above the audience is a velour curtain. This is masked for chamber music, which benefits from reflection, but is exposed for sharper sounds such as percussive works which demand absorption. Similarly, the rear wall of the stage is a panel that can be rotated to present a reflective wooden side or an absorbent rockwool side.
The Recital Hall has walls that can change according to the acoustic demands of the performance. Image Credit: Iwan Baan
The Playhouse, with 1,210 seats in Mecanoo’s trademark blue colour, feels most contemporary, the sort of place you may expect experimental drama — although it can host anything from Chinese opera to pop music concerts. A thrust stage can be deployed.
The most impressive auditorium is the 1,981-capacity Concert Hall. Two elements immediately bring to mind Scharoun’s iconic Berliner Philharmonie (1963). First, it has ‘vineyard’ seating, which places tiers of seating behind the orchestral stage, so the audience completely surrounds the performers. Secondly, the hall’s gorgeous colour, like the sensuous golden hues in Berlin, fills the visual senses. At Kaohsiung, the overall hue has a hint of muted pink — floors and balustrades are oak and the seats are a champagne colour, which Houben found on a restaurant napkin.
The Concert Hall, hosting two clusters of organ pipes and a 22-tonne acoustic canopy, follows the ‘vineyard’ seating arrangement, which surrounds the performers with audience on all side. Image Credit: Iwan Baan
Unlike in Berlin, the organ pipes are not placed to one side, but rise behind the upper tiers of seating behind the stage in two asymmetric clusters — Houben offers that they are like ‘two bushes of bamboo’. This is a double organ, one symphonic and the other for baroque music, and they have no less than 9,085 pipes between them. They were designed by Mecanoo in consultation with Paris Conservatoire professor of organ Olivier Latry, and built in Germany by Orgelbau Klais. Above everything in the auditorium is a contoured ceiling of GRC (glass-reinforced gypsum), and suspended from it, an enormous central acoustic canopy. This 22-tonne structure exposes a 223 sq m area, as big as the stage, and can be raised a full eight metres (for big organ works and more epic symphonies) from its lowest height of nine metres above the stage.
Taiwan, like mainland China, has been investing heavily in iconic cultural venues. In the city of Taichung, Toyo Ito’s National Theatre opened in 2014, and in the capital, the OMA-designed Performing Arts Center is due to open in 2021. How does the Kaohsiung Center design _t into this context of big-ticket starchitects and ‘iconic’ buildings to reflect national prestige?
Larger skylights open up into intimate courtyards accessible from the Crown Hall. Image Credit: Iwan Baan
Mecanoo doesn’t have a house style that brands its buildings. Its works excel across materiality from brick or wood to glass and steel, and forms from orthogonal modernist to sculptural. That means the architecture is not prone to following formulas. If we see a resonance at Weiwuying with, say, the fluidity of form of Hadid or the curved modernism of Eero Saarinen, it is because it’s appropriate. Houben cites Niemeyer’s Parque Ibirapuera (1954) in São Paulo as an inspiration for the design. Design needs to be inspiring but also cater for the functions specified — for example, the Weiwuying roof undulates upwards over the major auditoria to accommodate them, a case of form following function.
The factors that distinguish Mecanoo’s work are its response to location and its open invitation to anyone and everyone to use the buildings. Unlike modernism, contemporary architecture often tries to incorporate a local reference, but increasingly it becomes a tick-box in the design process. Not so at Weiwuying, where Mecanoo’s futuristic re-interpretation of the banyan tree is central to the form concept, the local shipbuilding industry was brought into the project, and the street theatre and colour of the local culture inform the offer of the Banyan Plaza. The National Kaohsiung Center opens up public realm that draws the city’s people, not just performance ticket-holders, into the structure itself. And as for performances, the auditoria are world-class for formal works, but anyone can enjoy informal acts in the plaza, or popular concerts in the park. This is more than a grand and elegant building for the elite — it is for the people.