A Team Focuses on Collaboration to Deliver Asia's Largest Performance Center
National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, Kaohsiung, Taiwan
PHOTO BY IWAN BAAN, COURTESY OF MECANOO
A team focuses on collaboration to deliver Asia's largest performance center.
BY NOVID PARSI
The transformation of Kaohsiung, Taiwan from an industrial port city to a major cultural hub has been decades in the making. And now the city has a linchpin for that evolution: a massive performing arts center with a futuristic design inspired by the city's shipping roots.
The US$221 million National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts project delivered the largest performance complex in Asia, which project sponsor Taiwan Ministry of Culture believes will galvanize the city's emerging tourism credentials.
“The arts center is a very big step for Taiwan, which has been investing more and more in its culture,” says Friso van der Steen, director of international projects and technical director at architectural firm Mecanoo, Delft, the Netherlands. Mecanoo designed the center, while Theateradvies bv consulted on the design of performance spaces and requirements.
Scheduled to open in October, the 141,000-square-meter (1.5 million-square-foot) center is the centerpiece of a sprawling urban park. It includes a 2,260-seat opera house, a 2,000-seat concert hall, a 1,250-seat playhouse and a 470-seat recital hall, as well as rehearsal rooms, event spaces and an outdoor amphitheater seating up to 20,000.
But before performers could hope to take the stage, the project team had to clear several obstacles. Most notably, it had to convince the Ministry of Culture to rethink its original—and too aggressive—six-year timeline. During the construction phase, Mecanoo's team recommended a more realistic 10-year timeline with an agreement to complete major construction by 2017 so the operations team could test the building for nearly a year before opening it to the public on Taiwan's National Day, 10 October.
Conversely, the sponsor did not provide any wiggle room for the publicly funded project budget. The project team constantly found ways to cut costs on back-of-house spaces, such as modest finishing touches for the theaters’ backstage areas and the underground parking garage, so it could splurge on performance spaces.
“It was a bold move on the part of the Taiwanese government to construct this building to develop the culture and society of Kaohsiung,” says Louis Janssen, creative director, consultant, Theateradvies bv, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
—Louis Janssen, Theateradvies bv, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MECANOO
To make four distinct performance venues look like one cohesive building, the team built a roof that simulates Taiwan's native banyan trees, which, when bunched, create a thick undulating canopy. The roof joins the performance halls and creates the open-air Banyan Plaza.
“We looked at the trees and how people use them, and we combined the two ideas of the shelter that the trees provide and the way they organize space,” Mr. van der Steen says.
The roof design helped with stakeholder management. “We were concerned that the Taiwanese people might not like this huge new building, but the tree reference helped make sure they accepted it and appreciated it,” Mr. van der Steen says.
—Friso van der Steen, Mecanoo, Delft, the Netherlands
—Friso van der Steen
It's no accident that the center resembles a massive cargo vessel. In a nod to Kaohsiung's shipbuilding industry, the design team wanted the facade of the building to have one continuous, seamless shape, like a ship's hull. But the team needed help to create a facade that would be strong enough to withstand the earthquakes and typhoons endemic to Kaohsiung, yet malleable enough for the design's wavelike structure.
So the team collaborated with the long-established shipbuilding industry in both Taiwan and Mecanoo's own country, the Netherlands. Starting in 2008, Mecanoo's team spent two years working with the shipbuilders on designing the steel plates. Of the 1,520 tons of steel plates—each of them uniquely sized—almost 80 percent were fabricated in Taiwan, and the rest in the Netherlands.
“The shipbuilders realized our budget was modest, and they understood they wouldn't get rich on this project,” Mr. van der Steen says. “But they wanted to participate in such an ambitious project because, especially for the Taiwanese shipbuilders, they felt a sense of pride—they wanted to tell their grandchildren they had done this for the people of Taiwan.”
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MECANOO
When the general contractor expressed doubts about collaborating with shipbuilders on a high-end construction project, Mr. van der Steen took the director of the Taiwanese construction contractor to a Dutch shipbuilding yard so the director could see the meticulous steelwork—and the value of it—firsthand.
“The biggest challenge in working with the shipbuilders and the steel was convincing everyone it could work,” he says. “But when he saw that they achieved a level of accuracy that's unheard of in architecture, he was convinced.”
2007: Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo chosen to design performing arts center
2008: Project design team begins collaborating with shipbuilders in Taiwan and the Netherlands
2009: Design phase ends
2010: Construction phase begins
2014: Team begins installing ship-inspired steel facade
2016: Steel facade is completed
2017: Construction phase ends
2018: Project is completed—on budget
Rather than relying solely on its own know-how, the team formed relationships with local and global partners, including architects, designers, musicians and acousticians. “We did it by treating our Taiwanese partners as our equals,” says Mr. Janssen.
Those collaborations proved particularly beneficial for the concert hall. The sponsor and some global committee members originally wanted a traditional rectangular hall. But the Mecanoo team wanted an in-the-round space that would offer more intimacy and better sightlines. To make its case, the team solicited outside expertise and pointed to successful examples of similar venues.
Once the sponsor approved the in-the-round, vineyard-style concert hall, the Mecanoo team tested the hall's acoustics by building a 1-to-10 scale model—about the size of a living room. The scale tests led the team to alter the final angles of some walls by about 10 to 15 degrees to achieve better sound quality. “The adjustments were big in terms of the acoustic outcome but small in terms of the architectural changes,” Mr. van der Steen says.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MECANOO
Seating in one of the theaters. Above, the overall plan for the different auditoriums.
Staying within a strict budget meant the Mecanoo team had to find savings wherever it could—without compromising quality. For example, Mr. van der Steen wanted all the theater seats to have high-quality mohair upholstery. When the Japanese subcontractor that made the seats first presented a lower-quality fabric, Mr. van der Steen discovered that subcontractor had so many middlemen that it unnecessarily drove up the fabric's cost. So he found a Dutch fabric supplier who agreed to sell the material directly from that factory. “We ended up with beautiful seats at a modest price,” Mr. van der Steen says. PM
Friso van der Steen, director of international projects and technical director, Mecanoo
Location: Delft, the Netherlands
Experience: 20 years
Why did this project have special meaning for you?
“Because I met my wife on this project—the first time I went to Taiwan. She's a Taiwanese architect.”
How do you avoid project stress?
“By accepting that not everything will go right.”
What career lessons did you learn on this project?
“Be persistent but not annoying. And make friends, so that team members become ambassadors who want to defend the project.”
What's your current project?
“I'm still working on another big project in Kaohsiung, the new train station, which will be finished in 2024.”