John Evans heads to East Asia for the opening of the spectacular Weiwuying, the world’s largest performing arts centre under one roof
John Evans heads to Kaohsiung City, Taiwan
As if there weren’t already enough reasons to visit Taiwan – the National Palace Museum in
Taipei, the bustling night markets and nine national parks – along comes another: the National Kaohsiung Centre for the Arts, or Weiwuying as it’s known.
Located on the site of a former military airbase in Kaohsiung City on the southern tip of Taiwan, it is the world’s largest performing arts centre under one roof and the country’s most significant cultural investment in a generation, costing £252m and taking 12 years to build.
We’re used to Taiwan’s appetite for infrastructure. For years, its capital city was home to the world’s tallest building, Taipei 101. Since 2011, itaiwan has been providing free Wi-fi at thousands of hotspots nationwide. And the efficient rail system carries passengers at up to 186mph.
So we shouldn’t be surprised by the sight of Weiwuying, a huge building covering 35 acres and whose design is inspired by the banyan trees in the surrounding 116-acre subtropical park. Under their protective canopies, people meditate, picnic or simply seek respite from the warm, damp air.
Like Symphony Hall is to Birmingham, so Weiwuying is to Kaohsiung City; a symbol of transition – from a grimy, industrial centre to a healthier and more sophisticated metropolis. The connection is closer still, since the Library of Birmingham and Weiwuying were both designed by Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo. For Birmingham, the 2013 library has become a popular cultural destination. It’s hoped Weiwuying will inspire the same reaction in a city best known as the home of the world’s 13th biggest container port.
‘Weiwuying is key to Kaohsiung City’s reinvention,’ Francine Houben, Mecanoo’s founding partner tells me during the centre’s opening weekend in October.
‘It’s the challenge all second cities like Kaohsiung and Birmingham face: having to reinvent themselves and stay relevant. Fortunately, judging by the public reaction, we know Weiwuying makes people proud of their city.’
Nothing new there. Since Roman times, the purpose of great public buildings has been to make citizens’ chests swell with pride, but it would be a disaster if Weiwuying’s five giant performance spaces – a 2,236-seat opera house, 1,981seat concert hall, 1,210-seat theatre, 434seat recital hall and an enormous outdoor theatre – were to echo to the sound of nothing but straining shirt buttons.
Fortunately, Taiwan loves its classical music, an affection whose origins can be traced to the end of the Second World War when US forces occupied Taiwan and the country turned its face westwards, albeit briefly. By side-stepping China’s cultural revolution, an appreciation of music and the arts, both traditional and imported, took root in Taiwan so that, today, music teaching and performance are flourishing.
For proof, I head north to Taichung, Taiwan’s second largest city and home to the National Taichung Theatre, another striking arts centre with a 2,000-seat opera theatre. According to Toyo Ito, its Japanese architect, the building was inspired by the sun, air and water. Whatever; there’s no denying the building’s ingenious design and splendid opera theatre, where I experience a spellbinding performance of Wagner’s Siegfried by the National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan with tenor Vincent Wolfsteiner and soprano Susan Bullock.
Back in Kaohsiung, Weiwuying’s first season is dominated with concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic under
Gustavo Dudamel, and the Bavarian
Radio Symphony Orchestra with Mariss Jansons. Setting the bar this high may pose future challenges for this relatively out-ofthe-way arts centre, but in its favour, it’s just one hour by plane from Hong Kong and 1.5 hours from Taipei by train.
In any case, the new centre is impressive and sure to attract major artists keen to perform with Taiwan’s national orchestras and choirs, chief among them the Taiwan Symphony and Kaohsiung Symphony, and Kaohsiung Chamber Choir. At the launch they prove their worth with a superb Liszt Concerto No. 1 with pianist Meng-chieh Liu and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
Both are performed in the concert hall, a sumptuous place crowned by a magnificent Klais organ that cost £2.7 million. The smaller recital hall is as notable with an asymmetric seating layout designed to allow more of the audience to see a pianist’s fingers on the keyboard. The vast opera theatre is even larger backstage and equipped with state-of-theart systems that would make a UK stage manager weep.
But what’s really clever is the outdoor theatre that descends from the building’s interior to its edge and which is designed to host performances and arts activities. It’s meant to connect the vast and slightly intimidating building with the park and its people, and it works. Time will tell if Weiwuying as a whole connects with Taiwan and the wider world, but on the strength of its launch concerts and the public’s wholehearted support for it, the signs are promising.
For upcoming concerts at Weiwuying, visit www.npac-weiwuying.org
Like Symphony Hall is to Birmingham, so Weiwuying is to Kaohsiung City
Landmark architecture: (main) Weiwuying's dramatic exterior; (right) the concert hall and the vibrant opening night celebrations