The National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Weiwuying) is set in a newly landscaped park, on land that was formerly a military camp. When we began to build, the park had already been open for a few years and was a popular destination for local people. This meant there was a feeling of interest and ownership among the public right from the start. Also, because the park was already there, we were able to see how well our very large building would harmonise with the surrounding landscape.
THE BANYAN TREE
Our most important clue lay in the city’s trees. The banyan is a very large and striking tropical tree. Each mature specimen can become like three or more connecting trees, as the spreading roots thicken and reach up, either to join the primary trunk or form new trunks. Meanwhile, the crown of the banyan is thick and very horizontal, a dense canopy that offers protection from rain and sun. In Kaohsiung, everyday events, encounters, and gatherings take place literally beneath the banyan trees. They revealed a formal language that gave us the overall theme for our design.
THE BANYAN PLAZA
We positioned Weiwuying within the park in such a way that we could blur the boundaries between the outside and the inside, and run a superb public space right through the building’s ground floor. The Banyan Plaza reflects the informality of Kaohsiung, and indeed its safety; a well-lit city, where people spend their evenings outside, its atmosphere is friendly and festive. Covered against the sun and the rain, yet completely open and accessible, 24 hours a day, the Banyan Plaza merges fluidly with the surrounding landscape. The plaza works like a banyan tree, gathering and sheltering people while allowing easy movement in and out. With its walkways and informal spaces, it allows people to do all the things they do beneath a banyan tree, even create impromptu performances. To me, it seems to echo the tradition of Chinese Opera (which will sometimes feature at Weiwuying) and its origin in street theatre.
CONSTRUCTION and MATERIALS
The roof of Weiwuying is made of aluminium, minimally detailed, with organically shaped skylights cut into it at intervals. Meanwhile, the walls of the building and the Banyan Plaza, also with openings cut into them, are constructed from steel. Because it is open, with no artificial climate control, the Banyan Plaza is subject to almost 100 percent humidity. Neither tiles nor stucco was suitable in such a humid climate. Eventually, we had the idea of asking the local shipyards to help us. Eager to leave behind a contemporary legacy for his disappearing industry and its workers, the shipyard owner readily agreed. Together with Dutch engineers, Kaohsiung’s shipbuilders came up with the solution – to construct the building, inside and out, using prefabricated steel plates, like a ship. Of course, steel is an excellent material for use in earthquake zones, and the plates allow the building to move when there are tremors.
Weiwuying really does look and feel like a big ship, but one in which the waves are not outside on the sea but are part of the vessel. It is the size of a large ocean liner, but we were clear that it should have the character of a cargo ship rather than a luxury liner. We did not want the facets to look too smooth, and we specified that the curves on the building should flow while still showing the joins between the plates. In fact, on the interior of the building, the joins provide opportunities for fitting lights, and hanging flags and banners.
Dealing with performing arts centres is very much about logistics; getting productions in and out, and organising the flow of people to and from the venues. While the main public areas of Weiwuying are above ground, the technical areas as the parts of the building that serve the performing arts venues, lie beneath. In Europe, just one of those venues would already be a tall order, but we had to make
provision for four, not counting the open-air theatre. All the auditoria have their own identity, layout, acoustic and ambience. For example, the layout of the concert hall is very organic in a vineyard style. The recital hall is intimate in character; the opera
Every detail counts in a performance space. For example, the fabric of the seats in all the venues was important both aesthetically and acoustically. The colour of the seats in both the concert hall and the recital hall, which is lined with oak, resembles champagne; it has a warm golden glow.
For the theatre we chose seats of Mecanoo blue, while the opera house, of course, had to have red seats. The foyers are the interface between the informal and the formal – the progression from the Banyan Plaza to the auditoria. Their fluid lines and sculptural forms have drama, setting up the atmosphere for a great theatrical or musical experience.
The overall feeling in the building is very comfortable, however hot and humid the weather. Because of the position of the Banyan Plaza, and the way we created it, we were able to catch the wind from the ocean.
The auditoria provide air conditioning, essential for all modern performing arts spaces. However, as you come out into the foyers, the temperature rises a little and then, when you emerge fully into the Banyan Plaza, you are greeted by the soft, warm air from the sea that wafts through the space. It is an extraordinarily pleasant way of readjusting gently to the tropical heat of the park outside.