a conversation with Ti-Nan Chi at the Biennale

KARL-HEINZ KLOPF You started drawings after your military service. You used the map of Rome and added buildings from Taipei. This drawings seems to be a kind of starting point for your work. Can you tell me more about it?

CHI Yes, I think the key content is actually the spirit of a city. I believe each city should have a psychological level. You enter a city, you feel it. Each city produces that kind of atmosphere. What kind of physical structure could produce what kind of atmosphere, that is something usually unknown to architects or to planners. That‘s the difficult part. But somehow I try to utilize the condition in Taipei which might be very different to European cities and I try to put them together to see if there is some kind of possibility to start with.

KHK You have chosen Rome as a typical map of an European city.

CHI Actually the area around the Piazza di Popolo. I took pictures of buildings in Taipei before I did the drawing. And I kind of dramatized those Taipei buildings and putted it into the Rome map.

KHK The first work of yours I saw was a small building, which you exhibited in 1995 at Hillside Terrace Gallery in Tokyo.

CHI This exhibition was a selection of the SD Magazine about good works to be built in Japan. SD Review is an annual selection of works. I have submited one building which was planned for a historian.

KHK What fascinated me is that the building was on a very narrow plot. It was small at the bottom and much wider at the top. It had about four floors. You extended the space into the street space. What was your intention?

CHI That‘s related to the Rome map drawing. The same thing. First of all I think it is always about a kind of spirit, it‘s a tendency to try to act or a way of trying to live in the city, how you walk, how you live your life. So the shape of the building looks a little bit strange, but it is an outcome of how you formulate the life inside a building. If you carefully try to calculate how you would manage to live in this space, the shape would somehow emerge in a more natural way. It looks like a fashionable computer image because it is a computer generated shape. We made the computer image after the design. It is still a very ordinary way of working with the space. It just appears quite futuristic in a way.

KHK Yes, that is the impression I got the first time I saw it. The shape is somehow unusual, it is not done in the modern style, but it also does‘t follow the tradition of the international style.
I could see a break from these traditions. Was that a typical work of yours?

CHI The way of working is a key method to me, how to work with the space in that way. It is a way of imagining how you live, how you work inside the space. It sounds simple, but really catching all these moments, I guess that‘s the interesting part. To know where to catch moments or where to make the line or the point is interesting and also difficult. Catching moments in space eventually grows into architecture.

KHK This method reminds me of the key frames when you generate a film in the computer.

CHI It is like editing a film. You have to catch the moments.

KHK Was this building considered for a site in Taipei?

CHI No, in an other big city in Taiwan, in the South.

KHK But let us talk about the conditions of Taipei a little more.
It is an Asian city. Beside Tokyo, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur it is an example of an contemporary East Asian city.
You live and work there. What does this city as a space to live and work mean to you? What attracts you to Taipei?

CHI That is a very good question. I grew up there, so I know the differences to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo or Kuala Lumpur. These cities are all different from Taipei. To most people, Taipei appears to be more simple, not so advanced and developed.
When you are in Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Shanghai or Tokyo you see sky scrapers and good looking buildings.

KHK Glamorous cities.

CHI Yes, closer to the big cities in the West. But in contrast, in Taipei the people also want to built skyscrapers, but it doesn‘t happen. People still maintain a quite traditional living environment, an urban structure in a more chinese tradition. But at the same time they somehow learn something from the modern cities and try to improve the living standard. People are using very simple ways to organize everything. There is no much imagination, it is just pragmatic and simple planning. At the same time they keep the traditional space.
To me it is not pretentious. There is also no much achievement. It is just a plain city in the 20th century.
At the same time, there is energy, there is economy. People actually have the power to make it different. But I think they haven‘t really focused their attention on these aspects. On the other hand, we all live in this kind of city. It is somehow very comfortable, in spite of the pollution. If the lecel of pollution would decrease the living conditions would be more convenient and the city would be easier for people to live in. There are no megastructures in the city. Such a structure would also produce very complicated systems inside the city. There are no very complex subway systems or any other kinds of complicated systems.

KHK Aren‘t big structures necessary for organizing the contemporary city, to fulfill its needs?

CHI Actually what I think is that people don‘t need that. They don‘t need those megastructures. Somehow that is getting wild, those structures are getting to be a kind of animal or alien. People have to try to get into it and to get out. Otherwise you won‘t survive. You have to rely on those very complicated system. But in Taipei there is no such megastructure. Even the subway system is very simple. You can remain in a very simple condition. All the time. You can distinguish your orientation, you can see the sky, you can see the road where you are walking.

KHK So it does not have the kind of abstraction like you find in Tokyo. Tokyo, to me, is a very abstracted form of an organism. When you walk there you experience a sort of flash all the time. You shift from one kind of space to a very different one in few moments. This is very intense. In comparison, it seems that in Taipei you can always keep an overview. Your point of view is more clear.

