The label Made in Taiwan no longer means what it used to. Last month in an article in the country’s main English language newspaper, The Taipei Times, a member of the Consumer Protection Commission in Taiwan complained that substandard goods made in mainland China were being passed off as having been made in the small independent island nation. Taiwan, once a world centre for the production of cheap electronic equipment, has undergone several economic transformations in the past few decades, from a manufacturing base in the 1980s, to a high-tech centre at the turn of the century – huge, paradigm shifts that have been enabled, in part, by government investment. Manufacturing now amounts to only 16 per cent of Taiwan’s economy, as its production plants are migrating to cheaper locations on the mainland.
Like many other contemporary Asian cities, Taipei – Taiwan’s capital – is technologically advanced. But one of the city’s most pressing issues is what to do with their manufacturing residue and post-industrial sheds. The city government has just initiated a project called Nangang 2050 – a three-year series of workshops where teams of academics and designers have been invited to imagine the future of Taipei as a creative industries hub. The international team took a redundant bottle-cap factory in the centre of Taipei – a city of seven million – and looked at turning it into an innovation quarter for creative production.
Learning from previous examples of co-opted industrial structures in Taipei, for example the Huashan Creative Park that was established in a former wine factory, the teams looked at how to turn the site into a mixed-use area – converting many existing buildings into small-scale live-work units, exhibition spaces and graduate housing. The group was not urban-planning in the conventional sense, and the teams developed integrated architectural, urban and public realm designs to connect the site to surrounding research and design industries, commercial centres and transport nodes.
The Architectural Association housing and urbanism programme was partnered with the National Chiao Tung University Graduate Institute of Architecture (NCTU GIA) – one of a number of partnerships that include Tokyo University, Taipei University of Technology, UC Berkeley and TU Delft. The workshops promoted exchange on many levels, and the teams collaborated with business leaders, heads of industry, science-park developers, software companies, politicians and mayors, to develop urban ecologies for creative industries, restructuring the city and forming new economic and cultural veins.
Economic growth in Taipei has also become a political show. Making statements about the future of Taipei as a global capital and commissioning grand projects by international names has been one of the major tools for political advancement in the city. However, it has been realised that iconic buildings by celebrity architects – such as OMA’s Performing Arts Centre and Reiser + Umemoto’s Pop Music Centre – might not bring about the kind of holistic urban regeneration, cultural and economic growth that the city government is looking for. The workshops were motivated by an approach to the city in its capacity as a tool for continuous economic and industrial transformation.
In Taiwan, urbanism as a discipline performs well as an instrument of political discourse. There is much to-ing and fro-ing of leading figures between politics and academia, with professors jumping between university departments and public offices depending on who is in political power. Perhaps this exchange between urbanism and politics is not such a bad thing. Discussing the city in political circles, and politics in academia, puts the design disciplines in a powerful strategic position – a position reinforced by the considerable funding the government invested in the workshops.
Whether anything will come of the visions produced is hard to tell. At a ceremony last October, the deputy mayor, Lin Chien-yuan, said ‘I don’t care so much about the results, but more about the process’ and enthused about ‘interacting with an international community’ and putting Taiwan in a ‘global context’. This, the workshop certainly did achieve. More than this, Nangang 2050 opened borders between different sectors around shared discussions of the city, offering a new model in which academic expertise is applied to real-life situations.
As Vincent Nadin from TU Delft deftly concluded, ‘This wouldn’t happen in the UK. Academics, researchers, designers around the table with policy makers, politicians, local government and developers – if only!’