2009 / 9月
Teng Sue-feng /photos courtesy of courtesy of Hsieh Architect & Associates /tr. by Scott Williams
The road to reconstruction is long.
It has been ten years since 1999's Chi Chi earthquake, and public awareness of reconstruction work in the areas hardest hit by the quake is fading. Even the government's 921 Earthquake Relief Foundation, charged with providing disaster relief, disbanded in July 2008 after nine years in operation.
The Foundation posted its final report online, in which it lists dozens of accomplishments, including settlement, reconstruction, and financial assistance for various projects. The government's efforts have yielded legitimate successes. For example, most of the bridges and roads destroyed by the quake have now been repaired or rebuilt. And nearly 300 elementary and middle schools have been reconstructed by the joint public-private New Campus Movement.
But, compared to the extent of the damage, shockingly little rebuilding has actually taken place. 50,644 homes were completely destroyed, but only 5,410 of them have been built and/or renovated (in 70 multi-unit buildings). 53,317 homes were partially destroyed, but only 12,814 of them have been repaired (in 94 multi-unit buildings). A mere 4,336 economically disadvantaged households have received support to either rebuild or relocate. And many NGOs lost the quarters they were operating out of, but only 54 have had them rebuilt. Aboriginal communities located on unstable ground vulnerable to landslides when typhoons strike have been largely overlooked. To date, only five such communities have been relocated.
At a time when luxurious Taipei apartments are selling for as much as NT$1 million per ping (about 33 square feet) and ordinary 30-ping apartments go for NT$6 million-a level which even the most thrifty of the urban middle class struggle to afford-what are the economically disadvantaged victims of the earthquake, most of whom earn their living through casual labor and farm work, to do? Are they to be forever relegated to decrepit steel-paneled temporary housing?
Hsieh Ying-chun, an architect whose name is virtually synonymous with Chi Chi reconstruction, firmly believes that housing is a fundamental human right. Hsieh has built more than 300 hundred 15-20 ping homes in Aboriginal communities at an average cost of NT$200-400,000 each. But Hsieh remains dissatisfied in spite of the numerous accolades he's received. "We've been building homes [for earthquake victims] for more than 10 years in Taiwan, and have built fewer than China has built in just the first year since the Sichuan quake," he laments. "We're really good at building homes, but people won't let us do it!"
Are Hsieh's ideas about architecture too avant-garde, or too romantic?
In March of this year, Hsieh visited the Presidential Office Building to receive a public service medal awarded annually to an outstanding architect. Hsieh is just the fifth architect to receive the award since its creation.
Taking advantage of the opportunity, he advised President Ma Ying-jeou that we need what he calls "construction solidarity" to reconstruct villages. Hsieh estimated that it costs only NT$1.6 million to build a 39-ping home, NT$750,000 for materials, NT$750,000 for labor, and NT$100,000 for project management. If a work-assistance approach were used and locals hired to do the work at NT$1,000 per day, "The construction of 1,000 homes could provide 3,000 locals with work for a year."A Taiwan architect in Sichuan
When the curtain on this year's Venice Biennale rose in June, Hsieh was among four Taiwanese artists to have his work displayed in the Taiwan Pavilion.
But to Hsieh these kinds of awards and exhibitions are merely interludes in the many years he has spent in resource-poor Taiwanese Aboriginal villages and rural Chinese communities.
In the wake of last May's huge earthquake, the highly mobile Hsieh traveled to Sichuan to put his "construction solidarity" experience to work in the reconstruction zone, assembling plans for the construction of 100,000 rural homes over a 10-year period.
Fascinated by this gray-haired man with a receding hairline and ponytail who was teaching farmers to build scaffoldings, assemble formwork, and do carpentry, members of the mainland media made multiple expeditions to remote Mao County-several dozen kilometers north of Chengdu-to profile him. They portrayed Hsieh as "an idealistic Taiwanese architect" who lived and drank with the locals and "who knew when art needed to take a back seat to practicality."
