Local cues for a wide cultural program
Ambitious arts centers are proliferating in cities around the world but too often they are commissioned as civic trophies, intended to provoke awe, as castles and cathedrals still do. They come alive for only an hour or two, as people arrive and depart from a concert or play, and programming lags far behind what was planned, in quality and frequency. Weiwuying, the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, is the largest of its kind, but also the most welcoming. It is located in a sub-tropical port city in the south of Taiwan, and is intended to complement Toyo Ito’s National Taichung Theater, and Taipei’s National Theater & Concert Hall. Mecanoo won the competition for Weiwuying in 2007 with a design that was inspired by the leafy canopy of a banyan tree, opening up to a park on all four sides. It takes its cues from the city, the culture, and the climate; an urban amenity that seems to flow out of the landscape like a range of hills. On her first visit to the site, Mecanoo principal Francine Houben observed how the city came alive in the twilight hours. As the air cools and the humidity becomes less oppressive, people stroll the streets, shop for groceries, and eat outside. Under canopies and trees, informal performances occur: people dance, play music, perform plays, or practice Tai Chi. She conceived the roof of Weiwuying as an undulating wave shading a huge public plaza, supported on the trunks of four theaters, and dipping on one side to become an outdoor amphitheater. It functions as an extension of the park - created from a former military training base - where people can gather to eat, drink and socialize into the evening, even if they are not attending a performance. And the surrounding spaces have been landscaped with gentle slopes, winding paths, and fountains to mediate between the sensual curves of the roof and the urban grid beyond. The rectilinear block measures 225x160 m and encloses 141,000 sq. m of usable space in the auditoria, foyers, multi-level restaurants, rehearsal and conference rooms, as well as the plaza and underground parking. The roof offers protection from sun and storms, while admitting refreshing sea breezes and natural light from the side openings and organically shaped skylights. Prefabricated steel plates made in one of the last local shipyards clad the walls and ceilings within the structural steel skeleton, and the roof, a meter deep with 12 layers of thermal and acoustical insulation, is topped with standing-seam aluminum. “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”, says Houben. “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 boat. 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 joints between the plates. In fact, in the interior of the building, the joints provide opportunities for fitting lights, and hanging flags and banners”. Twelve chandeliers sparkle off the smooth white surfaces, giving the voids, which rise up to five meters, a festive air. Each one of the four theaters has been scaled and configured to serve specific roles, and they are paired to facilitate the movement of scenery from shared backstage areas. Boldly sculptured lobbies mediate between the plaza and the performance spaces. The 2,260-seat Opera House for Western and Chinese opera follows a traditional model with its three horseshoes of red plush seats tightly wrapped around the orchestra seating. The audience surrounds the stage of the 2,000-seat Concert Hall on four steeply stacked levels, putting everyone close to the musicians. The main blocks of seating are arranged on a vineyard plan and oak is used throughout to create a warm glow. It is here that the artistry of the architects is most evident, in the shaping of space and the subtle relief patterns of the bowed ceiling and walls. The 470-seat Recital Hall has a similar understated elegance - in contrast to the raw volume of the 1,250-seat Playhouse, which can serve as a proscenium theater or thrust stage for dance and drama. Mecanoo picked bright blue (their signature color) for the seating. To achieve the highest quality of sound, the Concert Hall was mocked up at one-tenth scale, and each auditorium is acoustically isolated. Acoustic consultant Albert Xu achieved a background noise control level of NC 15 in all four halls - a level of silence in which, as he says, “you can hear your heart beat”. For Mecanoo, Weiwuying is their most ambitious project to date, which took more than seven years to complete (in part due to delays in the supply of specialized equipment). It confirms their position as one of the world’s most versatile and creative firms, following their La Llotja Theatre and Conference Centre in Lleida, the Library of Birmingham, and the new railway station for their home city of Delft. Kaohsiung has transformed itself from an industrial hub to a city of technology and the arts with a lively vibe and better architecture than in the capital. It is linked by a high-speed train and toll road to Taichung and Taipei, and hopes to draw an audience from those cities as well as visitors and its three million residents. Music and drama are deeply embedded in the culture of Taiwan, so there are high hopes that Weiwuying will lure crowds and maintain the high standards of its opening programs.