1992 / 10月
Wei Hung-chin /photos courtesy of Pu Hua-chih /tr. by Christopher Hughes
High, high, higher! Now that Taiwan is awash with money, high-rise buildings are breaking the ground and scraping the skies. From ten storeys to tens of storeys, from single blocks to massive complexes. Appealing to the values of conspicuous consumption, the high-rises have advanced from being commercial offices into suburban residences, entering mountains and towns so that nowhere is free from them.
How many of the problems of living accommodation can this new fad of twentieth-century humanity really solve? What is life like when you can sit in your living room and look out at the sky and almost touch the moon?
Civil-servant Li Hsiang-jung is very satisfied that he can have a high-rise apartment. Previously living on the second floor of an apartment block, as soon as he was able to buy an apartment in the Great Peace public housing estate on Chienkuo South Road he set his sights on fighting to get a high-rise apartment there. In the end he achieved his wish and bought an apartment on the seventeenth floor. "The view is great, it is light, there are no mosquitos, and the air is fresh," he lists as the highest priorities for wanting to "take the summit."
The government builds roads, we build villages: A small area packed with people is the impression most people have of Taipei. After 1981, with the advance of the economy and improvements in construction technology, architecture gradually broke through the previous height limit of around seven to twelve storeys and stretched up to the skies. Thirty-storey and forty-storey office blocks haphazardly appeared, then even residential buildings were boldly pulled up higher.
The highest of the buildings in the Great Peace estate, which was completed in 1984, was 18 storeys; the Achievement estate followed on its heels and went one better at 19 storeys. Twenty storeys is not uncommon for most private-sector residential blocks. The city of Kaohsiung even wants to have a skyscraper of more than 50 storeys.
In terms of their spread, not only are high-rises to be seen in the main cities of Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung, but even Ilan is seeing them sprout up all over the place. Recently these high-rise residences have also taken on the new appearance of massive "tribal" complexes. Between the shared main entrance, central gardens, swimming pool and other communal facilities, even shops are appearing. "The government builds roads, we build villages" goes the slogan.
"The development of Taiwan's architecture towards the sky is already an unavoidable trend," is the consensus shared by one group of architects who designed a super high-rise. To reach towards the heavens and defy the ground is not simply due to a problem of land limitations, but even more represents "fully exploiting" the land under the pretext of giving people a fuller life. The reasoning behind this is very simple--the higher architecture gets, the more empty land will be released to increase the space used for leisure. Apart from this, high-rise buildings, especially the high-rise "tribal" complexes, are basically small villages. When designed, apart from recreational facilities, all the necessities of life such as supermarkets, kindergartens, banks and small restaurant malls are also included in the package. "Food, clothes, accommodation, exercise, can all be satisfied here," is how one architect describes it.
Do we need so much housing?: It sounds great! It is just that Joe Public, who does not have such a rich knowledge of architecture and whose ideas about space are not fully formed, might still want to ask: When the buildings have crawled up high, will there really be more space for leisure on the ground? Why are the numbers of high-rises in the cities getting more and more dense and numerous so that the streets and alleys seem to have become places where you walk without ever seeing the sun, moon and stars?
Then again, houses and four storey apartment blocks are being "combined" to become 20 storey "tribal" complexes; after two families have become eight families, then finally more than 200 families, do we really need so much accommodation?
"Just about all the building land has been swept up by property developers," says one clerk who worked in a construction company for a year. With every inch of land worth a fortune, who will want to hold on to a bit of empty space, and that includes the residents. Another clerk tried to persuade an elderly woman who did not want to move from the two-storey house she had occupied for more than 20 years by asking her to consider that, if one dwelling became 20 and communal land was included in the central court with more floor space still left over, "If we wait until the government puts into practice its rating system, everyone will suffer, and what can be good about that?"
The 1990 population census of the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statitstics of the Executive Yuan revealed that there is a 13.29 percent rate of unoccupied residences in the Taiwan area. In other words, about 1.5 out of every 10 residences is standing empty. This sits uneasily with the view held by most people that with too many people in Taiwan and not enough land we must go all out to build upwards.