When winter comes to Yangliu Village in Mao County in November, snow falls, the wind cuts like a knife, and reconstruction comes to a halt. In summer, necessary agricultural work also brings reconstruction to a halt for a time. At these times of year, Hsieh heads back for Taiwan and his studio in Ita Thao, Nantou County.
Ita Thao is one of Sun Moon Lake's most popular scenic destinations. Hsieh's studio sits right in the Thao cultural zone, on a small hill opposite the business district. Stepping into this community of fewer than 300 people feels a bit like stepping into a village that time forgot. There is a tidy single row of a dozen or so homes, all built on lightweight steel frames with walls and roofs made of slats of wood or bamboo bound together. The walls are topped with a layer of reflective aluminum foil to keep out the heat and bugs.Technology and culture
While other support groups have pulled back from the front lines over the last 10 years, Hsieh, who went to Nantou from Zhudong in the immediate aftermath of the quake, has established a studio, put down roots, and continues to live here.
Hsieh often lectures on his "construction solidarity" concept, and is always asked: "What makes you stay in reconstruction zones helping the disadvantaged build homes? Does it have any connection to your previous work?"
"Taking up this work was as unexpected as the earthquake itself," he says. "It's not the kind of thing you plan for as a part of your career. The quake just gave me the opportunity to put into practice some ideas I'd been talking about, things like green building, community participation in projects, and ecological sustainability."
Looking through Hsieh's portfolio, it's clear that he is more than just a builder of inexpensive housing. A Hakka originally from Fengyuan Township in Taichung, the 55-year-old architect worked in the construction business for eight years after completing his architecture degree at Tamkang University. In early 1990, he transitioned into the booming tech industry, taking on billion-dollar projects in the Hsinchu Science Park that have included a Mosel Vitelic facility and the park's Lifehub Building.
Hsieh has also single-handedly planned a technology village, the Hsinchu County Cultural Center, the Meinong Hakka Cultural Museum of Kaohsiung County, and the Liudai Hakka Cultural Park. By incorporating traditional Hakka architectural elements such as round buildings and courtyards into modern cultural spaces, Hsieh has maintained a sense of modernity while preserving the down-to-earth character of Hakka culture.
For the Liudai park, which is slated to be completed next year, Hsieh started with the notion of raising a protective umbrella over the Earth and all living things. He then covered the 5,000-ping outdoor space with seven huge roofs shaped like Meinong paper umbrellas to reflect the importance of unity in Hakka culture and to represent southern Taiwan's dense tropical forests. Residents can interact freely beneath the umbrellas, suggesting openness and creativity, and symbolizing the continued vitality of the culture.
The Chi Chi earthquake brought Hsieh to a crossroads in his architectural career. He chose the road less traveled, setting aside the big money of his technology village project and devoting himself instead to building homes in rural villages. In so doing, he kicked off what some in the arts and culture community have dubbed the Taiwanese builders' environmental revolution.Experiment 1: The "labor exchange"
The same earthquake that prompted Hsieh's decision left Nantou's Thao tribe almost entirely cut off from the outside world. In seeking out help, the Thao eventually got in touch with Hsieh, who immediately set out for the disaster zone with five design team members, as well as sleeping bags, tents, and building tools. On seeing the human and material devastation at first hand, Hsieh appealed to the Thao to join him in the effort to rebuild their homes.
"Reconstruction is a productive activity," argues Hsieh. "How much labor does it involve? How many job opportunities does it create? When residents are involved, resources stay in the community, which reduces construction costs and the community's reliance on the current construction system. Residents get to build their communities with their own hands, which is more in keeping with a spirit of self-reliance."
The government provided compensation for homes that had been located in places where the government judged reconstruction impossible-i.e. in fault zones or landslip-prone areas-offering subsidized low-interest loans or government housing for just 70% of its usual selling price. The problem was the poor in the villages couldn't qualify for loans. Hsieh's hope was that by making use of a labor exchange, similar to the mutual support mechanisms of a cooperative, they would be able to build homes for about one-quarter of the market price.
