Taipei’s new performing arts center aims to connect high culture and local communities

The Taipei Performing Arts Center was designed by OMA’s Rem Koolhaas and David Gianotten © Chris Stowers

Over the past decade, a futuristic edifice has slowly taken shape above the sprawling narrow lanes of the Shilin Night Market, just north of central Taipei. The Taipei Performing Arts Center (TPAC), co-designed by Dutch duo Rem Koolhaas and OMA’s David Gianotten, is a towering 13-story aluminum and glass cube that, caught in the right light, exposes the black industrial skeleton and gray of the building.

The genesis of the Taipei City Government’s project, which cost 6.7 billion New Taiwan dollars ($220 million), approaching double its original budget, is a succession of crises and start-ups, filled with bankruptcies. of contractors, interrupted constructions and Covid cluster infection among engineers. But on Sunday August 7, even as tension with China (which claims ownership of the island) swirled around the visit of US politician Nancy Pelosi, the building, with three theaters, finally opened its doors. “It’s been 10 long, long years,” said Austin Wang, the center’s general manager, on Zoom a week before the official opening.

The three auditoriums that protrude from the sides of the TPAC are the 1,500-seat Grand Théâtre; the reconfigurable 800-seat Blue Box Theater, with a warehouse vibe; and the 800-seat Globe Playhouse, which exudes a surprisingly intimate atmosphere despite its position inside a vast metallic sphere that towers above the nearby underground subway tracks.

A spherical auditorium with rows of blue seats and boxes carved into the curved concrete wall
TPAC Globe Playhouse © Chris Stowers

The 59,000 square meter complex has been designed to blend in with the local life that surrounds it. A night market tunnel – one of the largest in Taipei – feeds directly into the center’s ground floor; a spacious square on the first floor looks like a public square. Net result: the boundary between public space and cultural institution is blurred. “The building itself is so open. . . so we expect to attract all kinds of people,” says Wang. “We want to treat it as a theater for citizens. This is our main objective. We need to communicate with local communities.

Take the public loop, a long passage through the building with small windows overlooking backstage and technical areas. It’s designed, Gianotten says, to reveal what’s usually hidden in a theater, so any visitor can see the center’s internal machinations. “People can come here even if they don’t have a ticket [and] experience theatrical creation,” says Gianotten as he ascends the dark orange escalator that begins the route. “Very often, [in] theaters, when there’s no performance, the doors just close and it’s no longer public. It’s another way. . . to still let people taste the space.

“Theatrical creation in Taiwan is something for people of all ages,” he continues. “But we also noticed that it’s still quite exclusive. Break down those barriers. . . is very important to encourage people to settle in a more “formal” space.

A man in a suit, a man in a beige jacket, a man in a blue sweater
David Gianotten (left) and Rem Koolhaas (right) of OMA, with Austin Wang of TPAC between them © Billy Barraclough

In this regard, the TPAC offers something new to Taipei. Taiwan’s capital has no shortage of great performance spaces, with the Traditional Taiwan Theater Center and the twin buildings of the National Theater and Concert Hall often hosting big international names. But these spaces have a more rarefied feel. The twin theaters are located in Taipei’s Freedom Square, just meters from a memorial dedicated to Chiang Kai-shek, the former president who ruled Taiwan as a dictator until his death in 1975. is this grandiose exaltation of culture that the TPAC building seeks to offset.

The programming is designed to do that too. Thirty-seven productions are planned for the first season of TPAC, with a focus on local Taiwanese artists working in all media: Formosa Circus Art will team up with the Taipei Male Choir; the Bulareyaung Dance Company will present a new work fusing the music and dance of Taiwan’s indigenous Atayal people.

A bald man in a rich red robe stands with his arms outstretched
‘The Monk from Tang Dynasty’ will be played in the opening season of TPAC

One of the building’s highlights is the “Super Theater”, which combines the Grand and Blue Box theaters in a massive 2,550-seat space running the length of the building. For Taiwanese multimedia artist Hsieh Chun-te, the marriage of two theaters is perfect for dramatizing a central theme of his work: parallel universes. “I think the Super Theater was made for me,” he laughs. His work, NEXENwill be one of the first to use the 60-meter-long space, simultaneously telling a single story from alternate realities on both stages.

Gianotten, fresh out of travel quarantine when we met, says he was looking forward to seeing the building for the first time in two and a half years. He was right. In 2016, the centre’s main contractor, International Engineering & Construction, filed for bankruptcy with a debt of NT$2 billion. The construction of the center was interrupted for 21 months. When trial performances began in March this year, audiences complained of damaged seats, poor air conditioning and confusing signage that resulted in queues at the toilets “as long as ‘a dragon’, according to a Taipei city councilor.

Wang and Gianotten are transparent about the center’s start-up issues. They say the scuffed seats of the Grand Theater are the hangover of interrupted construction. The seats, made by Italian firm Poltrona Frau, arrived just before construction halted and were left exposed to the elements of the abandoned yard. The damaged seats are now hastily covered with temporary fabric, Wang said, and should be finished within two months.

Other issues, Gianotten says, just require fine-tuning. “A theater like this needs a lot of training to function. There are always problems at the beginning.

People standing around an interior plaza with a bulbous gray ceiling and gray stairs leading to the right
Public spaces are spatially diverse © Boo-Him Lo/Shephotoerd Co Photography for OMA

The architectural ingenuity of the TPAC gives the impression that it will eventually attract the first opponents. Public spaces are spatially diversified; intimate hallways and low-ceilinged bars give way to vaulted courtyards and spacious balconies, with sweeping views of the mountains that envelop Taipei.

For Chang Tieh-chih, founder of Taiwanese cultural magazine Verse, TPAC’s programming encapsulates a shift that has taken place in Taiwanese culture since the country’s democratization in the mid-1990s: a shift that merges traditional art forms “superior” with elements from Taiwan. He also believes that the TPAC, in its own effort to democratize public cultural space, is a spatial symbol of this artistic trend.

“The TPAC is not isolated from society. It emphasizes openness and grounding,” says Chang. “The design of the building reflects the essence of Taipei culture.