CHI Yes. But it is not like Venice or other smaller European cities. There is also some kind efficiency in Taipei. It is not just the historical sites. In Taipei there are still new buildings, new structures. But things are organized in a very simple way, maybe as the historical city, maybe in a raw way. Probably we can say it is a modern city in a primitive form. I don‘t know. But what I am trying to say is that there is also a very traditional aspect inside. It is still keeping a very traditional way of live.
The way of living in each unit of the residential areas is actually very traditional. They look like modern buildings but are still very traditional. Very Chinese. From outside it looks new, inside it is still very Chinese.

KHK In every big city there are usually major problems to be solved. What are the urgent problems which should be solved in the near future, what should be the next big project for Taipei? Is it the pollution which you mentioned before?

CHI Yes, that is one thing. Also the environmental issues should be taken more seriously. That is one aspect.
But physically, architecturally, I don‘t know. In comparison to other cities in Asia I think Taipei could do something different because it is still in a primitive stage. We probably don‘t have to build megastructures in the style of the 60s. We could have some other type of developement. In any case, we can utilize some new concepts for bigger structures for the population and density. We probably don‘t have to use the old ways.

KHK This brings us to the Urban Flashes workshop which you organized last year. The Hwa-shan district is a central area where the Taipei Brewery and the former Hwa-shan train station was sited. Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the area and where the idea for the Urban Flashes workshop came from?

CHI Those were the building built by the Japanese after World War II. Now it is an abandoned place. Artists in Taipei think that this could be better utilized as an exhibition area. For example, it could be used in the same way as the Arsenale here in Venice. We try to change the policy of the government. This is an interesting process, trying to push the government and also trying to organize people to work with the possibilities of this site. Gradually we try to formulate something. Now the government has a rough plan for the area and it seems like they have referred to the proposal made after the workshop. We organized the proposals and presented them to the press.
I guess the offices of the urban development department of the city probably noticed that and utilized the whole concept for the developement of the area. It is interesting that somehow our idea was noticed through these very invisible channels. Now we are getting to another stage where we give a more solid proposal because they are eventually going to build something there.
To me it is really different from the Arsenale in Venice. That area in Taipei, or in any Asian city, is not really a historical site, it is not really magnificent. These are just simple buildings, storage houses and the area is still surrounded by so called modern structures. It is not beautiful.

KHK It‘s just a big piece of land in the center of the city, which I think is what makes it special.

CHI Yes, just empty land with some bigger structures, kind of nice looking but not really so beautiful. So that‘s the condition, nothing‘s like the Arsenale here. So the proposal in the future should be different, other than just preserving that or utilizing it in a very cultural way. In Taipei these should have more elements inside.

KHK I felt that Taipei needs more different layers. For example, I felt the lack of a central recreation area. People are moving fast from one point to another. Very busy. Maybe Hwa-shan could be an area of changing speed. Slower.

CHI But it also should change culturally. Probably not too much. But as you said it should have more layers, not only culture. For example, the Arsenale is probably too cultural, from what I see. Too consciously cultural. This is only one layer, probably there are no other interactions there.

KHK Yes, the Arsenale already has much cultural history, especially since it is used an exhibition space for the Biennale. Do you think that in Taipei this would not work in a similar way?

CHI I believe what works here would look very silly in Taipei. Here it is ok because everything surrounding it is „culture“, so it makes a different statement there. Taipei is not that kind of city. We have to look into the city, see what is going on there and try to catch the spirit. There is an other kind of spirit, so there should be other physical structures.

KHK We are here in Venice because of the Biennale for Architecture where you show a recent work of yours. Can you explain this work and the installation you made here?

CHI The site of the work is south of Taipei, in a smaller city in Taiwan. What I tried to do was put little elements into the city and encourage some other new things. I used a kind of tunnel system. It is a way of walking, trying to link routes, using the tunnel shape to form a line of activity.
There were already older buildings on the site, and to those I added little structures.

KHK You kind of linked the buildings?

CHI Not really the buildings, but rather the whole city, the city in general. My purpose is not only linking the buildings. I put these tunnel elements inside, outside or beside the buildings. The buildings are just reference points. We had little elements which eventually could produce something else for the city.
The clients wanted us to renovate them. That was our job, but beside that we put these little elements in as an other level of design. We designed those older buildings, on the other hand, by using the possibilities found in this project, we built something new.
There should be many layers, many different kind of activities. They are probably not connected. It doesn‘t matter. But, of course, they have connections, but those are not really intentionally designed as connections. We can have accidental connections and in that way produce a city.

KHK This could be a suitable conclusion of this conversation.

CHI Yes, it is like the squares. If you come to Italy you see the squares, especially San Marco. It is a very distinctly planned meeting place. Somehow it symbolizes civic nature or a kind of concensus of city life or a nation. But it is artificial. It is really a fake. You need to have very natural conjuctions, not really constructed ones.
You must carefully try to make it happen someway, but it should not be really designed, you design something else to make it happen. My plan has nothing to do with the old buildings.

Venice, June 17, 2000

TI-NAN CHI, architect, founder of Chi‘s Workshop and the Human Environment Group, lives and works in Taipei