Dynamic, poetic and idiosyncratic, the buildings of Kris Yao stand out from the pervasive mediocrity of Taiwanese architecture like a ray of sunlight in a stormy sky. Artech, the firm he established thirty years ago, has grown and expanded its scope, opening a satellite in Shanghai to supervise an increasing number of projects in mainland China. About 125 people work in the Taipei office, designing cultural and civic projects, as well as sleek stations for the high-speed railroad, college campuses, and distinctive corporate towers. Yao has the air of a sage, and his Buddhist faith infuses his life and work with an inner serenity. That quality complements the exuberance of his best buildings, which take their cues from nature and art. There’s a balance of yin and yang, a harmony of form and space, and a pent-up energy that draws one in.
“Every project is a brand-new experience and I need to feel the spirit of place,” says Yao. “I take an intuitive rather than analytical approach, using very simple forms that conceal the complexities of each structure. People feel a sense of stillness in the spaces I design.”
Yao has raised the bar for other creative architects in Taiwan, who have - like their mainland peers - been marginalized by foreign stars and crass developers. Major cities feature a scatter of prestige projects by such firms as OMA, Mecanoo, Toyo Ito & Associates and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, and a surfeit of Postmodern towers, armored with blocks of stone and trimmed like wedding cakes. This discordance reflects the turbulent history of Taiwan, which was colonized by the Japanese, then transformed by the arrival of two million refugees and soldiers in 1949, fleeing the victorious communist forces. As military dictatorship gave way to democratic government, the economy grew exponentially and the north-eastern cities exploded. Now there’s a move to develop other parts of the island, and Artech has made notable contributions to this redistribution of resources.
Artech’s towers have a strong sense of identity that eludes their pompous neighbors. The Kelti Center in the central business district of Taipei has a faceted glass façade suspended from a flared granite frame, which is echoed in the entry portals to north and south. The Continental Engineering Corporation headquarters is a billboard for its owners’ skills. Steel brackets at each corner support an exoskeleton that provides a column-free interior. In the southern port city of Kaohsiung, the China Steel Corporation headquarters dominates its surroundings, and symbolizes the local shift from industry to commerce and culture. An icon of rigorous geometry, it has a cruciform plan with four steel-framed quadrants and deep cuts between. Four eight-story sections are folded in and out to create a sharply-faceted crystal that seems to be in constant motion. The double-skin curtain wall achieves a high level of sustainability, optimizing natural light and ventilation, conserving energy, and blocking traffic noise.
The Lanyang Museum explores the culture and topography of Yilan, a short drive southeast of Taipei. In contrast to Kaohsiung, this is still a region of great natural beauty, with forested mountains descending to the sea, and Yao’s museum evokes the stratified rocks that angle up from the water. Steel-framed pavilions are clad in warm-toned granite and dark, rough-textured cast aluminum panels, which catch the light and change color on the frequent rainy days. The four levels of black-box galleries open off a lofty atrium, which is flooded with light from a wall of glass that frames the ocean and the offshore Turtle Island, and opens onto waterfront terraces. A glass elevator ascends to the top floor and a glass bridge links the two wings. On a sunny day, this room comes alive with the play of light and shadow off tilted planes and the restless buzz of school groups.
A world away is the Water-Moon Monastery, a calm Zen Buddhist retreat on the outskirts of Taipei. A columned worship hall is reflected in a lotus pool. Visitors approach it along a paved path, partially screened by smooth concrete panels that alternately conceal and reveal the stately façade. The materiality and the sense of an architectural promenade is reminiscent of Tadao Ando’s sacred buildings. On the west side, square windows reveal a wood screen cut out in the characters of the Heart Sutra, which acts as a brise soleil and casts dappled shadows over the lofty Buddha hall within. To the rear is a linear two-story residential block, and here the GRC panels on the south-facing façade are pierced with the characters of the Diamond Sutra, which the nuns read aloud every morning. To the east, the two blocks frame a rock-strewn meditation garden that abstracts a natural landscape.
For his debut in mainland China, Yao designed a much-acclaimed theater in the canal town of Wuzhen, which is located between Shanghai and Hangzhou. Part of the historic core was meticulously reconstructed as a gated tourist attraction that would generate income and spur development of the area beyond. Skilled artisans used traditional materials and techniques to create a convincing simulacrum and the crowds have flooded in. The developer challenged Artech to design a state-of-art theater that would complement this artful illusion of authenticity, and they have produced a masterpiece. An auditorium seating 1,200 and a 600-seat black box are contained within a twin lotus plan of intersecting ovals. Overlapping planes of brick tilt inwards to enclose the black box and shared stage; outwardly tilted glazing is wrapped around the horseshoe lobby of the traditional auditorium. A broken ice screen of reclaimed wood frames the glass, breaking up the scale. Finishes are luxurious, with floors of figured white marble, and walls are covered in gold leaf, gold mesh and a repoussé fabric. Both spaces are put to good use during the annual theater festival.
The most ambitious of Artech’s cultural buildings is the newly completed south branch of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. Like the Louvre-Lens and the Pompidou-Metz, it’s a bold attempt to share the capital’s riches with an underserved province. However, this satellite is located in green fields, far from a major city and several kilometers from the Chiayi stop on the high-speed line linking Taipei to Kaohsiung. Artech won a second competition for the project with a plan of intersecting arcs, and a sinuous interweaving of galleries and circulation areas. Yao loves the art of calligraphy, and he expressed his concept for the south branch in three brushstrokes - thick ink, half-dry and smearing. The wing containing galleries and the curatorial department is clad in embossed black tiles and aluminum discs that outline a dragon; the complementary wing of public and administrative spaces, including a lofty lobby, are fully glazed. As in Wuzhen and Lanyang, there’s an interplay of solid and transparent surfaces that articulate the roles of each half.
To reach the museum from the parking lot, visitors cross a curved footbridge over an artificial lake, and pass under an arch into an elliptical paved courtyard planted with clumps of bamboo. The concept of a promenade, earlier employed in Lanyang and the Water-Moon Monastery is extended through the foyer and up a broad staircase to the galleries that open off a dark, curved corridor. The fluidity of the plan and the ascent prepare visitors for their immersion in 5,000 years of Chinese history. The National Palace Museum has the finest collection of Chinese art in the world, brought here from Beijing, and only one per cent is on display at any one time. Fragile manuscripts and textiles can be shown only briefly, but that leaves a huge reserve for permanent and changing exhibitions in Chiayi. And the viewing experience is likely to surpass that of the parent museum, where a congested labyrinth of galleries occupy an uninspired pastiche of traditional Chinese architecture. Here, the rooms and corridors are much more spacious.
“I envisage architecture as though I were shooting a movie,” says Yao. “Scene follows scene as the camera moves through the spaces, and I hope that visitors will share that experience and gather on the stage I have created.”