Francine Houben designs world’s largest performing arts centre in Taiwan

There were a lot of happy faces at the official opening of the Weiwuying National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts. Local Taiwanese officials as well representatives of the music scene gathered for the long-awaited opening ceremony in Taiwan’s southern city of Kaohsiung. One of the happy faces belonged to Dutch architect Francine Houben, founding partner of Delft-based firm Mecanoo, who designed the art palace. 

The centre is the largest performing arts center under one roof in the world. The spectacular venue has a design and building history of eleven years. After Houben’s team had won the competition that was launched by the Kaohsiung City Government, the builders faced several setbacks over the years, with one very convenient effect: the delays gave the city time to expand its Mass Rapid Transit system out to the Weiwuying area and beyond, with exits right outside the center. 

Performance areas 

The design by the Mecanoo team encompasses 3.3 hectares. The art palace has four performance areas with very different atmospheres. The 1981-seat Concert Hall is shaped like a stepped vineyard with a stage at its centre, with terraces at different floor heights encircle the podium. With seating on all sides of the stage, the audience is in close proximity to the performance itself. The 434-seat Recital Hall has the most intimate atmosphere of the four. With its asymmetrical composition and seating across two levels, it is designed for chamber music and recital performances.  

The Playhouse, with its 1210-seat, is designed to host a variety of drama and dance performances. Flexibility is the core element in the design of this multifunctional space. The seats in the Recital Hall have the same golden fabric as the Concert Hall and oak lines the walls. The 2236-seat Opera House is arranged in the form of a horseshoe with three circled balconies. This theatre is suitable for Western opera, with an orchestra of over seventy musicians. 

Touch all five senses 

When asked to comment her own design, Francine Houben said that her philosophy is that architecture should touch all five senses. The centre certainly does that, in many ways. Every aspect of this art palace is impressive. From the building’s aluminium skin – locally sourced from Kaohsiung shipbuilders – to the vineyard design of the 2,000 seat Concert Hall, with its massive 9,085 pipe organ, divided like two stands of bamboo.  

The design was inspired by the local Banyan trees with their iconic crowns. These crowns provide shelter against sun and rain. The open, protective shape of the banyan tree becomes a springboard for the design. Under the vast, undulating roof, Houben and her Mecanoo team designed Banyan Plaza, a generous, sheltered public space. Residents can wander through here day and night, practice Tai Chi or stage street performances along walkways and in informal spaces. 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.  

Not finished in Taiwan 

Houben and Mecanoo have not yet finished their work in southern Taiwan, as they have designed another great landmark-to-be: the Kaohsiung Station, scheduled for completion in 2023. Kaohsiung’s new Houben-style station promises to be much more than a station entrance; it will become a public stage for the city. The train station will not be the last project for Mecanoo in the region. When Club China asked about her plans for China, Francine Houben answered: "Although we have just finishing two projects – one in Taiwan and the other in China, Shenzhen – we have the feeling we are just starting. Hopefully, there will be more opportunities in the future.”  

How do you plan to profile your offering in China?  

"With contextualism as one of our strengths, we learn from the cultural context where our projects take place, and we use those lessons to create unique designs – this is embodied in our philosophy. We believe this makes us different from our piers and an added value for future clients."  

Mecanoo is a prominent Dutch architecture practice with architects, interior designers, urban planners, landscape architects and architectural engineers. Projects are in The Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Norway, Poland, and the United States. Mecanoo's latest and ongoing design projects include the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library renovation, Washington D.C., the European Investment Bank, Luxembourg, New York Public Library Midtown renovation, New York and Shenzhen North Station Urban Design, Shenzhen.

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