Huang Sheng-Yuan: The down to ‘Earth’ mas­ter ar­chi­tect famed for his unique style

Huang Sheng-Yuan’s many ar­chi­tec­tural land­marks in Yi­lan re­flect a free and re­bel­lious style honed over the past two decades.


Twenty years ago, he was armed with a mas­ter’s de­gree in ar­chi­tec­ture from Yale Uni­ver­sity and seemed headed for the big time. Yet he set­tled in the back­wa­ter of Yi­lan County and im­mersed him­self in the de­sign of com­mu­nity projects. Among them: a neigh­bor­hood bas­ket­ball court, a chicken barn for an Yi­lan County civil ser­vant, and so­cial wel­fare and public health cen­ters.

But firmly planted in the mid­dle of Yi­lan’s “fields” where he con­ceives his ar­chi­tec­tural nar­ra­tives, ar­chi­tect Huang Sheng-Yuan (

) has steadily ex­panded his reach in the county and made a name for him­self there.

In 2008, when Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s stu­dio and stor­age com­plex in Bali Town­ship on Tai­wan’s north­ern coast burned down, the dance troupe’s renowned founder Lin Hwai-min chose Huang to de­sign Cloud Gate’s new home in nearby Tam­sui, the “Tam­sui Cul­ture and Art Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­ter.” That job fur­ther ad­vanced Huang’s bur­geon­ing rep­u­ta­tion.

The new fa­cil­ity, set to for­mally open on April 25, has elicited wide­spread at­ten­tion and dis­cus­sion with a de­sign that clev­erly in­te­grates the sur­round­ing land­scape with nearby his­tor­i­cal land­marks and em­bod­ies “how the wind blows, how wa­ter flows and how peo­ple breathe.”

Go­ing In­ter­na­tional

That was sim­ply a harbinger of things to come. As Huang and his Field­of­fice Ar­chi­tects (

— the firm’s Chi­nese name lit­er­ally means “in the mid­dle of a field”) add the stunning Cloud Gate cen­ter to their list of achieve­ments, an in­trepid jour­ney into the in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tec­tural arena will be just be­gin­ning.

In July, Field­of­fice will ex­hibit its many projects at the Toto Gallery Ma in Tokyo, rec­og­nized by Ja­panese ar­chi­tec­tural cir­cles as their most pres­ti­gious tem­ple. Huang will be the first Tai­wanese ar­chi­tect to ex­hibit there.

“This is a step all ar­chi­tects in Ja­pan must take on their way to fame,” says Wang Chun-hsi­ung, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in Shih Chien Uni­ver­sity’s Ar­chi­tec­ture Depart­ment. Famed Ja­panese ar­chi­tects such as Tadao Ando, Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Se­jima, Kengo Kuma and Sou Fujimoto all ex­hib­ited at the gallery be­fore earn­ing recog­ni­tion as top ar­chi­tects.

This year is also Toto Gallery Ma’s 30th an­niver­sary, and giv­ing a non-Ja­panese ar­chi­tect like Huang the honor of show­ing his work dur­ing the sum­mer ses­sion from July to Septem­ber, the gallery’s most im­por­tant ses­sion of the year, in­di­cates how much the Ja­panese value the Yi­lan-based ar­chi­tect.

Tai­wan, how­ever, has never been as taken with this “mas­ter ar­chi­tect” as peo­ple from the out­side, per­haps be­cause Huang has been living in Yi­lan for too long or be­cause of his typ­i­cal un­fash­ion­able get-up con­sist­ing of an un­der­shirt, shorts and flip-flops.

When Nobuyuki Endo, the gallery’s direc­tor and a key player in de­cid­ing its ex­hibits, was in Tai­wan two years ago to give a lec­ture, he took the op­por­tu­nity to visit some of Huang’s works in Yi­lan and was struck by Fieldof- fice’s fo­cus on the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment in its ar­chi­tec­tural de­signs. Upon his re­turn to Ja­pan, he re­ported his find­ings to the gallery’s plan­ning and man­age­ment com­mit­tee, con­sist­ing of such lu­mi­nar­ies as Ando, Se­jima and Hiroshi Naito, and it de­cided unan­i­mously to in­vite Huang to ex­hibit there.

De­liv­er­ing In­spi­ra­tion

Endo is hop­ing that Huang will in­spire Ja­pan’s ar­chi­tec­tural com­mu­nity and en­cour­age re­flec­tion. Endo told Shih Chien Uni­ver­sity’s Wang: “Ja­panese ar­chi­tects to­day only care about build­ings and lack vi­sion. But Field­of­fice’s con­sid­er­a­tion of the over­all ef­fect is what ar­chi­tec­ture should be all about.”