Small is beautiful: As for the installation of leisure facilities, supermarkets, kindergartens and banks in the new complexes, does this ultimately expand our home environment or make our living space even smaller? Let us first take a look at life in a high-rise.
Mrs. Wang lives in the Achievement estate. She normally rises at 6.30 am and takes the elevator to a shop on the first floor to buy something for breakfast, conveniently exchanging greetings with her father-in-law who is doing Taichi exercises in the central court. Returning home, the family eats breakfast and her husband goes off to the office. Mrs. Wang then takes her four-year-old son to the Achievement Kindergarten, and goes to a traditional market to buy food. After shopping, it is just about time to go to the credit cooperative in the neighborhood committee office on the first floor, conveniently reminding her father-in-law who is playing chess there to come upstairs for lunch at noon.
At 2.30 pm Mrs. Wang goes to flower-arranging class held on the tenth floor in the block opposite. At 4.00 pm she goes downstairs to meet her child coming out of school. She takes the child to the adjoining supermarket and buys a bottle of soy sauce, and reminds her chess-playing father-in-law to come home with them on the way. "It is just as if I have not been out of the range of this 38-storey building for ages," is what Mrs. Wang says as she strolls with her husband in the central court at 10.00 pm.
More than a thousand neighbors! This concentrated type of high-rise dwelling includes arrangements for housewives which save a lot of work going to and fro. Moreover, the style of life that comes with having so many neighbors is better than having relatives far removed, although there is also the hassle of having too many "relatives."
In Achievement Kingdom's central courtyard there are thus signs on the wall reading, "Will those who rise early please keep quiet and avoid disturbing others." One man who lives on the fourteenth floor says: "It is strange. I always thought that living high up would be more peaceful, but why is it that it seems as though I can hear every breath made by the early-morning exercisers?" Obviously he does not realize that sound travels upwards.
Another couple, the Changs, spent nearly NT$10 million to move excitedly into a complex "as high as the peaks of the distant mountains." As a safety precaution for their active baby they added thirty centimeters to the height of the concrete wall on their balcony. They never thought that, no sooner had the wall been heightened, the people living underneath would start to complain that it was interfering with their television reception. For three days the couple from downstairs came and rang the doorbell to complain, and eventually the Changs had to spend money on buying them a signal booster of despite the fact that the man who installed it thought it was a problem caused by the people downstairs themselves.
Then a pipe on the thirteenth floor leaked and damaged the ceiling of the twelfth. The new sitting room which had just been decorated had to be done all over again. "Living in a high-rise is like that. Above and below, left and right, all are neighbors, so it is hard to avoid drawing criticisms at every move."
So why should people spend so much money to live there? "Where can you find a house in Taipei?" says Mrs. Chang. The couple did also look outside the city, but the communications were not convenient. Weighing it up, the high-rise they now live in faces a lake and is close to the mountains, has a swimming pool, tennis court and other facilities, and was thus considered to be the best choice for the moment.
Elevating sagas: The architectural concept of the high-rise is basically to pile up apartments and connect them with an elevator. From the elevator you can also see something of the character of "tribal" living.
Living in a high-rise complex in Neihu, Mrs. Chao claims to have "473 neighbors." The fourteen-storey buildings of the complex are joined up, and there is often a child who cannot reach the elevator button for his floor and gets lost in the corridors. "When we find this kind of child, if we know him we take him home; if not then we ask the porter to put out an announcement." She points at the two elevators next to each other and says she is not sure whether or not it is because the neighbors are too numerous, but when she gets into the lift she often sees somebody behind her and presses the button to keep the lift waiting. However, more often than not the other person is not interested in sharing the lift. The result is that the two lifts again come to a stop on the same floor and it is impossible to avoid the embarrassment of coming face to face.
The elderly Mr. Wang who lives in the Achievement estate has a bad heart and cannot put up with the pressure caused when the elevator begins to move. He thus prefers to slowly climb the stairs. "One day I will not be able to climb any more but will have to just 'lock' myself in upstairs," he says, ridiculing himself a little.
