Alessandro Martinelli, Taipei

Regeneration of Yilan distillery, Taiwan (2006-2009), by Sheng-Yuan Huang, Fieldoffice
Picture by: Maria Lezhnina (IG lezhninamaria)

Walking around archeological sites, I have always wondered what may be their most profound architectural value. They are always attractive for the romantic side of ours, but, what may be the contribution of their unique organization -or 'composition,' someone would say- when it comes to enabling our coexistence with society and nature? Of course, architecture means many things, including the integration of aesthetic experiences into the inhabited space. Anyway, although I cannot deny the fascination of archeological sites is often connected to appreciating architectural aesthetics per-se, independently from functional reasons, I have never had this kind of pleasure.

It may not be my deal. Just like that. Who knows. It can also be that the setup of archeological sites is often that of a park punctuated by incomplete remnants, and this brings a relaxed atmosphere instead of triggering the Stendhal syndrome.

I think there is something different at stake, i.e., that we perceive we are dealing with human culture embedded into material objects. Actually, archeology is the study of human activity through the analysis of material culture. In archeological sites, we encounter artifacts that we recognize as artifacts, although we do not know their meaning. There is a sense of human scale within them and their disposition. By this, we have a hint of human culture, and this makes them intriguing. So, if archeological sites may be messy, they are all but a junkyard, where everything turns into entropic debris.

I know you might say: so what? Well, to understand the architectural value of this, I had to see the work of a not yet well-known architect, i.e., Sheng-Yuan Huang. The architectural media are now communicating his career, but I was lucky enough to visit his place and personally tour his work. Here, yes, I had an enlightenment.

After his studies in the US during the early 90s, this guy moved to the Taiwanese countryside against the tide of the economic boom, which brought most architects to city centers. He also decided to deal with public projects within a 15km radius from his place and draft them even before the public administration could consider this necessary. Thanks to his ties to the community, he often created economic and political conditions to let critical projects be implemented. Today, after 30 years of activity and more than 25 projects brought to a good end, you can walk through a 1.5km-long corridor of public spaces designed by him.

Now, funny enough, this corridor looks like an archeological site. It is all but a unified design. It is made of many different things and built during different times. Nonetheless, you can perceive you are within a continuous space, constantly surrounded by artifacts that ask you to guess their meaning, even if you recognize their peculiar scale.

Actually, Sheng-Yuan Huang's design is against any form of unification. Still, he believes in continuity, against all the odds of societal and political fragmentation. More precisely, he accepts the effects of this fragmentation on design but finds ways to turn them into a continuous spatial experience. So, while his hybris is insatiable, he is paradoxically so humble that his large architectural ambitions break down into a patchwork of independent ideas and interventions, implemented according to the occasions offered by the times and the conditions of society and politics. According to him, he likes to 'make friends with time.'

The thing goes on with construction since the impossibility of flawless execution offers no fewer issues than social and political fragmentation. Any practitioner knows that going to a public works' construction site is like going to a war zone -and archeological findings may be easily unearthed against any expectation. In front of this, Sheng-Yuan Huan does not try to exercise any strict control. He knows this would hinder the completion of the works. Instead, he allocates the possibility of mistakes within the design so that the management of construction becomes a relaxed practice. He would say it is a matter of 'freedom,' which lets stakeholders participate in implementing a project. Funny enough, when we look at his work, all that 'enables mistakes' grows so much that it seems to be the very essence of architectural design. This happens at all scales, from the details to the city. His architectural surfaces are so broken that distortions may appear intentional, construction is turned into such an assemblage of materials that implementation issues disappear, natural elements become so much the connective tissue in-between architectural pieces that a lack of maintenance may even seem a voluntary move.

The overall impression is that of an archeological site, where the different temporalities and materialities coexist under a feeling of the human scale and the loss of an obvious functional meaning of the details. Our perception is forced to wander between the well-known scale and the not-so-known meaning, restlessly. Actually, this is what holds the things together against the agency of time and the diversity of social and natural actors coexisting within human settlements. It is the ultimate chance to produce some civic cohesion and continuity.

In Taiwan, I had this realization and, while I started to reconsider the work of Joze Plecnik, it came to my mind how the unique organization of archeological sites may have a profound architectural value.