Taipei has a distinctive flavor to it. Walking down most streets, you are surrounded on both sides by weathered, dingy concrete. The buildings may only be a few decades old, but they are already grimy from scooter and car exhaust, baked in high heat and humidity.
Tourists often point out the lively dichotomy of the Taipei scene: towering skyscrapers of glass juxtaposed against century-old Taoist temples and gaudy night markets. It’s a city where the new and old blend seamlessly into each other; where one exits their futuristic office building at the end of the workday to have dinner at a traditional street stall.
Yet the relationship of modern and traditional goes beyond coexistence; there is a growing theme through Taipei where the modern is the traditional. Spurred on by a combination of government historical preservation policy and a new millennial generation of cultural entrepreneurs, the aging architecture of Taipei is being converted into modern, hip spaces.
Songshan Cultural and Creative Park
Built in 1937 during the Japanese colonial era in Japan, the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park began its days as a tobacco factory. Cigarettes were rolled on the second floor and palleted for delivery on the first floor. Once Taiwan was ceded to the Republic of China, the factory changed hands and name but continued producing cigarettes until its decommissioning in 1998.
Rather than abandon the factory, the city government converted it into a cultural park, now housing the Taiwan Design Museum and Taiwan Design Center. Fast forward to the 2010s and the park became a center of excellence for design, showcasing everything from local artisanal crafts to the latest Red Dot awardees. Citizens and tourists alike flock to the park also to visit the exhibitions, which cycle through as wide ranging topics as local history, sustainability, virtual reality, and biotech. The center attracts international attention as well, with firms like Zaha Hadid setting up large-scale exhibits to unveil their latest artistic and technical advancements.
Left: Eslite mega-bookstore and mall
Right: Sonshan Cultural and Creative Park
The park is a two-storey multiplex comprised of two subcomplexes: on one side, five long warehouses lined up side-by-side, and on the other side, a large rectangular compound built around a central garden. From most sides, the buildings are fronted by long series of rectangles superimposed on yet more rectangles. Its facades are a grungy concrete, the byproduct of age, climate, and Taipei’s industrialization. In other parts of the complex, the buildings are a fusion of Japanese and European flavors — remniscient of Marunouchi Station in Tokyo.
The modern city of Taipei rises on all four sides of the park. To the immediate north is the Eslite Spectrum store, a fourteen-storey mall selling books and artisan products with a unique architecture of its own: a stack of several terraces that form a sloping hill of windows overlooking the cultural park. To the east and west, small businesses dot the landscape in a maze of apartment and office buildings. And south of the park, the Farglory group’s monolithic towers and the monstrous skeleton of the unfinished Taipei Dome rise to block the horizon.
A budding culture of restorationism
Songshan Cultural and Creative Park sets a strong example for how historical artifacts retain their place in the modern city. It represents a restorationist approach to urban planning, supported by local government and made successful through a rare combination of small businesses and large international firms. As cities worldwide trammel onwards towards urban sustainability, restorationism suggests that one version of the sustainable city is one where the urban space is reused and repurposed for a new good, thereby preserving cultural heritage and minimizing the ecological impacts of new construction.
Treasure Hill: anti-aircraft bunker turned artists’ village.