Three months later, the Academia Sinica, the Hsinchu City government, and the Rotary Club donated NT$10 million for construction, and the tribespeople drew lots to determine the location and sequence in which their 41 new homes were to be built. When construction got underway in late 1999, an estimated 150 people, including a large floating pool of volunteers and 60 of the Thao, took part.Experiment 2:Lightweight steel
Financial assistance was limited, and Hsieh conservatively estimated that a 15-ping home would cost hundreds of thousands of NT dollars to build even if he and his team were able to keep materials expenses down.
"I was absolutely not going to build them the kind of rebar-reinforced cement homes that cost millions each," says Hsieh. He explains that, cost aside, rebar and cement are energy intensive products that generate a great deal of pollution in their manufacture. And when homes of this type are later torn down, they leave behind only a pile of useless rubble. It's an incredible waste of energy. Hsieh instead decided to build with lightweight structural steel, a material with which was still relatively new to Taiwan's architectural community.
The technique originated in the US about a century ago, and Japan began using it heavily following the Richter 7.2 Kobe earthquake of 1995. The Japanese were seeking a new building material that would be tough, lightweight, easily assembled and disassembled, and quick to build with. Now common in Japan for buildings under seven stories, the technique is also frequently used by home renovators on Japanese TV. Since the technique employs only about one-fourth the amount of steel used in concrete-and-rebar buildings of similar size, it also met Hsieh's criteria for energy-saving, sustainable construction.
But the US and Japan held all the patents for light steel frameworks. The methods developed abroad didn't use welds to join the parts for fear of weakening the structures, and therefore required large, specially built machines for assembly. Hsieh recognized that it would have been incredibly expensive to import these patented materials and assembly equipment.
Instead, Hsieh put his background in construction and his experimenter's attitude to work. He asked Hsinchu steel mills to bore holes in the light steel at its connection points, then bolted the pieces together, adding angled braces or a little cement to strengthen spots with two or more joins. By localizing the technology, Hsieh cut his costs to half what they would have been had he imported foreign materials. (At that time, lightweight steel sold for NT$7-8 per kilogram. It has since risen to NT$22/kg.)
"The only thing work groups have to know how to do is use a wrench," says Hsieh. "They tighten up the bolts in the holes at the connection points, and the framing goes up like Lego building blocks."Community spirit
The technology problem hadn't stopped him, but he ran into problems of a different kind that often forced him to tear down completed houses and rebuild them, or make modifications as he went along.
Hsieh was keenly aware that though he could speak Mandarin with the villagers, had developed design plans for them, and had even shown them scale models of his homes, a gulf still separated him from them. Perhaps it was cultural, or maybe the Thao weren't very good at expressing themselves, but a resident would always emerge from a home just as another was being completed in front of it and explain that he was a village elder in charge of a particular ceremony, that the community needed the space in front of his home to dance, and that the nearly completed home would have to be disassembled and rebuilt elsewhere.
"For them, living spaces were incidental," says Hsieh. "The important thing was building a sense of cultural belonging, reestablishing a communal consciousness." Hsieh says that the cultural reconstruction work was even more challenging than the housing reconstruction work. When he completed his work to the villagers' satisfaction six months later, they roasted whole pigs and sheep for a boisterous moving in ceremony. With their cultural confidence waxing again, they also decided to revive a sowing ceremony that hadn't been held in 14 years.
Having won the tribespeople's trust, Hsieh taught them how to use some basic tools and with them set to work rebuilding other homes in the reconstruction zone, work for which they earned accolades from the cultural community. But they ran into difficulties when their efforts disrupted "the market." Contractors and vested interests that wanted a share of the reconstruction pie soon went to work undermining their efforts.
When the 921 Earthquake Relief Foundation invited Hsieh to take part in meetings with locals on housing reconstruction efforts in the Xinyi Township villages of Dili, Shuanglong, and Tannan, he received a threatening call from someone warning him not to be "too uppity." Work groups were closely watched when simply surveying villages, not to mention when they were actually building homes. With vested interests obstructing their efforts, reconstruction progressed very slowly.
