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TAIPEI OPERATIONS
Sand Helsel
Taipei: Human Environment Group, 2004
In English/Chinese
ISBN: 9577304907




below:
book introduction  +  lecture podcast  +  taiwan mobility studio  +  exhibition  +  urban flashes


The Asian city defies most conventional (western) urban analysis – identifiable structures and street patterns, or an easily traceable historical lineage – which often prompts generalist descriptions such as ‘dense’, ‘rapidly developing’, ‘chaotic’ and ‘ad hoc’. Taipei Operations provides an alternative model for examination, speculation, and projection, which is based upon an intimate connection to the material at hand, the city, as opposed to the imposition of a formalist overlay from above or afar. This is not a language of hyperbolic qualifiers: extra-large or mega-Dutch; it is an opportunity to question our methods of engagement and provide an alternative to the master plan.

This book charts the research of thirty-three architecture students from Tamkang University in Taipei and RMIT University in Melbourne. Observation is the operative process; all responses to the city are considered valid. The mapping of these individual preoccupations is rigorous, often obsessive – a type of forensic study in the search for clues that reveal hidden phenomena. The studies flip between small and large, from a personal reading to a universal understanding. A specificity of time and place is required in order to avoid generalisation and simplification. Issues become identified, and patterns are revealed from within the system.




Book Introduction (excerpt)
Sand Helsel
TAIPEI OPERATIONS
Taipei: Human Environment Group, 2004
pp 4-9

The Asian city defies most conventional (western) urban analysis – identifiable structures and street patterns, or an easily traceable historical lineage – which often prompts generalist descriptions such as ‘dense’, ‘rapidly developing’, ‘chaotic’ and ‘ad hoc’. Taipei Operations provides an alternative model for examination, speculation, and projection, which is based upon an intimate connection to the material at hand, the city, as opposed to the imposition of a formalist overlay from above or afar. This is not a language of hyperbolic qualifiers: extra-large or mega-Dutch; it is an opportunity to question our methods of engagement and provide an alternative to the master plan.

The book charts the research of thirty-three architecture students from Tamkang University in Taipei and RMIT University in Melbourne. Observation is the operative process; all responses to the city are considered valid. The mapping of these individual preoccupations is rigorous, often obsessive – a type of forensic study in the search for clues that reveal hidden phenomena. The studies flip between small and large, from a personal reading to a universal understanding. A specificity of time and place is required in order to avoid generalisation and simplification. Issues become identified, and patterns are revealed from within the system.

Whilst it is often considered a problem to work outside one’s cultural milieu, for fear of a lack of understanding, or misinterpretation, we use this as an opportunity for discourse. The work strives to find common pleasures within the city and to accommodate different readings; what some regard as strengths, others may consider weaknesses. The seemingly banal is reconsidered. This dialogue becomes a paradigm for the city; the issue is that of negotiation, for different voices to be heard and to allow for multiple narratives and complexity. The architect and urban designer can assist in this act of curation.

I fell in love with Taipei on my first visit. It reminded me a little of Paris with its hierarchy of streets: magnificent tree-lined boulevards protecting the smaller grain of the interior of the blocks. The buildings decrease in height as the streets narrow to a network of lanes. What the plan doesn’t tell you is how the city is used – of the quantities of motorbikes loaded with all sorts of goods, or the time when the car got wedged in the lane. 7-11’s are ubiquitous - globalisation at work – but where else would you find fairy lights 24-hours a day? Taipei has adopted the chain as its own (town hall); you can pay your parking tickets and bills there as well as buy snacks. It’s when you get up close that the city is really revealed: the way they stack goods, the smell of the food (delicious). How does one reconcile these two extreme scales? And how does one avoid becoming seduced by the image.

The plan of Taipei produced by the Department of Urban design is an extraordinary document. Building lines and city blocks are delineated; streets and pavements are drawn. However this is where convention stops. Only the hatched buildings exist legally, with approvals from the statutory authorities and in accordance with the master plan. All crossed-hatched structures are illegal in this context, and have been constructed according to the rules of some other system. Laneways are filled in, or become internal courtyards; the footpath disappears completely at times. New typologies are created: arcade kitchens, doughnut buildings, and wrap-around commerce. Any open bit of land is up for grabs. The authority of the map is challenged by the entrepreneurship of the inhabitants. The planners recognise (and draw) this dilemma; they are both rule-makers and citizens who, too, delight in great food available any time and everywhere - the spirit of street-life Taipei.

