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COMPASS MAGAZINE > December 2016

New life for Taichung's old buildings

Words and photos by Steven Crook
Translated by Anna Yang

I've long been captivated by architecture, concerned about the environment, and fascinated by Taiwan's past. These interests converge neatly at dozens of locations where the authorities or private landowners have decided to preserve old buildings, and adapt them for modern uses. Thanks to surging interest in local history, sites becoming available as old industries wither, and Taiwan's booming tourism industry, several such projects have been completed in recent years.

These repurposed buildings add diversity and beauty to the cityscape. At the same time, the environmental argument is compelling. Professor Lin Hsien-te (林憲德), one of Taiwan's leading practitioners of sustainable architecture, points out that many buildings on the island are knocked down before they're 30 years old. This obviously represents a massive waste of resources.

The great majority of new buildings in Taiwan are reinforced concrete (RC). Not only does cement have a huge carbon footprint, but on average each square meter of floor area for an RC structure generates 1.8 kilograms of dust and 0.14 cubic meters of solid waste during construction, and then another 1.23 cubic meters of solid waste when the building is demolished. Even the most thorough of renovations, therefore, has a smaller environmental impact than destroying a building and starting again from scratch.

Stock 20

Taichung Railway (TRA) Station,
rear exit; (04) 2220-9972
10 am-6 pm (closed Mon)

In Taichung, one of the first repurposing projects transformed a row of warehouses immediately behind the old railway station. What's now called Stock 20 was built around 1917, and since 2000 they've been made available to artists for exhibitions and performances. Air-conditioning and modern bathrooms were added and, if you look up while inside, you'll notice a lot of work has been done to make the roof safe.

Stock 20

Taichung Cultural and Creative Industries Park

(04) 2229-3079
362, FuXing Rd, Sec 3, South Dist

How much you'll enjoy Stock 20 depends a lot on whether the current events appeal to you. If industrial heritage rather than art floats your boat, walk five minutes southwest to Taichung Cultural and Creative Industries Park. It's quite easy to spend an hour or so looking at and inside the buildings which dot this 5.6-hectare former winery.

Since 2011, the complex has served to nurture startups in various fields such as broadcasting, design, and digital content. A couple of sizable new structures have been added to the site, but the original infrastructure--including 50,000-liter tanks in which rice wine was fermented--remains in place. Bilingual information boards explain how the architect took into account both Taiwan's hot, humid climate and the frequency of earthquakes. Even if none of this interests you, you're sure to enjoy wandering around in search of photo ops.

Taichung Cultural and Creative Industries Park  Taichung Cultural and Creative Industries Park  Taichung Cultural and Creative Industries Park

Natural Ways Six Arts Cultural Center

33, LinSen Rd, West Dist
(04) 2375-9366
9 am-5 pm (closed Mon)

Aficionados of Japanese-style architecture should head next to the Natural Ways Six Arts Cultural Center, a landmark so gorgeous it's hard to believe it was once part of a prison. The main attraction here is the dojo where, before and during World War II, prison staff practiced martial arts such as kendo. The building now hosts classes and lectures on a variety of subjects; its current name alludes to the six disciplines Confucius regarded as essential to a good education.

While here, it's worth taking a quick look at the old dormitory buildings a stone's throw to the south. Several date from around World War I, and only a few are still occupied. One of the uninhabited bungalows is being torn apart by an immense banyan tree. If preserved, it could easily be turned into a smaller version of Tainan's Anping Tree House.

Natural Ways Six Arts Cultural Center

Shen Ji New Village

Lane 368, MinSheng Rd, West Dist
Opening times vary

In a different part of the city, not far from National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (國立台灣美術館) and the Calligraphy Greenway, is Shen Ji New Village. The buildings here aren't especially old, but they're very typical of the housing provided for government employees and their families between the 1950s and early 1970s. Each has two floors and there are two housing units per building. Unlike more modern homes, there are no balconies and no external shelves to hold air-conditioners.

Now that nobody lives here, individual rooms of various sizes are rented out to artists and others engaged in cultural or creative work. Because the law requires public facilities and business premises to ensure barrier-free access for the disabled, an elevator has been added. New external stairways make it possible to visit upper-floor studios without disturbing lower-floor tenants. These additions have been made tastefully. Yet, if you visit on a weekday, you may find almost every door locked, and the entire place extremely quiet.

Shen Ji New Village  Shen Ji New Village

Miyahara Ophthalmology

20, ZhongShan Rd,
Central Dist; (04) 2227-1927
10 am-10 pm

One place you can be certain will be busy is Miyahara Ophthalmology (eye clinic), which in commercial terms is surely one of the most successful building-repurposing projects in all of Taiwan, let alone Taichung. Built in 1927 for Takekuma Miyahara, a prosperous Japanese-born eye doctor, it was taken over by the ROC government when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II.

By 2008, this red-brick building was unoccupied and starting to fall apart due to earthquake and typhoon damage. It was purchased by Dawn Cake bakery and given a radical makeover. The facade and interior were cleaned and preserved, but damaged or missing bricks weren't replaced. Shelves of fake books and attractive pastry boxes, and a steep wooden staircase mean the place is often likened to the library at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. A vertical extension houses a restaurant, while the first floor is divided between small shops selling dozens of flavors of ice cream, tea, and various edible souvenirs such as pineapple cakes and other local pastries.

Miyahara Ophthalmology  Miyahara Ophthalmology

Former Mayor's Residence

125, ShuangShi Rd, Sec 1, North Dist
(04) 2227-0125
10 am-5 pm (closed Mon)

In 1929, Dr. Miyahara commissioned the building of a large two-story home. Located very near Taichung Stadium, it was taken over by Taichung City Government after World War II and, starting with the city's first elected mayor, Yang Chi-hsien, became the official mayor's residence. It continued in this role for decades but fell into disuse in the 1990s before Mayor Jason Hu decided to reopen it for cultural activities in the early 2000s. Officially designated a Historic Structure in 2002, it served for a while as an exhibition venue, restaurant and gift shop before closing again for a time.

Just in the past couple months, it has reopened as "Bulao 125" under the management of Hondao Senior Citizen's Welfare Foundation. The foundation, well-known for its groundbreaking 2006 round-island senior citizens' motorcycle trip, captured in the acclaimed "Go Grandriders" movie, continues to organize a variety of creative activities for the elderly, which are highlighted in displays on the building's two floors (there's also a gift shop). Behind the house is an outdoor seating area and the Bulao Food Yard, selling traditional snacks like "wa guei" rice pudding with various toppings (NT$149), plus teas and coffees, all prepared by senior citizens from a converted shipping container there.

Former Mayor's Residence

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