An interesting comparison is the little kindergarden student who lives on the third floor of a high-rise complex but does not use the stairs. When asked why, he replies, "It is quicker to go by elevator," with his own evident logic.
Shunning human hubbub for the sound of the wind: People who decide to live in comparatively high places often have their eyes fixed on the good scenery and that feeling of being high up above the hubbub. Yet there is a need for some period of adjustment for those who have just moved into a high-rise from a house.
Ho Fu-ju, the head of Achievement's western-district residents' committee, moved from his bungalow to a sixth-floor apartment and does not dare to look down. UP on high, he often feels dizzy. "It is probably because I am old. Perhaps it is not too good for elderly people to live high up?" he asks.
"It is said," points out senior editor of Architect magazine Chao Chia-chi, "that if people are too far from the ground for a long time, they can develop brittle bones. However, this is has certainly not been proved."
Yet most people who think that by living up high they can escape from noise are tested when they are enjoying their dream of peace. This is because leaving the noise of people behind, your ears still have to contend with the wind.
Hu Pao-lin, professor of applied arts at Vienna University, points out that when the wind blows against high buildings there will of course be some movement. After it goes over the roof, it blows onto the back of the building. With the speed of the upward movement increasing, the higher an apartment, the louder will be the sound of the friction of the wind against the building.
Watch out for the ozone! Apart from the wind, "everyone thinks that the air is better at higher levels, which is in fact wrong," points out Hu Pao-lin. It is true that carbon-dioxide is relatively heavy, so along with dust it drifts towards the ground, meaning that the higher you live the less problems you get from carbon-dioxide and dust pollution.
However, the unburned poisons that are pumped out by car exhausts combine with oxygen to form ozone, which is lighter than air and drifts upwards to collect in the sky under an altitude of 1,000 meters. "High-rises of more than 20 storeys thus have a serious ozone problem," he warns.
Moreover, so as to cope with strong winds and earthquakes, the structure must be basically flexible, so at high levels the architecture will actually move slightly. "Stand above 20 storeys and look down, you will see the building really does move and that it is no illusion," says Hu Pao-lin. This normal architectural movement can have adverse effects on the elderly.
Central courts that become chimneys: The open space of the central courts found in highrise complexes can be seen as a communal space for recreation, but it can also produce the opposite effect. This is something that those who have fallen in love with the high-rise dream cannot avoid taking into consideration.
The central courts of some high-rises, because they have not been planned well, often give rise to the feeling of there being a lot of noise because there is no way for echoes to dissipate. "If the central court it small in proportion to the four surrounding buildings, it becomes a kind of great well. Even smaller and it becomes a chimney," warns scholar of architecture Wang Chen-hua. If the central court is too small and the buildings too high, when there is a fire this kind of "chimney" will spread it with remarkable efficiency.
As for those developers who stress that Taiwan is overcrowded and architecture can only go up, Wang Chen-hua completely disagrees. He points out that those who say "high-rises are inevitable" are wrongly conflating the progress of engineering technology with that of human civilization.
Squandering resources? The excesses of modern architecture began in America in the 1890s. With American industry developing at a phenomenal pace, some businessmen who were manufacturing railroad tracks thought of a new use for their product by adjusting it to be used for making steel frames in architecture.
With skyscraper design supported by architectural materials, in America's abundance of space there appeared "the American spirit of boldly breaking through the present technology, which has no direct relation to solving the present-day problem of population density," points out Professor Liu Ko-chiang of National Taiwan University's School of Architecture and Urban Planning. In terms of human resources, high-rise architecture is in fact a kind of waste. No matter whether it is the construction of the building, waste of energy or maintenance and repairs, the expense is quite evident to behold.
Retired architect Chen Chao-wu gives an example to support Liu Ko-chiang's theory. To clean the external architecture of a high-rise building, or to undertake repairs, apart from the basic costs must also be added that of the machinery and its operators, personnel to ensure safety and order in the surrounding area, specially trained personnel, and so on. "If the cost of the materials for repairing a building is NT$10,000, the associated costs could be as high as NT$1 million," he says. If you take NT$1 million to improve the quality of most buildings, the benefits could be much higher.