What, in fact, should ar­chi­tec­ture re­ally be about? Spend any time around Huang and one dis­cov­ers the field’s bound­aries are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly blurred.

One ex­am­ple is the Kamikaze Air­craft Shel­ter Mu­seum in Yuan­shan. Huang was drawn in 2001 to the bunker where Ja­panese kamikaze pi­lots hid their air­craft dur­ing World War II when he saw on the news that it would be torn down to build a se­nior cit­i­zen’s ac­tiv­ity cen­ter. He suc­cess­fully lob­bied the county gov­ern­ment to change its mind af­ter ex­ten­sive me­di­a­tion and dis­cus­sions and not only pre­served the bunker but ren­o­vated and re­designed parts of the site. It is now one of Yi­lan County’s main tourist at­trac­tions.Then there is a moat in a lush green area fronting Yi­lan Guangfu El­e­men­tary School. It is just one com­po­nent of a project called “Vas­cu­lar Bun­dle of the City” be­ing un­der­taken by Field­of­fice ar­chi­tect Bai Tsung-hung.

Bai, who joined the firm af­ter grad­u­at­ing with a mas­ter’s in ar­chi­tec­ture from Tung­hai Uni­ver­sity, jokes that his job is to “hang out” in old Yi­lan and build emo­tional bonds with lo­cal res­i­dents and em­ploy­ees of the old Yi­lan Dis­tillery lo­cated in that part of the city.

Bai’s project en­tails turn­ing a buried un­der­ground wa­ter chan­nel into an open river me­an­der­ing through the city.

“Yi­lan orig­i­nally had more wa­ter and green land­scapes to nour­ish it,” says Bai, who de­cided on his own to ini­ti­ate the project be­cause he felt it would make Yi­lan a bet­ter place.

“It’s been hard but won­der­ful,” he says when asked if it has been dif­fi­cult to get the project go­ing. The op­ti­mistic Bai adds with a laugh: “I’ve had to go around try­ing to sell the project to peo­ple. When I wasn’t able to push it any fur­ther, I had to stop and wait. In any case, I live here and I’m not go­ing any­where so when­ever the per­son hold­ing up the project fig­ures it out, the call will come.”

Field­of­fice as a ‘grad­u­ate


Un­like most ar­chi­tec­tural firms, Field­of­fice re­sem­bles an “ar­chi­tec­tural grad­u­ate school,” largely be­cause of the en­vi­ron­ment cre­ated by the rel­a­tively open-minded Yi­lan County bu­reau­cracy.

Huang ex­plains that peo­ple with ideas on how to make Yi­lan bet­ter, from the county com­mis­sioner to the av­er­age farmer, are fre­quent Field­of­fice vis­i­tors.

“It’s hard to imag­ine. How many of­fi­cials in other coun­ties and cities even dare visit po­ten­tial ven­dors? Just think­ing about (be­ing vul­ner­a­ble to ac­cu­sa­tions of) ‘lining peo­ple’s pock­ets’ leaves them un­will­ing to take ac­tion,” Huang says laugh­ing.

Yi­lan County’s will­ing­ness to en­gage pro­fes­sion­als in dia­logue dates back to when the late Chen Ding-nan led the county from 1981 to 1989. When Chen took of­fice, he launched an Yi­lan ar­chi­tec­tural move­ment that later was at the root of Huang’s de­ci­sion to set­tle there.

Chen Teng-chin, the head of Yi­lan’s En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Bureau, re­calls that when Chen Ding-nan was plan­ning the Dong­shan River Wa­ter Park and the Yi­lan County gov­ern­ment com­plex, he es­tab­lished an in­ter­nal con­struc­tion task force that closely in­ter­acted with the projects’ de­sign­ers Ate­lier Zo and Takano Land­scape Plan­ning Co.

That strat­egy im­bued Yi­lan with a cul­ture in which the gov­ern­ment and the peo­ple joined to­gether to give the county a new ar­chi­tec­tural look.

As an Yi­lan na­tive and grad­u­ate of Tung­hai Uni­ver­sity’s Depart­ment of Ar­chi­tec­ture, Chen Tengchin was in­fected by the vi­brant at­mos­phere and joined the county gov­ern­ment. Start­ing as a lowlevel tech­ni­cian with the county’s eco­nomic af­fairs depart­ment, he per­son­ally took part in this new move­ment and later re­cruited his best friend from col­lege to join him.

That friend was Huang ShengYuan.

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