Tannan Village is just a 30-minute drive from Ita Thao, but sits at a higher elevation and in a more remote location. Reconstruction work in the village was still going almost nowhere when Typhoon Toraji battered central Taiwan in July 2001. The typhoon made matters even worse by dropping several days of rain onto leaky homes and destroying all the roads into the village. When a resident succeeded in contacting Hsieh privately to ask for his assistance, Hsieh and a few colleagues spent hours marching up the mountain to inspect the village. Once they came back down, they requested and received emergency aid for the village, which village youths then carried back up into the mountains.
Three months later, he sent out a work team of a dozen or so people from three different villages. They built the framework for a home on the highest ground in the community in just a few days to demonstrate what they could do. As resistance to their efforts faded, the team managed to establish itself in the village and begin work on more than 10 homes. Sadly, it took three years to reach that point.
In 2005, World Vision Taiwan underwrote the NT$30-million-plus cost of moving Tianhu, an Atayal village originally located in Hsinchu County's Wufeng Township. The funding provided Hsieh with a larger-than-usual budget-roughly NT$900,000 per home for construction costs and another NT$50,000 per home for design and oversight costs-and he used it to create a cluster of 36 pretty homes that look like little vacation villas sitting atop the narrow strip of buildable land available at the hilly site.
Over the last decade, Hsieh has built housing in rural Nantou's Xinyi and Renai Townships, in Taichung's Heping Township, and in Hsinchu's Wufeng Township. He's applied the same principles in constructing all of the 300-plus homes, large and small alike: simple construction methods, environmentally friendly materials, plain looks, and construction solidarity.First, build a toilet
Hsieh's construction solidarity model has spurred discussion in Taiwan, and attracted attention from international architects from as far away as Germany and Finland. This has in turn led to invitations to attend exhibitions and give lectures abroad.
After a one of these talks (at the University of Hong Kong in 2004), an audience member told him that his design concepts were very similar those of Wen Tiejun in Beijing. He then recommended that Hsieh visit Professor Wen.
Wen is dean of the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at Renmin University of China and well known in China as an expert on rural affairs. He is also the founder of the James Yan Rural Reconstruction Institute in Dingzhou, Hebei Province, an organization that carries out experimental reforms (including trying out low-cost wood construction methods) on behalf of rural communities and recruits local volunteers and experts to train rural residents. Suspecting that Wen might be a kindred spirit, Hsieh jetted off to Beijing. The two immediately hit it off, and when Wen suggested that Hsieh visit Dingzhou, Hsieh didn't hesitate. When he arrived, Hsieh learned that Dingzhou was suffering from many of the same problems that had plagued Nantou in the immediate aftermath of the quake. He set to work straightaway, and was soon shuttling between rural communities on both sides of the strait.
Qiu Jiansheng, the institute's office manager, knowing that Hsieh was a Taiwanese architect, proposed that Hsieh design a new bathrooms for him, explaining: "We get so many people visiting the institute to observe and to receive training, we really need to build lots of new toilets."
Hsieh agreed provided that he got to do it on his terms. Rural China's sanitation facilities are rudimentary, and its toilets stink to high heaven. Moreover, the flush toilets common in urban areas waste a phenomenal amount of water, making them unsuitable in water-scarce rural villages. Hsieh therefore decided to take an experimental urine-separating toilet he'd built for Kaohsiung's Zhongzheng Park and transplant it to China.
The toilet, a squat type, has two drains, one in the front for urine and another in the back for feces. The urine collected by the front drain is diluted, then used to irrigate fields. The rear drain drops feces onto plant ash and loose earth. After drying for a period of time, it makes an excellent fertilizer.The global village experiment
Beginning with the toilet, Hsieh used his time and the institute's ample labor resources to experiment with community workgroups and the sustainable construction of what he called his "eco-home."
He made several trips into the community around the institute looking for residents preparing to replace old structures with new ones, and offering to help them build the eco-homes he had designed. But many of the people he wanted to help were turned off by the mudbrick homes he proposed to build.
Hsieh was unfazed. "No problem," he told them. "We're going to build a model on the institute grounds first." In 2005, he mobilized more than 40 students from several universities' architecture programs who were visiting the institute on their summer breaks, and set them to work building three eco-homes: a wooden house he called Global Home No. 1 and two lightweight steel structures he called Global Home No. 2 and Aceh No. 1.