Professional managers looking after everyone's home: Looking at all this from the environmentalist point of view that "we only have one world," the high costs of maintenance are without doubt a waste of natural resources. However, from the point of view of developers, the consideration "we only have one home suitable for showing off" has become a selling point.
"Building management has already become a kind of profession," says Kao Yung-kun, deputy director of a building management planning company. The work of building management is not just to uphold safety but also to be a communication channel between residents.
Huang Pei-sheng, who is the on-site manager of a 20-storey high-class residential building, says that the fire alarm system they brought into the building alone cost millions of dollars, and there are 13 management workers. Apart from being responsible for building safety, security, cleaning and repairs, they have also held friendship activities to enhance the feelings between residents.
To an even greater extreme, many high-rises use slogans such as "a house like a hotel" to attract customers. They stress that a high-rise can supply comprehensive decorations, facilities, cleaning personnel, even secretaries, so that "going home is like a holiday."
Paying the high costs of the general services provided in high-rise complexes is throwing money at solving problems. Most public high-rise buildings thus rely on the good will of their residents to come up with solutions themselves.
An ingenious escape: The Achievement estate was built on the site of a military dependents' village and thus has a high number of children and old people. Should a fire break out, the residents who live up high might not be able to escape in time. At present, the highest fire-brigade ladders are only 50 meters, which might not reach the twentieth floor. The western-district residents committee thus came up with an ingenious method of escape: they spent more than NT$40,000 to have a stainless steel ladder made to join up the eleventh to the eighteenth buildings. "If a fire should break out in building A, then we first go up to the roof and use the ladder to escape to building B," says resident Kuo Hui-tsan with some satisfaction.
Enthusiastic elderly people have also added much to the value of the community. In the morning Ku Hui-tsan paints the wooden benches in the courtyard entirely of his own accord. "Many people love to come and live here. Although a small apartment can be sold for more than NT$9 million, people still fight to get them," he says, hardly able to conceal his pride.
Use a bit more heart: "If high-rise architecture is done according to good planning," says Chen Chao-wu, such as to solve the population difficulty in Hong Kong or Singapore, then nobody can condemn it and it can be considered to be a way to solve social problems.
On the other hand, if it is just a case of people wanting to build to the sky and defy the ground with the desire to build ever higher and more densely just for the sake of it, then people will be worried.
"If you use your heart in designing, taking suitable heights and flexible use of space, then you can still design humane and reasonable buildings," says Wang Chen-hua, in the hope that architects will not only strive for the unusual and the attractive, but devote themselves more to utilizing space.
Liu Ko-chiang also points out some directions that high-rise designs could strive towards, such as having communal leisure space on every floor or even between floors. Increasing the opportunities for people to meet and tarry can perhaps improve on the present frigidity between neighbors. "It is just whether or not the developers are willing to 'waste' the money they could get from selling the space," he says with a smile.
The Achievement public housing estate in Taipei. High-rise complexes have appeared in huge numbers in Taiwan.
"The world is as big as your ambition"--this is the Taipei "sky."
Gazing out from up on high: is it not rather glib to "lord it over the world?"
Home! My home has a corridor at the front and an elevator going up and down.
Put on your glasses and take a careful look--do not ring my doorbell by mistake!
Stressing safety, high-rise estates often employ security companies.
Central courtyards afford residents space for leisure activities.
I live in the high-rise and you live at the top. Every day I see you when we share the elevator.
A sitting room big enough to drive a Benz in, but you can't even turn around on the accompanying sun terrace.
The highest fire-truck ladder is only 50 meters. If a fire breaks out then people above the twentieth floor will just have to save themselves.
With the garbage of a thousand neighbors to deal with, everyone realizes the importance of sorting their rubbish!
Admiring the moon from on high, the lights from thousands of homes twinkle like the stars above.