This dissertation aims to investigate the notion of public space, in the particular context of Taipei, Taiwan. The dissertation explores the so-called ‘democratization’ of the President Office Plaza in Taipei following the end of military rule. The inquiry into ‘democratic public space’ i in the context of Taiwan and Taipei is conducted through the study and analysis of the history of this significant public space, and the contemporary proposals for the Capital Plaza International Design Competition held in 2001 investigated. The competition brief will be critically examined in light of the fundamental question in this thesis: ‘What constitutes a public space?’
Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan, has experienced different stages of social, cultural, and political changes in its short history of urbanization. From early Chinese settlement, through Japanese occupation, Chinese KMT (Nationalist) Party regime’s control to the present day, various social, cultural and political influences have been inscribed into the city’s physical environment. The role of the President Office Plaza had changed throughout its history, from a symbol of a colonizer’s power, to a forbidden garden of an outcast dictator, and finally to a space of protests and social movement. Such spatial transformations parallel the social changes of the nation ii.
Transformation of this monumental space into a public space therefore seemed to be the next logical step. In the 1990s, the government funded studies and design competitions for this area. Government initiated civic activities on this particular site have taken place, in the name of ‘democratization’.iii The subsequently held Capital Plaza International Design Competition in 2001 was a major push to physically realize the notion of public space on this site. However, the competition ended without a winning scheme. Diverse opinions and criticisms attracted by the competition speak of the complexity of this particular site.
The investigation into public space in this dissertation is centred on the Capital Plaza International Design Competition; the most recent event in the pursuit of developing the public space in front of the President Office. The author argues that the notion of ‘public space’ was absent in the establishment of the brief for the competition. This proposition is based on a critical analysis of the competition brief. The spaces implied and aspired to in the content and objectives of the brief demonstrate fundamental misunderstandings in regard to the social and cultural aspects of civic public space in Taiwan. It is proposed that such attitudes would not only fail this opportunity for a genuine public space as originally intended, but might reduce the space to a skin-deep visual theme, or a ‘Democratic Disneyland’ iv.
The first chapter is an overview of the aim of the investigation, the proposition, and the methodology. It includes an analysis of the site’s history, which aims to reveal the progression of spatial transformation from the many layers of influences which have acted upon this space (and the city in its broader scale). It is essential to understand the history of the site in order to understand its significance, its meaning and the importance of its designation as a public space given the politically charged nature of this space. ‘Spatial Democratization’ is a term specific to the context in Taipei, and will therefore be defined and clarified.
Chapter two is devoted to discussion of the issues, complications, and difficulties involved in the creating of Capital Plaza. Two categories can be identified within this topic. Firstly, the discussion of the meaning and symbolism of the Plaza’s transformation is essential in order to understand the social and political implications that the competition entailed. Secondly, a comparative study of public space in Western and Chinese/Taiwanese cities history is described. It includes a discussion of public space in historical Western cities, where a long tradition of public life has existed, in contrast to that of Chinese and Taiwanese cities. The comparison is particularly focused in terms of their social content and formation. This study aims to explore and identify the unique characteristic of public space in Taiwanese cities, and the implications relating to Capital Plaza. It questions the re-appropriation of the plaza space on the competition site. The nature of the plaza and its symbolic role raises a unique context and design challenge, which the competition inevitably needs to draw upon to ensure a successful outcome. ‘Democratic Disneyland’, the term used for the purpose of this dissertation to depict the possible failure, will be defined. This particular term describes the proposition of the thesis that the competition brief implies a construction of a theme-park-like public environment.
i Bureau of Urban Development, Taipei City Government, Capital Plaza International Design Competition Guidelines, Bureau of Urban Development, Taipei City Government, Taipei, 2000, p. 1:4.
ii Wu, K.-T., A Competition Echoing Taiwan's Social Change. Chinese Architect, vol. 22-9, no. 261, 1996, p. 106-7.
iii Yang, Z., Zhang J-S., History Written By City, in China Time. 5 Jan 1996, p. 35.
iv Wu, X.-l., The City of Tomorrow, Master of Architecture thesis, Taipei, National Taiwan University, 1998, p. 65. Zukin, S., Landscapes of Power, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991, p. 20.