Saturday, December 27, 2008

In search of colonial Taipei: Zhongzheng District

Having endured 50 years of Japanese colonial rule from 1895 through 1945, Taiwan retains perhaps the most extensive collection of Japanese imperial-era architecture outside of Japan. To this day, many of Taiwan's national and local government institutions still operate out of the grand edifices built for Japan's colonial administration, including the iconic Presidential Office Building and the National Taiwan Museum, pictured above. These monuments of imperialism miraculously survived the nationalist anti-Japanese fervor that swept through Asia at the end of Japanese occupation and led to the destruction of most of their counterparts in China and Korea. Today, they are generally acknowledged as an integral part of Taiwan's architectural heritage.

Unsurprisingly, the strong European influence upon all levels of Japanese society during the imperial period made itself evident in its architectural practice as well. Quite naturally, the Japanese turned to European technology and design aesthetics for the construction of the grand bureaucratic monuments befitting a modern, nationalist state, of which they had no true domestic precedent. Consequently, most Japanese imperial architecture in Taiwan can be identified as variations on a number of architectural styles popular in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including French Second Empire, Gothic Revival, and Renaissance Revival.

Recently however, I have become more interested in the more everyday commercial architecture built during the colonial era - the two, three, and four-story buildings that once lined Taipei's old streets. The pictures in this post were taken around the Zhongzheng District (中正區), in the area between Taipei Main Station and the wide boulevards of Taiwan's government center, which was the city's commercial core for the first half the 20th century. Its colonial-era commercial rows, not built for air conditioning units, backlit commercial signage, or the density demanded by Taipei's post-war population boom, have been nearly entirely replaced after successive generations of rebuilding.

Unfortunately, most remaining colonial-era commercial structures in this part of town seem to have been especially neglected, and have been largely unaffected by the preservation efforts that have created "heritage streets" in other parts of the country. Those that do remain standing also seem to have been built closer to the middle of the century, as they have little of the Victorian, neo-Baroque flourish that Japanese colonial architecture is best known for. I even managed to find a rather rare specimen of Art Deco in the bunch:

Sadly, a good many of them have also been altered beyond recognition by unsympathetic renovations. In a most perverse and extreme case, this last building was literally sliced in half, and further suffered a drastic alteration to its first and second floor façades.

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