Urban diary: ‘The World Famous Mango Ice Store’. A 24-hour ‘stake-out’ reveals not only the entrepreneurial spirit in the (illegal) appropriation of the public space of the street, but also a social code in the system of negotiation with adjacent businesses. The structure opens at 11am and begins to gradually unfold onto the adjacent lot and footpaths: tables and chairs, service stations, the overflow from the kitchen. The popularity of this fruit and ice treat grows throughout the day; the crowds build, and illegally parked cars and service vehicles expand deep into the neighbourhood. By 6pm an employee from the ice store arrives to establish an unobstructed frontage to the Japanese restaurant next door when the queues get long. This grass-roots response appears to provide a viable alternative to the systems of legislation and planning.

The diary is a summary of our methods. We start small. An object, event or a district is selected and located specifically in time and place. From there we ‘zoom out’ to locate the investigation within a larger space and longer time frame to determine the site or context of the work, and how ‘big’ the idea is - the issues arising. (My views about the architectural project is that it exists somewhere between the scales of 1:1 and 1:100,000 and should be considered within the time frames of a moment and a minimum of 100 years.) All observations start from the personal reading, and rely upon our ‘being there’. We make catalogues, stay in one spot (over time), trace routes, see things in motion, compare them to where we have come from, and position them within the map of the world. The data is broken down, edited, analysed, - compiled as a list, arranged by colour, categorised, and seen over time in order to reveal the particularities of Taipei.

The process of depiction or making the map is undertaken consciously; it is not a neutral activity. All maps lie, to paraphrase Robert Smithson, and reflect the bias of the mapmaker: one set of data is privileged over another; the means of representation selected offer some possibilities for interpretation and exclude others. The construction of the map is the construction of the city - the design of the site of speculation – and the initial intervention. Propositions thus flow seamlessly from the analysis of what is already there.

The position of the author is reflected in the bias of the map, and it is only through a considered social and political agenda that meaningful contributions can be made within the built environment. This is demonstrated in the work of an Australian woman who was uncomfortable with the lack of clear distinctions between the public and private realms. What could she photograph? How does one determine the (public) space of the street where on one hand a shop’s merchandise blocks the footpath while next door domestic rituals take place (in full view)? How could she reasonably operate in an environment without a full understanding of the culture? A series of drawn delineations of her perceptions reveal the nuances of occupation she discovers - alternative plans and sections to those indifferent documents issued by the city, which register property ownership and buildings.

Through representation and critique, the observations of the existing conditions are evaluated; the particular becomes general as the (larger) issues are raised, allowing others to engage in dialogue. All opinions are acknowledged and respected. In some instances phenomena can be considered both positively and negatively. I, personally, remain charmed by the garbage truck that heralds its arrival in my neighbourhood on Monday evenings with a digitised version of Mozart’s A Little Night Music. The neighbourhood congregates to load their rubbish in the ‘village’ square.

The authors of an alternative proposal to rubbish collection in the Yong Kong District are less romantic than me, realising that this ‘ritual’ poses a nuisance to those with large families, during a monsoon, and for the elderly or handicapped. They pose questions that avoid an over-simplification of the problem(s) and thus an expedient response. (They are not seduced by the image.) Their strategy to create neighbourhood recycling centres instead of dumping waste on the city’s periphery not only maintains the community spirit, but also ensures a continuing economic mix with the introduction of additional local employment. Abandoned historic Japanese houses are co-opted and recycled in the process; urban typologies such as the shop house and the light-industrial unit maintain their relevance in the face of impending high-rise development. This is far from preservationist position, yet it enables the urban fabric to remain intact. By dealing with the complexity of the site phenomena at both the local and city scales, and over a period of time, they create a truly sustainable project with its requisite breadth of concerns.

It becomes apparent that starting with the particular does not preclude the scale of the proposal. A fascination with traffic flows and motorcycle culture (the scale of a pedestrian with the speed of a car) starts with time-lapse photography from a bedroom window and concludes with the redevelopment of the movement systems within an entire district. The coexistence between these scales – ‘being there’ and the master plan - becomes the issue as does the varying and often contradictory needs of the population. Zoning and pedestrianisation are deemed to be oversimplified solutions in this context. By using the language of the ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ appropriation of public space a physical system of negotiation is established by reordering the existing; nothing is qualified or removed – only rearranged. Surgical incisions and the subtle addition and subtraction of hawker stalls, kiosks, small structures, stairways, balconies, and roofscapes provide an alternative to the heavy demolition and construction of most infrastructure projects. An evolutionary process is set in place, over a much larger time frame, much like the way one might design a landscape.

The explorations by the individual authors (as outlined above and graphically throughout the book) become part of a larger body of work on the city – and a composite map of Taipei. The specificity of these fragments becomes abstracted into patterns when the work is seen as a whole. The 1:1 scale is read simultaneously with the map at 1:10,000; the phenomenological coexists with the physical. Taipei is perceived as a series of specifically located moments with strong identities and character. These observations build up, as does the work, to reveal a complexity of issues, attitudes and responses that range in scale and types of strategic intervention.

