A Tale of Two Buildings
Are eyesores in Taiwanese cities just a fact of life, or can something be done about it? Two buildings and a virtual time machine got me thinking.
When I recently wrote a German article titled „Why Germans pay more attention to an orderly cityscape than Taiwanese“, and the Goethe Institute translated it into Chinese, it got widely shared on social media.
I stated some obvious points:
- Taiwanese cities are largely ugly to the point that many first-time visitors are shocked, or at least confused.
- Aesthetic and well-maintained buildings raise the overall quality of life.
- Maintenance takes effort and someone needs to feel responsible.
My bottom line, though, was: If Taiwanese want to get serious about improving their cities‘ appearance, I hope it will not be because of foreigners‘ impressions (to prevent collective „loss of face“), but simply for their own sake. Or does a society that accomplished so much not deserve to live in more pleasant surroundings?
Every building can make a difference
Of course, it would help if the government subsidized some measures, like a fresh coat of paint. But change has to start from the individual. Every single renovated building can make a difference, because it improves the whole neighborhood.
I realized that again the other day when I was on my way to Taipei’s Dihua Street. Of course, that street itself and the surrounding areas have already been seeing a lot of renovation and sensible renewal activity over those last few years.
What struck me this time were two buildings on Yanping North Road, so not in the immediate vicinity. They are within 50 meters of each other, and they just happened to catch my eye when I was crossing that road.
Here they are:
These are obviously historic (I guess 1920s/1930s) buildings that have recently been restored. They cannot be called outstanding, compared with the elaborate facades and brickwork still found in places like Dihua Street – but still they do stand out.
Looking back at the photos, I tried to think of the reasons that make them look so appealing. These are some that I came up with:
- No window gratings.
- No A/Cs mounted on the outside.
- No jumbled electrical wiring all over the facade.
- A fresh coat of paint.
- Windows and shop signs that match the historic aesthetics.
Just compare those two buildings with their immediate neighbors. Isn’t it a difference like day and night?
Going back in time
I got curious and wanted to find out more. What did these two buildings look like before renovation? Would their their beauty have been obvious even then?
Luckily, there is an amazing time machine available for free. It goes by the name of Google Streetview.
I present to you Yanping N Rd, Sec 2, No 58 – in the years 2012, 2015 and 2017 (click to enlarge):
And here is No 66 as it looked like in 2009, 2012 and 2017:
It is like I expected: These buildings used to look just as ugly and nondescript as their neighbors. Under a thick layer of grime and hideous paint, disfigured by all kinds of additions, pieces of Taipei’s history lay dormant, waiting for someone to come and resurrect them.
Much can be done
Just two random examples, but it shows that it’s not an impossible task to improve the appearance of Taiwan’s cities. Even if it only happens one building at a time, it will have an effect.
It does not take a lot to imagine how beautiful this building in Wanhua could look like:
But I think that even buildings like these, that make up so much of the cities here, could look… well, acceptable, with a cleaned-up facade and fresh paint (it doesn’t even have to be white – what about some strong colours?):
I am aware that Taiwan will not change its look overnight, I don’t want to raise unrealistic expectations. I just think that the excuse „That’s the way it is, and nothing can be done“ is just that… an excuse.
(But, man, what an even greater place Taiwan could be if its cities weren’t so ugly…)
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That’s Taipei, a city that is mixed by different era. I wouldn’t say it looked ugly, but it just doesn’t fit in the definition of western aesthetics. If Taipei is ugly as the article mentioned, Hong Kong might as well be defined as shitty looking too.
Ironically you are making Taipei „not ugly“ in exactly the same ways that the United States has made itself ugly and horrible to live in: by making it all uniform, boring and uninteresting.
All the „ugly signs“ are part of the culture – the Chinese are the STNG Ferengi of Earth. Commerce is what they do with intensity and skill. So with it are all the signs (literally) of commerce.
Yes, Taipei is not gorgeously beautiful but that’s not the primary value proposition for Taipei. Instead it’s everything else.
It’s like the ugly girl with all the talent, skills and personality vs. the pretty vapid, air-head girl. The former is the winner in the long term. The latter is nothing but trouble!
I get that it’s not pretty. But I wouldn’t want it to ever change!
Fair enough, though I didn’t mainly blame shop signs. Like the sentiment, I just think there’s a line between charming chaos and grime.
Great job! I was wondering about the topic and couldn’t find any big Taipei city renovation projects currently going on. It seems that no one is bothered with the look of the buildings and simply ignores this. Really wanted to see some progress or at least government acknowledgment of the problem, cuz it seems like the human potential here, in Taiwan than their city surroundings.
Wow I really enjoyed readin this! You have a superb eye for detail
Thank you very much.
When I was a writer for the China News newspaper, I did a story on local architecture and talked with a bunch of architects and officials. One thing the architects of residential buildings lamented was their drawings and models never looked like the final product … landlords or owners would add extra features – cages, drying racks, signage, etc. It was impossible to avoid, either because there weren’t rules/laws and/or they couldn’t be enforced.
This was in the late 1990s.
Fascinating! Thanks, Ian. Do you still have that story?
While I agree that Taiwan has some of the ugliest cities I’ve ever seen, I’d argue that, with the exception of the signage, no. 66 looked better before its renovation. At least judging by the pictures on this page. The ACs on the outside and the electrical wiring are part of what makes Asia Asia. A good example of a messy but perfectly OK-looking city is Hanoi. Or even Bangkok. ACs and wiring, check, but it looks good. Why? More city green, more coloured facades (even if fading), less uniform signage that looks like it’s all made by the same 招牌 company, and more unique, hand-made designs.
Moving away from the dreadful grey and stained concrete buildings with rusty dragon cages in front of their windows, would help a ton. More green in the cities would also be beneficial.
Many German cities are nice, but some (including Berlin) are also quickly losing their charm to the uniformity of newly-built concrete high-rises. And don’t forget that Taiwan has to deal with devastating typhoons on a regular basis.
Glad to have found this, I totally agree they should take it upon themselves to make it better. But I somehow doubt it’s going to happen. I say this because I visited my grandmother’s apartment after about 35 years not being there, I was shocked not a single thing has been upgraded in her apartment’s entrance foyer. Still the same lift, wires dangling and exposed, crappy mosaic tiles and lift from 35 years ago. It’s as if people in Taiwan have given up? And yet she lives in one of the most afleuent areas in Taipei. and property prices are rediculosly expensive. It’s just rotten to the core. I hope it will change one day as it has so much potential. Thanks for the write up, I enjoyed it.
Just a coat of paint will do wonders.