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Sociality in the Architectural Work of Y.C. Hsieh
Huang, Sun Quan

Y.C. Hsieh’s architectural design work has earned significant attention in recent years in his native Taiwan, Mainland China and overseas. While a string of successful post-disaster reconstruction projects have led the media to refer to him by catchy nicknames like the “Disaster Architect”, “Humanist Architect”, “Social Architect” and “Architect of the People”, such accolades are simple flattery. As the job of architecture criticism is to examine problems in the architectural profession and consider the structural relationship of such problems in terms of contextual logic, this article considers what Hsieh’s architecture ideology reflects and what issues his architecture practice addresses.

“In areas hit by disasters,” Hsieh says, “the problem lies not in dealing with the aftermath, but rather in resolving the many problems that were left to accumulate before disaster struck.” So, what are some of Taiwan’s accumulated issues?

One problem is clearly the nation’s lingering trauma as a developmental state. Taiwan’s string of natural disasters in recent years is a direct result of the government’s long-running promotion of economic growth at the expense of good environmental and land management policies. Examples include increasing agricultural crop uniformity, the diversion of southern watersheds to northern population centers, and the cookie-cutter approach to domestic leisure and recreation.  Capital earns quick cumulative returns by leveraging spatial differentials, while geographic disparities shift most of the costs onto disadvantaged areas and society’s poorest classes. The communities and living spaces of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples have suffered the most.

A second problem is the “urbanized consciousness” that typifies Taiwan’s urbanization experience. Cities in developed western countries form the idealized, albeit highly stylized and impractical, model that shapes our expectations of daily life and cultural sophistication. It directs thinking about how our high-rise buildings and interior spaces should be designed and what materials should be used. This mindset is reflected in the complaints directed at Y.C. Hsieh’s reconstruction projects by some disaster victims, who criticize the simple, “unfinished” quality of his homes and question his conspicuous avoidance of concrete – widely perceived as essential for structural durability.

A third problem is the chronic persistence of the informal construction market and its support of basic laborers doing unlicensed construction. This market is tacitly allowed to continue because of the formal construction sector’s inability to provide housing in quantities sufficient to meet demand. “DIY modernity” is also a reaction to the still inadequate level of architectural professionalism and high costs that typify the formal construction sector. The boom years of economic growth during the 1970s and 1980s saw an influx of laborers into the cities. The indigenous and lower class laborers who joined this urban migration often took construction work as their first job. In the 1990s and first decade of the new century, the construction sector was an important pillar of Taiwan’s gross domestic product (GDP). The wealth of experience basic workers gained building unlicensed urban structures and rural homes and buildings gave many basic laborers self-taught expertise in carpentry and construction.  This pool of “semi-experts” was important to Hsieh as he mapped out his architectural career.

The above three problems are critical to understanding Hsieh’s work. In the dozen or so years since Taiwan’s 921 Earthquake, Y.C. Hsieh and his architectural firm, Atelier-3, have completed hundreds of projects.  Summing up these years, Hsieh remarks that he adhered to three fundamental principles, namely Sustainable Construction (e.g., sustainability, environmental friendliness, material recycling), Open System Architecture (to minimize cost and labor), and Inter-subjectivity (i.e., the long-term benefits of getting the community involved in open system architecture).

Open system architecture (OSA) can be thought of as the use of modernist industrial and modular concepts to create highly streamlined, minimalist structures that maximize participation possibilities and guarantee that reconstruction work not only builds houses but also strengthens local communities. Local materials sourcing also helps OSA buildings stimulate the local economy beyond what is possible with traditional housing construction. OSA itself is an “unfinished structural plan” that minimizes the need for professional architect input while maximizing the opportunity for layman / non-professional participation. This differs from the mainstream modern architects who tend to focus on satiating their expansive egos and regard housing as a purely consumer item.   Under the OSA concept, professionals lay foundations and install main structural elements, leaving adequate living space to allow a house to grow “organically”. The general labor and community support required for the OSA approach helps ensure that rebuilding homes in the aftermath of disaster is a process that brings communities together and facilitates the healing process.  Communities can take their own distinct approaches to finishing off buildings. As long as architects don’t think of victims as disadvantaged, communities can successfully rebuild in an extremely cost effective manner. This is a distinct advantage of the OSA approach.

The sustainable building idea draws upon the concept that we are caretakers of the land. Caretaking recognizes that no one owns land in perpetuity. We can only hope to live wisely on a temporary inheritance.  It is an idea fairly easily accepted by disaster victims, but still difficult to put into practice when looking to settle into a “permanent” home.  Looking at the issue from several levels, the environment correlates with green buildings, and all have the opportunity to participate in the construction process. Cost effective refers to self-reliance and the non-monetary nature of the construction process (e.g., contributing labor instead of money and giving work contracts to disaster victims).   Community culture refers to the healthy maintenance of communities and assurance of their autonomy and diversity.

The architect, while responsible for providing professional guidance and advice, must allow for differences of opinion with others. Such differences signal growing strength and confidence. Rather than a deliberate process of listening, communicating and negotiating, working through differences here is done on the fly, with all opinions vying vigorously with one another and working to win supporters. Everyone involved has an equal opportunity to complete his or her subjectivity. This dynamic process of production underpins Y.C. Hsieh’s “inter-subjectivity” principal of taking design work out of the architect’s hands.

The significance of Y.C. Hsieh’s work is its creation of space in a manner that (perhaps unconsciously) responds to and addresses the three problems mentioned. A clear relationship between division of labor and exchange (à la Karl Marx) links his architectural endeavors to these three problems. An important point to recognize is that the more one believes a building to be the culmination of a specific design concept, the further one is from architecture as a practical art. I don’t mean to imply that Y.C. Hsieh has hit upon the ultimate solution to the three problems. I am simply pointing out that he has worked to use his architectural talents to address certain perceived conditions in the marketplace. It defines the contemporary character of his architectural work and gives it its strong meaningful sociality.

(published in the December 2011 issue of Artco Magazine)

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