Though Global Home No. 1's name suggested a high-tech spaceship, the two-story structure, which was 160 square meters in area, was made from materials readily available in a rural Chinese village-wood, wheat straw, mudbrick, reed boards, mud-and-straw, and asbestos tiles-as well as the same lightweight steel Hsieh had used in Taiwan's earthquake reconstruction zone. He ended up constructing the model for just RMB50,000 in labor and materials costs, or less than RMB400 per square meter.
Aceh No. 1 had its origins in a trip Hsieh took to Indonesia's Aceh Province at the invitation of a number of charitable organizations to observe the post-tsunami reconstruction efforts in April 2005. On his return to Taiwan, he designed a "tropical" home for Aceh's coastal dwellers-an elevated home with living quarters on the second floor and a canted roof to keep out the rain.
"Seeing those young people squatting beneath the palm trees with nothing to do left me more convinced than ever that construction solidarity is the best option for disaster reconstruction," says Hsieh. "Contractors should absolutely not be brought in from outside." Hsieh estimated that reconstruction in Aceh would require at least 200,000 new homes. But efforts to that point had left residents on the sidelines watching volunteers from outside do the work. Construction materials were imported from abroad as well, which resulted in expensive transportation costs. As a consequence, reconstruction had progressed very slowly.
When Hsieh was working on his Global Homes at the institute, the nearby village of Lankao assigned some residents to help. When two of these residents became enthralled with the good-looking eco-home, Hsieh helped them gather and train manpower. They ultimately got 50 people involved in the construction, 80% of whom were from the village.Sheltering multitudes
Hsieh's "green homes" began to spread from his base in Hebei to other areas, including Beijing and Anhui.
Last May's massive earthquake in Sichuan Province affected an estimated 130,000 square kilometers, an area 3.6 times the size of Taiwan, and leveled roughly 3 million homes. Hsieh arrived in the area with international volunteer groups to begin reconstruction in July.
Seeing locals combing the rubble for usable materials and helping one another build temporary shelters, Hsieh found himself deeply moved by their demonstration of the traditional self-reliance of Chinese peasants. In September, he brought a work crew to Xinlong Village, Jiulong Township, Mianzhu City to build homes.
Over the course of a year, he has trained and led eight work crews, building roughly 500 homes as far afield as Liping Village (in Shazhou Township, Qingchuan County); Yangliu Village (in Yuli Township, Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County); and at sites in Mao County, Wenchuan County, and Mianzhu City.
"It's not easy organizing village residents," he says. "You need the help of local officials." But he adds that rural Chinese villagers have more of a collective consciousness than their Taiwanese counterparts, which makes the work progress more rapidly. Taiwanese villagers, on the other hand, tend to be more dependent on resources from a variety of sectors and are less inclined to act. In the case of Taiwan's Thao, he attributes the relative success of his work to the tribe's sense that its survival was in jeopardy.
"The fact that China has 900 million rural residents and very few professional architects put us in a very advantageous position there," says Hsieh. "We were able to mobilize people very quickly." But he adds that building even 500 homes a year is far too slow a pace when you consider the need for some 2.2 million new homes in the reconstruction zone. He now hopes to complete some 100,000 homes over the course of three years.
"Hsieh Ying-chun's actions challenge the role of the architect in Taiwan," writes architect Ruan Qingyue. "Very few people in the last 50 years have shown his kind of tangible concern with social justice. Architects are to an extent part of this huge complicit structure.... Hsieh withdrew from the power structure, used his individual strength to do his own thing. There's only the slightest relationship between whether construction solidarity is ultimately successful and how many buildings are ultimately built. The important thing is that it reverberate in peoples' consciousness. If it does that, the seeds it has planted will slowly come to fruition."
Ruan Qingyue offered the above assessment in his 2003 book documenting Hsieh's village reconstruction work, Orchids on the Roof. A number of years later, Shyu's words continue to ring true with regard to Hsieh's reconstruction work on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.