2018 / 12月
Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Geof Aberhart
In 2014, when planning for the Taichung World Flora Exposition was still in its embryonic stage, the intention was to host the event at Houli Park. However, surveys of the area revealed the presence of the protected leopard cat, and so the Taichung City Government abandoned their original plans as they would have encroached on the animal’s habitat. Instead, they chose a three-pronged approach, reducing the space they would use at Houli and adding venues at Waipu and at Fengyuan’s Huludun Park. It was through these actions that the organizers established that environmental sustainability and conservation would be at the core of the 2018 event.
As the autumn night settles in over Houli, the lights of an “Eco-Friendly Home for Four” flicker on. Nestled among the trees, this one-story wooden home, complete with front yard, appears so much in keeping with its surroundings it can be easy to forget you’re actually looking at part of the Houli Forest Park expo site.
Seeking a path for survival
The ineffable charm of the tranquil dwelling can stop guests in their tracks. But two years ago, when curator Liu Te-fu chose the site, it was a nondescript wasteland, surrounded by trenches and embankments, with massive trees jutting out from the earth. Such a rough, broken-up space is hardly what most architects or landscapers would be looking for.
Liu Te-fu, though, is neither. In his old life, Liu was a big name in fashion photography, but over time, the pro-consumption attitude of his work began to clash with his longtime concern for the environment and his vegetarianism. 2009 was a major turning point for Liu. Hearing news about the hole in the ozone layer, he decided it was time to pack up his tripod and move away from the bright lights of Taipei to the East Coast, the last “pure land” in Taiwan, to seek out a way to live sustainably with nature.
Over time, he brought together a group of people who led by example, actively advocating for the protection of the environment. He and two friends put together a proposal for a sustainable home exhibit for the Taichung Flora Expo, but since they had no background as architects, they came across more as a civic group, which led people to wonder how these “amateurs” could possibly actually build a house.
While Liu is adamant that “sustainable homes are entirely rational,” their plans included innovations well beyond the average person’s understanding of public works, like trading out traditional brick and tile for wood, straw, and clay. As a result, their “Eco-Friendly Home for Four” plan was struck down twice before finally securing the support of several designers and being accepted.
“Honestly, without that group of people, the Flora Expo would barely have a soul,” says the expo’s chief design officer, Wu Han-chung. “What’s really valuable about the expo isn’t the flowers and other plants, but all the people who are working for the good of the land.”
At Liu Te-fu’s call, some 70 people from eight civic groups and two cooperatives came together to work on the Eco-Friendly Home. The only part that used the usual reinforced concrete was the foundation, while the main structure was made with Japanese red cedar and the walls with rice straw left over from farms. It incorporates energy and water recycling systems, along with green roofing. Overall, 95% of the home comes from natural, recyclable resources, and the absence of the usual energy-intensive calcination of cement has reduced the home’s carbon footprint by 38%.
“It feels like I’ve been waiting to get this done for a decade,” says Liu as he sits on the front porch, sighing with satisfaction.
One great leap in aesthetic governance
When public projects are undertaken, quite often the final product is not as good as the original plan. Or so goes the common and longstanding stereotype in the design community. This time, though, the Taichung City Government showed a sincerity and respect for the profession that shattered that stereotype for a number of designers.
Unlike large-scale public works of the past, this time the city government began with public meetings, holding open briefings ahead of invitations to tender. This attracted some 80 teams to come listen, and the bids were judged by highly respected architect Chang Chi-yi, which further spoke to the credibility of the project.
In past exhibition projects, while the exhibition itself has been placed in the hands of curators, the exterior landscaping has often been entrusted to a landscaping contractor, frequently resulting in an inconsistent overall aesthetic. The introduction of a comprehensive curatorial system is a pioneering move by the Taichung Flora Expo, with every exhibition area, hall, landscape design, and art installation handled by a unified team of designers, curators, and artists. In other words, everything from the guard booths and first aid stations to the most expensive structures has had professional supervision.
The crew was finally fully in place in May 2017, with the design team led by chief design officer Wu Han-chung and design director Lo Wen-cheng. The two set to work as mediators and catalyzers, facilitating dialogue between the government and the executive team and making sure things went smoothly.
With sufficient power delegated to them, the designers and artists were able to start putting their vision into practice. Building on their original aims of environmental protection and ecological sustainability, and on the sound foundation that had been laid down by the actions to ensure the preservation of the leopard cat’s habitat, those intentions and that foundation began to be more fully reflected in their design ideas.
The curator of the Houli Forest Park expo site, Wu Shu-yuan, worked with two researchers from the National Museum of Natural Science, heading out into the wilderness to select some native Taiwanese plants to domesticate and cultivate in the expo park, where they are grouped according to their original altitude.
Discovery Pavilion architect Monda Pan opted for materials that could be reused after the expo is finished, choosing recycled wood‡plastic composite bricks rather than traditional reinforced concrete, which tends to generate a substantial amount of waste.
Chen Yu-lin, architect of the Blossom Pavilion, made use of the curved lines commonly seen in nature to create a flowing, approachable space that hugs the ground, seeming to have gently landed on broad, rolling grassland.
Overall, the Taichung Flora Expo has learned from the experiences of the 2010 Taipei Flora Expo and the 2017 Taipei Universiade, and taken them to another level.
Flora ex machina
Walking through the Forest Park, you may be struck by how everything from transformer boxes to show cases to even the anti-slip strips on the steps have been designed to meld into and imitate the natural environment. The only exception is the mechanical installation piece The Sound of Blooming, an eye-catching giant red ball of flowers that seems to float above the sea of trees.
Designed by LuxuryLogico, who also designed the much-talked-about Universiade flame, The Sound of Blooming is another attempt at pushing the envelope of size and complexity. A huge ball 15 meters across, it incorporates machinery, optoelectronics, music, and video, and is composed of 75 segments and 697 “flower buds,” making it the world’s largest mechanical flower bed.
LuxuryLogico agreed to take on the challenge after seeing the support the government was giving to professionals on the project. But even so, turning out a massive art project like that in just eight months was going to be a monumental task.
During the concept development stage, LuxuryLogico thought beyond just budgetary limits, taking a higher perspective on the entire expo. However, even with a budget of NT$10 million, which would be more than generous for most public art projects, they were still a fair way off their initial rough estimate, and so the team turned to private-sector fundraising.
“We put our proposal and cost estimate to [Taichung Construction Bureau] Director-General Huang [Yu-lin],” recalls LuxuryLogico’s Chang Geng-hua. “He responded that raising that amount from private-sector donors would not be too difficult, but rather than sourcing components from mainland Chinese companies in order to try to keep costs down, why not get local Taichung firms to sponsor us with products instead?” It was this suggestion and Huang’s attention to “togetherness” that helped make the final piece a real “co-creation.”
With the support of several companies, they were able to hit a higher level of quality on the project, which also led to a higher cost—at NT$70 million, The Sound of Blooming is the most extravagant project in LuxuryLogico’s history.
Thanks to the use of computer code and artificial intelligence, the huge mechanical flower seems almost alive. Making use of many points of control, the individual buds are sometimes blooming, sometimes closed, interacting harmoniously with their environment as they respond to light, wind, and even people’s voices.
“When plants grow, the opening of flowers is like the most complex version of cell division,” the team say. “It is a complex coordination, like the relationship between ourselves, the government, and the private sector.”
And through such complex coordinations, Taichung is coming into full bloom.