An installation of the work in Taipei and Melbourne disseminates the outcomes of the workshop, and summarises its spirit. A series of identically-sized folio plates are placed on an ‘examination table’ in the centre of the gallery. They can be read as a series of individual projects, by negotiating the piles. The loose plates by their nature have no hierarchy; they become rearranged, reconfigured, added to, or deleted. Velcro installations on the gallery wall invite the visitors, as well as the authors, to ‘curate’ the city by affixing the plates by issue, by location, by program, by project, by media, by accident, and by desire. Overlaps, adjacencies, comparisons, contradictions and tensions amongst the plates underscore the fact that there are many readings of a good city and that anyone can and should be encouraged to contribute.

Curation best describes our activities in Taipei. Who needs a designer in the face of such inventive entrepreneurs? And what is the role of the planner when neighbours can negotiate? And who are we (whether foreign or local) to swan in from high with our bird’s-eye views? Our traditional spheres of operation as architects, at 1:200 scale in plan and section, for instance, are of little use to the growing complexity that practitioners in the built environment are faced with today, such as the scale of a highway or the time frame of a sustainable agenda. When working at a larger scale we are often distanced from our subject matter and create the sorts of disenfranchisement that are addressed by ‘urban agitators’ such as the Situationists in Paris and the Stalker group in Italy. Questions of authorship, and the responsibility that this entails, remains clear in our practice, but we need to remember the common pleasures we share as citizens. It is our responsibility to enable and empower our constituents in the curation of their cities.




Public Lecture

Sand Helsel
Taipei Operations
May 09, 2006
RAIA NSW Chapter
Tusculum, 3 Manning Street Potts Point, Sydney

Lecture Podcast mp3
To stream this podcast, click on the link above or to save the MP3 to your computer right click on this link and "save target as "Taipei".

Sand Helsel, Associate Professor of Architecture at RMIT, special Guest Judge of the 2006 NSW RAIA Student Awards, presents a talk on a recent joint RMIT & Tamkang University workshop in Taipei. The talk takes a look at architectural education through the results of the workshop, which looked at the nature and future developments of cities through an examination the unique evolution of the city of Taipei. The results suggest alternatives for urban planning and design as well as insights into architectual education. This work is documented in the recently published book Taipei Operations.




Taiwan Mobility Studio
UMAP grant funded travelling upperpool studio, 2001

Studio Leader:
Sand Helsel - RMIT Architecture, Expanded Feild

Partners:
Tamkang University, Taipei






Taiwan Mobility Studio
Article by Stephen Crafti
RMIT School of Architecture & Design

The city of Taipei could not be further from Melbourne. Chaotic, frantic and sporadic, Taipei is confronting compared to Melbourne’s sense of order. Fourteen architecture students from RMIT University witnessed the sharp contrast first hand, after completing the Taiwanese Studio from June to September, 2001.

The joint project, held by RMIT in conjunction with Taiwan’s Tamkang University over a twelve-week period, generated a number of important issues and strategies on the subject of mobility. “One student for example looked at the effect of sales of mango ice. At certain times of the day, you couldn’t move because of the queues,” says Sand Helsel, Associate Professor of Architecture at RMIT University, who led the Australian contingent. The small refreshment not only had its peaks and troughs during the day, but also led the student to an important analysis phase, prior to strategies being formed. “Other students looked at things such as a certain brand of mobile phone used. Tracking down the phone’s components led to a global network."

For Peter Ryan, a fourth year architecture student at RMIT, the experience of working in Taipei was a valuable one. Teaming up with fellow student Alastair Flynn, a set of native urban survival behaviours were identified and studied. “There was a certain complexity in Taipei. It was a kind of lawlessness. Development just happened,” says Ryan. Examining the systems, however chaotic, illustrated the need for flexibility and adaptability in any city. “There were points of similarity and difference. However, it’s crucial for an architect to have a number of experiences and other reference points."

Student Michael King also valued his time in Taipei. “You quickly realise that your ideas don’t necessarily apply in a different place. Even the simple act of buying bread isn’t just a matter of putting your money on the counter. In Taipei they have their own queuing system,” says King. After being hit by three scooters in the first week, King quickly learnt another set of rules that helped to shape his own project, titled ‘Variable Hierarchy’. “It examined the commodity of space in a densely populated urban environment. My project dealt with how you could assimilate other systems to facilitate greater access”. Bringing students together also gave them a new appreciation of their own culture. “Many of the Taiwanese students were surprised with our fascination for what they considered the banal,” says King. For some of RMIT’s Asian students, who also participated in the upper pool studio, even their short stay in Melbourne made them see Taipei in a completely different light. “They were more aware of the chaos,” says King.

