A tour of Taiwan's architectural urban soul

  • Property
  • Monday, 11 Nov 2019

Study tour: Participants of the FIABCI Malaysia study tour to Taiwan taking a group photo at the plaza of Taichung City Hall.

FANS of popular city building and urban planning simulation game SimCity understand this very well.

The game, first introduced in 1989, is about building and maintaining a happy city.

It requires the player, as the mayor, to take good care of the city’s inhabitants.

Sims, or the citizens of the virtual city, clamour for public infrastructure and parks. The city’s population is happier when they have access to services and green spaces.

The happier the Sims are, the faster the city grows.

But like other urban dwellers in the real world, the Sims hate crowded areas and traffic congestions.

Armed with my city management understanding as a SimCity mayor, I travelled to Taiwan with a group of Malaysian property professionals on a recent study trip to learn more about good design and its impact.

The five-day tour was organised by the Malaysian chapter of the International Real Estate Federation, known by its French acronym of FIABCI.

It was the last week of October and early autumn in Taiwan.

Our first stop was Taichung, Taiwan’s second most populous city about an hour south on the high-speed rail from capital city Taipei.

We arrived in Taichung at around 6pm, just in time for dinner. Happy.

The next day, after breakfast, we began our study tour. The first stop was a nearby “sunken” park.

The three-hectare Maple Garden sits about nine meters below the street level right in the centre of one of the busiest districts in Taichung.

Nicknamed “The Crater, ” we were briefed by the park’s designer, architect Kyle C. Yang, who told us that the site was actually the foundation ditch of an abandoned development project.

The project came about as the city planners wanted to make better use of the limited funds available to revive the abandoned construction site.

With some clever landscaping work and engineering ingenuity, the giant hole in the ground was turned into a green oasis.

The park, which also acts as a drainage area, was opened to the public in 2012. In 2014, the park won the FIABCI World Prix d’Excellence gold award for public infrastructure.

Architect Yang was also involved in another award-winning development in Taichung, a mid-rise residential project surrounded by trees and a neighbourhood park.

“The aim of the project was to create a happy home for its residents, ” he said.

The Happiness Gendii Yu & Yue project won the gold award in the mid-rise residential category earlier this year.

Taichung, which is about three times the size of Singapore, is now home to more than 2.8 million people. In 2017, it overtook Kaohsiung as the second-most populous city in Taiwan.

It is also one of the best cities to live in in the region, as deputy mayor Bruce Linghu explained during our visit to the city hall the next day.

Taichung is ranked 13th in Asia-Pacific, according to the latest annual survey by Mercer, behind Taipei at number nine.

Mercer’s quality of living survey is one of the world’s most comprehensive.

“Our aim is to become number one in Taiwan and in Asia, ” Linghu said.

He said parks like the Maple Garden, cultural centres, a charming old town area and rapid development of modern public infrastructure such as the mass rapid transport (MRT) system contributed to Taichung’s growing prosperity.

Taichung, named by the Japanese during its colonial era, is a thriving industrial hub and a stronghold of Taiwan’s machine industry.

According to Linghu, more bicycle frames and components are produced here than anywhere else in the world.

Giant, the world’s largest bicycle company, is headquartered in Taichung.

But the city’s industrial prowess is balanced by its strong cultural heritage.

The older part of Taichung is nicknamed “Little Kyoto” for its grid street layout and commercial areas.

The old town area is a window into Taichung’s unique culture with its century-old buildings.

But for Azfar Sufyan, the head of the design group at property developer Perdana Parkcity Sdn Bhd, one building in modern Taichung stood out.

The National Taichung Theater (NTT) was officially opened to the public in 2016 after 10 years of construction at a reported cost of US$140mil.

The award-winning opera house was designed by famed Japanese architect Toyo Ito.

Azfar said he studied Ito’s work before becoming an architect himself.

“This theater is a designer’s dream, ” he told me as our tour group made its way inside the building’s interlinked network of cavernous spaces guided by an English-speaking guide.

The venue was six storeys high, housing a 2,014-seat grand theater, an 800-seat theater and a 200-seat black box theater.

The entire structure was built without beams or support columns, relying instead on 58 connected curved walls.

According to our guide, an Indonesian lady who is a long-time resident, the builders not only needed to meet Ito’s ambitious aesthetic and acoustic requirements, but also had to ensure that the theater was structurally strong to cope with Taiwan’s frequent earthquakes.

She also showed us a structure outside the theater, which could pass off as an art installation but was actually a full-sized, mock-up of a wall section where engineers tested some of the construction designs.

If the NTT is a designer’s dream project, then building it must have been a nightmare for its structural engineers.

Not surprisingly, the opera house was nicknamed “the most difficult house to accomplish” by its builders.

After the theater tour, we departed for Miaoli by coach on our way back to Taipei.

The Miaoli district, with its winding roads and lush jungle, reminded me of Janda Baik, Pahang, were the city folk from Kuala Lumpur often go for a weekend getaway.

We stopped at the award-winning ChooArt in Miaoli.

The eco-friendly property consisted of four villas on the hillside of a forested area about a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Taipei.

Back in Taipei, on the last leg of our study tour, we visited an award-winning rehabilitated landfill area that has been converted into a recreational park open to the public.

We learned that in Taipei, almost all organic kitchen waste is reused, with one-third processed into animal feed and the rest as fertiliser.

With most non-recyclable items going into the incinerator, there is no need for a new landfill, according to the park’s manager.

Another interesting stop was the Daan Park metro station.

Here, the designers have created a seamless transition via a semi-circle sunken garden that links Daan Forest Park above the ground to the light-filled tubular metro station underground.

The station was completed in 2013 and awarded the FIABCI gold medal for public infrastructure in 2015.

The study tour to Taiwan was the fourth such visit by FIABCI Malaysia, following three successful events in the Klang Valley, Johor and Singapore, as well as Perak.

Its president Michael Geh Thuan Peng said the trip to Taiwan provided local property players with a first-hand look at some of the award-winning projects overseas.

“The study tour is an opportunity to promote knowledge-sharing among industry players in different countries, as well as to keep ourselves abreast of new technology and industry trends, ” Geh said.

“We hope to continue with the programme next year, ” he added.

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