The present cultural context into which Taiwan has evolved is fleetingly transient, as if culture were a disposable product to be consumed in a fast forward mode. This phenomenon reflects the island’s tumultuous recent history. Signed away by the Qing Dynasty to the Japanese in a peace treaty in 1895, the residents here endured a drastic change of governing from a corrupt Chinese rein to a harsh foreign one. The World War Two ended the 50-year Japanese ruling in 1945 and the Chinese Nationalist government has since regained control over Taiwan. Led by Chiang Kai-Shek the Nationalists were defeated by the Communists and fled Mainland China in 1949. Determined to recover the Mainland, the paramount goal for Chiang’s government was to transform the island into a military stronghold. While the recovery was never realized, Taiwan has since maintained its sovereignty under the same political pretext for decades.
This political milieu laid a few definitive paths for Taiwan’s social development. In order to fend off the threat from Communist China, Chiang's despotic regime adopted a hard-line rightist ideology polarized from that of the Mainland. The result was the deprivation of polemic and analytical training in the entire education framework that was crucial to its modernization processes. With the ambition to recover the control over Mainland, the Nationalist government fiercely fortified Taiwan as a provisional military foothold. The result was a prevailing pathos that regards the island as a place to be exploited and eventually abandoned. With limited options and an intrinsic desire for economic success, Taiwan accelerated into its super consumer-capitalistic state with little concern about setting foundations for long term political, social and economic goals. Under such zeitgeists a uniquely ephemeral culture developed, and manifested poignantly in its architecture and physical environment.
It can be paralyzing for architects to work within such a context: projects are done under extremely tight and volatile schedules that repudiate cultural dimensions and intellectual depth in the design processes. The difficulty in finding cultural underpinnings for the profession is amplified by the displacement of, and rapidly diminishing, traditional values and lifestyle in the social transition from the earlier Japanese occupation and the civil war. This situation is exacerbated by the lack of critical insight into the content behind the technically transferable cultural information from the West that has been quickly adopted in the process of economic progress. Consequently, architecture practice is stripped of genuine vitality, and its intrinsic analytical process is outpaced by the convenience of borrowing "visual codes" to commodify building forms. In most cases, it is through the reprocessing and replicating of these visual codes that architectural styles are formulated.
Three tenets of these "codes" that dictate the current trend can be defined: Firstly, a REGIONAL CLASSICAL REVIVALISM, propagated by post-modern consumerism, commercializes traditional, classical architectural elements by direct application of these elements. Secondly, GLOBAL CORPORATE IMAGE, adopted from the omnipresent international corporate culture. Its canonical spatial imagery is exploited to validate local businesses with global status symbol. Thirdly, replications of CONSUMABLE EXOTIC VISUAL ELEMENTS AND LANGUAGES, directly transplanted through the pervasive networks of international media, are appropriated to ratify the society’s newly attained consumer power in acquiring “culture”
One overarching characteristic, however, can be surmised from these three trends: whether the origin of the visual content is derived from the culture’s own past, from an imposed universal imagery, or from the willing import of exotic visual codes, the result of these processes presents a casual, distancing “two-dimensionality”.
Through the development of our tectonic world, as architectural history and discourse convey, terms of the “real” have been the core issues for structures. Our built environment enhances our sense of presence; the real provides our visual input with a representational matrix of conception. And as our visuality evolved, the development of the two-dimensional representation of the real became an inseparable measure for perceiving, conceiving and conceptualizing the three-dimensional realm. At times two-dimensional representation has assumed the thematic disposition in the process of making architecture. Arguably, for instance, the post-modern historicist discourse has indorsed the re-adoptions of classical texts and visual ornaments in forms of two-dimensional applications in architecture. New building technologies have also provided affordable possibilities for many cardboard edifices that have visually transformed our landscape since the late sixties.
However, as our visuality is fundamentally shifting at the dawn of the information age, the “two-dimensionality” that is the subject here embodies an entirely different meaning: a two-dimensionality manifested by television, computer/internet, movie, photograph and various forms of publications; in short, the MEDIA. Our life today is closely bonded with media. Our living experiences, in many ways, are compressed into “two-dimensional virtual reality” for we are heavily relying on information and the value system emerged under its influence to validate our real life experiences. In other words, our reality is subverted by a subconscious integration of a wide spectrum of two-dimensional representations of our lives. This phenomenon is significantly evident in a social context in which its continuity of historical and cultural structures have been displaced -- a society such as Taiwan’s. Without a sustaining critical cultural basis, architectural practice becomes a casual commercial act of making trendy commodities. Its value comes from validating the products with the latest popular information. Its purpose is to provide images that permit consumers to confirm their cultural memories collected from various sources, whether these are memories of their own past, the outside world or simply “the media” itself. The fact that architects would operate in this fashion implies enthusiastic consent from their commissioners and the society. Architects communicate with their clients through the manipulation of these imageries; or, should we say, convinced by the confirmed information, these clients are eager to “live” in the value system symbolized by these images.
As globalization quickens, one other factor, we must inspect, that conspires to formulate this “shared reality” is the new era of tourism. As the global social, political and economic contexts are going through unprecedented metamorphosis, tourism defines the new-found stature for a rising generation of bourgeois and nouveau aristocrats. Architects and their clients not only can share the same information through media, they can reconfirm it with the “experiences” of touring the very same places and compare their photos and videos back home.
In fact, the situation of which I am familiar and critical about in Taiwan is just a compressed micro-image of the larger world. The way information reality is a global exploitation today, it penetrates all boundaries which once demarcated people and cultures. Its verisimilitude and immediacy warrant its super-consumability, and the impact of this new technological progress has yet to be grasped and fathomed. What, then, should this volatile time demand of the discipline which, historically, carries the mission of constructing the real and passes on the tradition of the physical embodiment of culture? What do these visual codes, indiscriminately coming through the torrent of information, signify in their own historical or social context? Do they trigger the same emotional responses, same memories, or even help to provide the same foundation of values as in their places of origin? If not, shouldn’t it be the responsibility for architects to appreciate the subtle cultural nuances while interpreting these codes?
Paradoxically, cultural heritage is baggage as well as nourishment for architects. The divergence is acutely manifested at moments when societies are at their evolutional junctures, just as the information technological revolution today can evoke fear and nostalgia that contaminate its true potential with the compressed reality and burdens of the past.