Architects nail time and place with Taipei arts centre’s ‘tolerance of the imperfect’

“There is no entrance in a traditional sense, no ceremonial threshold,” says Koolhaas. “There is deliberate ambiguity as to where the arrival begins so that the building acts as an open invitation.”

Threaded throughout the complex (though not complicated) building is a “public loop”, which brings the vibrant street life into the building – quite literally. For no charge, it allows people to wander in and engage with the interior, getting unique glimpses of backstage and performance spaces in action.

The ethereal blue interior of the Globe Theatre follows the geometry of the exterior sphere. Shephotoerd Co.

They can see, for instance, into the ethereal blue interior of the Globe Theatre with upper circle box seats following the lines of the gentle sphere. Or take in the radical asymmetry of the Grand Theatre, covered in a pale blue latex floor treatment, its acoustic wall panels pivoting to optimise sound quality during performances.

In all, the Taipei Performing Arts Centre takes up 58,700 square metres, spread over 11 storeys, including an open-air rooftop amphitheatre. Two of its stages (in the Grand and Blue Box theatres) can be conjoined to create a “super theatre” measuring 63 metres in length.

“You can imagine that the possibility of opening up the super stage will give rise to new forms of creative expression,” enthuses Koolhaas, apparently relishing the fact that his architecture can affect not just culture but behaviour.

Pritzker-awarded architect and co-founder of OMA, Rem Koolhaas (left) with managing partner David Gianotten. Fred Ernst 

At 78 years old, and standing some 195 centimetres tall, the Pritzker-awarded architect cuts a fine figure in head-to-toe black Prada. (OMA has designed the scenography for the Italian brand’s catwalk shows for decades; its design of the SoHo, New York store set a new standard for retail as experience when it was unveiled in 2001; and its golden Prada Foundation building in Milan is one of the most instantly recognisable edifices in the world.)

A 63 metre-long “super-theatre” is made possible by opening up the central cube that anchors all three stages. Courtesy of OMA and Chris Stowers

Gianotten, 48, joined OMA in 2008 and is the force behind the firm’s forays into Asia and Australia. “We visited the Taipei site together from Rotterdam,” he recalls, “and on the way back began sketching ideas on the in-flight magazine. The formation of a central cube with volumes suspended off it came early on, although we created incalculable iterations.” He even made a working model that could fit into the palm of his hand – “a Japanese puzzle of sorts that I was able to manipulate to test out ideas”.

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Intrigued by the fact that the night market had been located on the block before being displaced to an adjacent site, Koolhaas and Gianotten took inspiration from the clamour and mayhem that nonetheless coalesce into a remarkably coherent experience.

“We wanted to have the low culture of the night market and the high culture of theatre combined,” says Koolhaas. “There is something very particular about this city that is manifest in the building. If you look around, it’s kind of completely utilitarian, there is a very high tolerance for the imperfect. It’s really focused on the essentials.”

OMA’s adroit form-giving has resulted in some of the world’s most remarkable buildings, including CCTV headquarters in Beijing, Seattle Central Library, Shenzhen Stock Exchange and WA Museum Boola Bardip in Perth. In a rare coup, it has been awarded a second cultural commission in the Western Australian capital: the reconfiguration of the heritage-listed, brutalist Perth Concert Hall to anchor a new cultural precinct along the Swan River.

Taipei Performing Arts Centre as seen from the Shilin night market. Courtesy of OMA and Chris Stowers

And yet, the shape of architecture is not their primary concern. Their forms follow function as the modernists ordained they should; it’s just that they seek to serve functions we may not have anticipated.

That’s the delicious paradox wrapped up in their built enigmas. Taipei Performing Arts Centre is, according to Koolhaas and Gianotten, “architecture in limbo: specific yet flexible, undisrupted yet public, iconic without being conceived as such.”

I’ll take what they’re having.

The writer was a guest of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).

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