As the largest cultural constructionproject built in Taiwan in the last 40 years, Weiwuying Arts Center hasofficially opened to public in October 2018. The single sweeping buildingcovers a surface area of 35 acres (141,000 sqm) and is set in the spectacular116-acre (470,000 sqm) subtropical park in the heart of Kaohsiung, making itthe world’s largest performing arts centre under one roof as well as Taiwan’smost significant cultural investment in a generation. It incorporates fivestate of the art performance spaces: a 2,236-seat Opera House, a 1,981-seatConcert Hall, a 1,210-seat Playhouse, a 434-seat Recital Hall and an OutdoorTheater linking the building to the park.
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Kaohsiung is an informal, lively city of almost three millioninhabitants. Not only is it the second largest city in Taiwan and one of theworld’s largest sea ports, but also host to a dramatic sub-tropical climate oftyphoons, high temperatures, heavy rainfall and regular earthquakes. The new140,000 square-metre performance complex must cope with all of theseextremes.
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The location for this building is a former sixty-five hectaremilitary compound in the centre of the metropolitan area of Kaohsiung – a placewhich is intended to become a sort of ‘Central Park’ for the city. When wefirst visit the site in 2006 it is still a fenced-off zone of military barracksoccupied by a lot of wild, barking dogs. It’s also dense with banyan trees,their twisting trunks and branches having gradually interlocked over decades.Their aerial shoots grow down into the soil forming additional trunks,spreading over an astonishingly wide area, and the crowns of these trunksbecome one, like a huge umbrella. According to local legend, Alexander theGreat once sheltered his entire army beneath the crown of a single tree.
The form of the banyan reflects the local climate. Its widecrown, providing shelter against the sun and rain, is a perfect expression of Kaohsiung’shumid atmosphere. In the sub-tropics the sun sets at around six or seveno’clock and, just as it disappears beneath the horizon, the city comes to life.During these twilight hours as the temperature cools people stroll the streets,shop for their groceries, and eat outside. Under the canopies, as well as underthe trees, informal performances occur: people dance, play music, performplays, or practice Tai Chi. What we see, hear, feel, taste and smell on thisfirst trip to Taiwan inspires us to somehow harness this unique urbanatmosphere.
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We wonder whether the banyan tree could help us to create acombination of formal and informal performance spaces. In this way the buildingwould be full of life around the clock; a natural continuation of the park. Weknow that good public buildings need good public space, a mantra which iscentral to our approach to civic architecture: think of the Library ofBirmingham’s sunken amphitheatre, or La Llotja de Lleida’s urban stage beneatha cantilever, using the stairs of an adjacent building as audience seating. Theformal qualities of these three buildings are very different but they have onething in common: they are a perfect match with their respective locations,cultures and climates.
The open, protective shape of the banyan tree becomes aspringboard for the design. Its expansive sheltered crown becomes the BanyanPlaza, a partially enclosed public space where the cooling wind can freelyflow. Between the four formal performance halls, which form the ‘trunks’ thatsupport the undulating roof, a topography rising from ground level to plus fivemetres becomes part of the park’s landscape. Where the roof touches the earththe building becomes an amphitheatre, open towards the surrounding parklandwhich, in turn, becomes both its stage and its set.
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Each performance venue and foyer has its own unique atmosphereand together create one fluidly connected space. The walls and continuousceiling surface of the Banyan Plaza is a neutral white, allowing for artificiallight and projections to alter the mood. With twelve chandeliers suspendedagainst the billowing form of the plaza, the building can really dress up forthe night!
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An open-air theatre nestles on the roof where the structure curves to the ground, with the surrounding park forming the stage. Designed with the subtropical climate in mind, the open structure allows the wind to blow freely through Banyan Plaza. The seamless flow between interior and exterior creates opportunities for crossovers between formal and informal performances.
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Each of the four performance halls has its own acousticchallenge, and so we collaborate with acoustician Albert Xu. He constructs a1:10 scale model to test the performance of the most complicated venue: the1,981-seat Concert Hall. Despite its size we want the theatre to have anintimate feel. Wouldn’t it be great if every member of the audience could seethe hands of the pianist? We choose the shape of a stepped vineyard with astage at its centre, so that terraces at different floor heights encircle thepodium. With seating on all sides of the stage, the audience is in closeproximity to the performance itself. The public enters the oak-lined from theground floor and spiraling ramps lead them to their golden seats.
The 2,236-seat Opera House is arranged in the form of ahorseshoe with three circled balconies. The seating is upholstered in a mixtureof red and purple fabrics with a pattern of Taiwanese flowers, contrasting withthe darker walls. This theatre is not only suitable for Western opera, with anorchestra of over seventy musicians, but can also be acoustically adapted toaccommodate Chinese opera by manoeuvring a suspended acoustic canopy.
The Playhouse, with its 1,210 seats in Mecanoo Blue, isdesigned to host a variety of drama and dance performances. Flexibility is thecore element in the design of this multifunctional space. The layout isadaptable and can be changed from a typical proscenium stage with the audiencein front, to a thrust stage with the audience on three sides.
The 434-seat Recital Hall has the most intimate atmosphere ofthe four. With its asymmetrical composition and seating across two levels, itis designed for chamber music and recital performances. The seats have the samegolden fabric as the Concert Hall and oak lines the walls. The upper part ofthis hall is enclosed by a circle of sound absorbing curtains, allowing for thereverberation time within the space to be tuned to specific types ofperformance.
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