Beneath the Banyan

Designed by Mecanoo, the National Kaohsiung Centre for the Arts (also known as Wei-Wu-Ying) is a project which embodies, perhaps more than any other, the rapid cultural transformation of the coastal city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second city and one of its greatest economic powerhouses. The ambition and scale of this monumental cultural building is matched only by the aspiration of the city itself, who are now striving to remould the image of the country's largest port into a globally significant destination for art and culture.

Located within a 160-acre former military base, the building will become the anchor point for a new central park in the heart of city. Beneath the canopy, within 'Banyan Plaza', will sit a forest of performance venues. A 2000-seat concert hall will house an organ designed and built by Orgelbau Klais of Bonn, Germany which, when installed, will be one of the largest in Asia. There will also be a 2250-seat opera house, a playhouse theatre, and a recital hall, each representing what are the most technically advanced performance spaces in the country. Having been specifically designed to draw world-class artists and theatre companies to the city, the building will also host an enormous public library, rehearsal spaces, and educational venues.

An initial source of inspiration for Mecanoo’s design were the centuries-old Banyan trees which surround the site. The crown of the Banyan—one of the world’s largest trees—can grow so wide that, according to legend, Alexander the Great once sheltered an entire army beneath one. Influenced by these vast natural sun shades, the undulating structure of the building is composed of an outer skin and steel space frame which houses and connects an extensive range of machinery and programmatic functions to allow the performance spaces to operate at full capacity simultaneously. In order to create the undulating roofscape in one seamless layer, Mecanoo turned to the finely-tuned skills of Dutch and local shipbuilders.

The theatres and performance spaces are located within the five cores of the building, at the point in which the structure meets the ground. These 'legs' connect to one another through foyers in the roof, and underground service spaces accommodate the backstage areas of each theatre. An open-air ampitheatre is nestled on the roof, positioned where the structure sweeps down to the ground. Here, the surrounding park forms a landscaped urban stage.

The 'Banyan Plaza' is designed to provide residents of Kaohsiung with a generous, sheltered public space which weaves in and around the performance halls. The intention is that people will be able to wander through here day and night, appropriating it by practicing Tai Chi or staging street performances. In response to Kaohsiung’s subtropical climate, providing protection from intense sunlight and heavy rainfall, while still allowing for a cooling ocean breeze to permeate the space has been integral to the design. This seamless flow between interior and exterior also creates opportunities for crossover between formal and informal performances. The building and surrounding landscape will merge naturally, forming a unified and coherent public space.

Program: theatre complex of 1,500,000ft² in the Wei-Wu-Ying Metropolitan Park with a total capacity of 6,000 seats: Concert Hall 2,000 seats; Opera House 2,260 seats; Playhouse 1,254 seats; Recital Hall 470 seats; 8,600ft² Public Library; 10,750ft² of Rehearsal/Education Halls for music and dance; 2 Conference Halls with 100 and 200 seats; Stage Building Workshops.

Design: 2006-2009

Realisation: 2010-2016

Client: Ministry of Culture (MoC), Taipei, Taiwan

Architect: Mecanoo architecten, Delft, the Netherlands

Local architect: Archasia Design Group, Taipei, Taiwan

Structural engineer: Supertech, Taipei, Taiwan

Mechanical engineer: Yuan Tai, Taipei, Taiwan

Electrical engineer: Heng Kai, Taipei, Taiwan

Acoustic consultant: Xu Acoustique, Paris, France

Theatre consultant: Theateradvies, Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Yi Tai, Taipei, Taiwan

Lighting consultant: CMA lighting, Taipei, Taiwan

Organ consultant: Oliver Latry, Paris, France

Roof and façade consultant: CDC, Taipei, Taiwan

3D advisor: Lead Dao, Taipei, Taiwan

James Taylor-Foster is an in-house Practice Researcher at Mecanoo in Delft.

All images courtesy of Mecanoo, photographs © Harry Cock / Christian Richters.