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.”
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.
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.