The collective reading of the group of twenty-three students then became the subject of an exhibition at Taipei’s most established gallery IT Park. The curators for the exhibition were the students themselves. Piled up on a trestle table, the student work resembled a stack of plates. The work lined the walls of the exhibition, which was simply attached by Velcro. “The work was continually rearranged by students and by those visiting. The evolution of the exhibition was documented on video,” says Helsel. A similar format of the exhibition is scheduled for Melbourne at RMIT’s First Site Gallery in Swanston Street in February 2002.  As Helsel says, “it gave students an appreciation of a unique system. It was also about looking at a place collectively and devising strategies from the inside”.
Also on the agenda is a book "Taipei Operations" to be published by one of Taiwan’s leading publishing houses.

The Taiwan Mobility Studio (the theme for the first Dutch Architecture Biennale) was possible through the Study Abroad Scheme. A grant from UMAP (University Mobility in the Asia-Pacific) generously provided airfares and accommodation.

Article text by Stephen Crafti



EXHIBITION

Mobility: Taipei Operations Exhibition
 
Exhibitors:
RMIT Architecture and Tamkang University

Curator:
RMIT Architecture Assoc Prof Sand Helsel

Venue:
IT Park, 2F, 41 Yitung St., Taipei, Hsimen MRT Station
Times:
Sept. 15 - Sept. 21, 2001


Review Article


Students trade views on the city we live in: Local and foreign architecture students' perspectives on Taipei provide new ways of looking at the city
By Ian Bartholomew
Taipei Times
Sunday, Sep 16, 2001, Page 24


Shown above is a display of Deniz Sun's project titled Ambiguous Thresholds on view at IT Park. GRAPHIC COURTESY OF IT PARK


Taipei residents are famous for their complaints about the city's traffic, its ugly buildings and its general chaos. Fresh eyes provide a fresh perspective, and in the case of the group of Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) architecture students, this perspective is being put on show at an exhibition at IT park this week.

"The thing about architecture students is that they are almost obsessive observers of their environment," said Sand Helsel, an associate lecturer at the RMIT School of Architecture and Design. These observations have been put down on paper in many forms: photographs, renderings, architectural drawings, sketches, maps and blueprints.

The RMIT students are working together with students from Taiwan's Tamkang University in a studio environment designed to promote the exchange of ideas and expand each other's perceptions of the urban environment.

Huang Chiao-ying, one of the local students taking part in the project, said that at first she had been skeptical as to what the visiting students from abroad could offer, but said that later she began to see familiar things in different terms.




Visitors to IT Park are invited to look through the projects that offer differing views of Taipei. PHOTO COURTESY OF IT PARK

Huang said that the interaction had opened her eyes to the potential of things she had taken for granted.

One of the RMIT students, Suzannah Waldron, said: "I would be fascinated by a stall or something, and [the local student] would be thinking, `This is just the place I buy noodles.'" Waldren looked at the fringe world that exists under Taipei's many bridges, seeing how these marginal spaces have mutated into accommodation for the city's homeless.

From here, by looking at how these spaces in bridge support systems and against dikes have mutated to form systems of storage and support, she suggests a "generic way of speculative programming of the margin" -- in other words, how the peripheral is put to practical use.


Waldron's is only one of 23 projects presented by the 33 students involved in the program which looks at virtually every aspect of life in this frenzied metropolis: divisions between public and private space, garbage and recycling, the reuse of space at night and during the day.

There is food for thought for almost anyone who thinks about the city as a living entity. Coming to terms with the rapidly shifting urban landscape was a new experience for the Australian students, but also provided valuable insight. Peter Ryan, whose project sees Taipei as "a flexible system capable of ... actively organizing itself into new structures and forms," said that he likes the way people in Taiwan built around available space rather than imposing a design from above.

The desire not to impose a fixed form extends to the exhibition itself. Each project is presented through a number of picture plates that are stacked on a central table on the third floor of the IT Park exhibition space. The walls have grids of velcro to which the plates can be attached. Every day, a single project will be displayed in its entirety, but the other projects will be available for display under a number of different themes. Visitors to the exhibition are free to rearrange, add or remove plates from the walls, so they can find new juxtapositions of images and ideas. Video footage about how the exhibition changes from day to day will be taken, giving a further level to the work the students have created.




Related Publications and Websites:




Sand Helsel,
"Action (Verb) Taipei"
in AD: Urban Flashes Asia,
ed Nicholas Boyarsky and Peter Lang,
London: John Wiley and Sons, 2003.



Sand
Helsel,
“2001” and other joint contributions
in
Urban Flashes,
ed Ti-Nan Chi,
Human Environment Group,
Taipei, Taiwan, 2003.



Urban Flash Website

Human Environment Group

Micro-Urbanism Website
Micro-Urbanism Blog
Ti-Nan Chi, Urban Flash convenor
































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