How Taiwan’s Taipei Performing Arts Center is radically redesigning theater

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

More than a decade after its launch, the highly anticipated Taipei Performing Arts Center opened its doors to the public in the Taiwanese capital last week. After years of construction delays and debates over a budget that has ballooned to 6.7 billion New Taiwan Dollars ($223 million), attention can finally turn to the dozens of productions staged this fall – and to a place that radically rethinks the way theaters operate.

The building’s striking design features three performance spaces that dramatically protrude from its cubic center. With 1,500 seats, the asymmetrical Grand Théâtre is by far the largest. Yet it’s the relatively small, 800-seat Globe Playhouse – a silver spherical auditorium covered in corrugated glass – that provides the monument’s most distinctive feature. The Dutch firm behind the project, Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), compared it to “a planet moored against the cube”.

But while the shape of the place is both mysterious and iconic, its design centers on remarkably simple geometry, according to OMA founder and architect Rem Koolhaas.

“At the start of the 21st century, there was…a seeming compulsion to make buildings weirder and weirder,” he told CNN in a video interview. “In this case, we simply – almost mathematically – took the absolute outer shapes of each of the components that we were forced to combine…it’s the only show.”

“These are two very well-known shapes: a cube and a ball,” added architect David Gianotten, OMA’s managing partner, who started sketching the design with Koolhaas in 2008. “But when you combine them, they create something that wasn’t there before.”

What makes the Taipei Performing Arts Center truly experimental, however, is inside.

An interior view of the Spherical Globe Playhouse. Credit: Boo-Him Lo/Shephotoerd Co. Photography

Hoping to overturn the “conservative” orthodoxy of performance venues (each auditorium has its own stage, facade and supporting functions), the architects envisioned three separate theaters that “plug” into a central hub. Here, a shared backstage space has been set up to serve them all. The Grand Théâtre and a second 800-seat venue, the Blue Box, can also be combined into a single performance space called “Super Théâtre”.

These decisions were, in part, a matter of efficiency – by consolidating the inner workings of the place, the architects saved space in a northern Taipei neighborhood known for its bustling night market. For Gianotten, there was also another benefit: encouraging interactions between producers, actors, staff, and audience members who might not otherwise cross paths.

In conventional venues “there is no connection” between the different performance spaces, he said, adding: “For us, what was really interesting was having all these types of energies — visitors coming in anticipation, people creating, people playing — all together.

“Opportunities are starting to exist that aren’t normally there.”

The center’s CEO, Austin Wang, also believes that the auditoriums’ flexibility opens up new creative possibilities for directors and performers. “These are the kinds of spaces that haven’t been seen anywhere in Taiwan, or overseas,” he said in a phone interview. “So it all depends on the imagination of future artists (performing here).”

Theater spaces protrude from the center or building, which has an indiscernible front or back.

Theater spaces protrude from the center or building, which has an indiscernible front or back. Credit: Boo-Him Lo/Shephotoerd Co. Photography

A public gesture

Since co-founding OMA in 1975, Koolhaas has overseen the design of dozens of cultural buildings around the world, from the National Library of Qatar to the Dee and Charles Wyly Theater in Dallas, Texas.

His Taiwan debut may be among his most eye-catching yet, but the 77-year-old insists the project’s ‘distinguishing feature’ is neither the unconventional layout nor the giant colliding sphere with its facade – these are the public spaces created around the place.

By raising the arts center’s auditoriums above ground on stilts, the architects freed up space below, inviting pedestrians onto the site. From there, a walkway dubbed the “public loop” takes visitors — not just those with show tickets — on a tour of the building, offering a peek into the performances and behind the scenes through the windows of the portal.

“This (building is) not only considered for an elite, but it is accessible to everyone,” Koolhaas said, adding that he was encouraged by the way visitors were using the site during his recent visit to Taiwan for the opening of the theatre.

The theatre, seen from the busy streets of the Shilin district, before its completion.

The theatre, seen from the busy streets of the Shilin district, before its completion. Credit: Christ Stowers Photography

He also expressed his “incredible relief and happiness” to see the building completed, some 14 years after his company began designing it.

Originally slated to open seven years ago, the project faced a series of delays before coming to a complete halt in 2016, when the former construction contractor filed for bankruptcy. It took more than 18 months to resolve all the resulting “political issues”, said Wang, who estimates that the bankruptcy alone pushed the project’s schedule back by about three years. And while setbacks long preceded Covid-19, the pandemic has further heightened the expectation.

Despite their frustrations, the architects said the heists offered a chance to make further adjustments. Improving access to the roof and finishing the facade of the building were some of the ways OMA could “add to the idea rather than – through unfortunate events over which we had no influence – leaving the project become a burden,” Gianotten explained.

Emerging cultural center

Commissioned by the Taipei City Government, the arts center will operate primarily with public funds. In its first year, the institution is only required to generate about 8% of its annual budget from ticket sales, donations and other revenue, Wang said. Over the next two decades, this contribution is expected to reach about half.

The highly anticipated Taipei Performing Arts Center opened its doors to the public last week.

The highly anticipated Taipei Performing Arts Center opened its doors to the public last week. Credit: Photography Shephotoerd Co.

It is one of many major cultural venues to have opened in Taiwan in recent years. About eight kilometers southeast of the theater, the newly built Taipei Music Center offers a 5,000-seat concert hall. The city of Kaohsiung, about 300 km south of Taipei, has hosted one of the largest performing arts centers in the world: the Kaohsiung National Center for the Arts, a 1.5 million square foot complex with five large performance halls, including an opera house. — in 2018.

These developments are partly due to generous government funding. The budget of the Ministry of Culture increased by more than 50% between 2016 and 2019.
The island’s reputation for freedom of artistic expression, coupled with the success of international events such as the Taipei Dangdai Contemporary Art Fair, have further cemented Taiwan’s status as an emerging cultural hub.

Wang said public investment in the arts is a direct result of longstanding geopolitical tensions with China, which considers Taiwan part of its sovereign territory.

“We always compare ourselves to the continent, which is getting bigger and stronger,” he said. “So in that sense, we like to invest more culturally because that’s our strongest point of competitiveness.”