While in town for the World Design Capital Taipei, Style by Asia met with Johnny Chiu of JC Architecture, which was started in 2010, and is one of the Taiwanese capitals most innovative architectural firms, to talk about the past and the future of Taiwanese architecture. All images courtesy of JCA.
Welcoming us into the architect firms offices in Taipei, Johnny starts by explaining that there has been a massive change in Taiwan over the past 10 years. During the 1980-90's boom, everything worked, all projects that were started were finished, and the work produced was of the expected kind. Nothing was really new, there was no time for innovation. As a contrast, money is scarcer now, and projects sell more by design. Developers care more, Johnny says. They care about the well being of the residents of the city, and they want the projects they go ahead with to have a value aesthetically, as well as pure function.
Johnny himself came back to Taipei in 2008. He had been educated at Columbia University in the USA, at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden and in Australia. I ask him the difference (if any), of the architectural practice in the east, and the west. He says they are completely different philosophies:
In USA you have 3 months to design, in Taipei you might have 3 days
"In USA you have 3 months to design, in Taipei you might have 3 days. There are extreme budget pressures, but that is not only a bad thing. It also forces creativity, forces you to think in new ways to solve problems."
One of those projects that forced them to think creatively is the Happier Cafe, a project with only a 6 month lifespan and hence a very small budget. The space was designed in 3 weeks and built in only one. The 'Happier Cafe' is situated in a heritage building previously owned by the military, and it was decided that this space should be turned into something that could benefit the whole society.
Johnny says that his company, JCA, is particularly good at bringing a company branding into a space. So they tried to figure out how to bring Happiness into the space. For them, happiness = childhood like space, where you can create and memorise.
But how would they use their already tight budget to divide the space into small pockets of individual space? The team wanted to keep a feeling of an enveloped space, inside each and every individual space. Whether it was used for a romantic rendezvous, a meeting, used as a co-working space and collaborations. How to do this?
Johnny and his team decided to use HUGE rolls of paper. Yes really. Paper
They figured, that the paper from these rolls could have dual use. The rolls could be used both to divide the space, and to write 'Happiness messages' on, or any type of notes really, during meetings and brainstormings.
What they wanted was a really creative space. And the idea is that after the end of this pop up 'Happiness Cafe', the paper can be rolled up again, and brought to another space to exhibit. The plan is to bring these rolls to cities all over Taiwan and have an installation with dance incorporated.
What an idea! Exhibiting peoples dreams, love for each other, collaborations, and ideas
But they also needed furniture for the space. Lots of work went through to design the sofas, also made of rolls. They naturally wanted to make it as versatile as possible, and so they built several small scale models of the design, to try to figure out the best configuration that would be the most versatile.
For lighting, they decided to keep it simple too. They made 6 big paper lanterns, origami style, and made them into lights by just shining a spotlight over them.
This cafe is only open during the week. Sometimes they host events on the weekend though, as the public can rent the space. Johnny says that in many ways the 'Happier Cafe' is his favourite project. The team showed that you can use a very simple material, such as paper, and with it change the way you see a space. Now it is also a theatrical event (an exhibition and dance performance), and it also becomes a memory as notes are being scribbled down. It becomes a memento of this particular time and space in Taipei and the people who where there, right there and then.
We think of a space within a space
Another fantastic project that the team just won the Good Design Award in Japan for actually, is the Logistic Republic Office. For this office space for a company, they needed to make the space versatile for different projects. It is built on the concept of Jenga, where you first build a structure, and then you pull out some pieces, using the skeleton that is left. It is a relaxed space designed to feed creativity.
But JCA does not only do cool architectural and deign projects. One of the things closest to Johnny's heart, and you can see the passion in his eyes when talking about it, is the 'OUT Scholarship'.
A while back, Johnny was teaching and while doing so, he saw the students only looking at photos of other designs and cultures. He felt that students in Taiwan didn't have the "full picture", and says that only by traveling and studying architecture and design in other places, can architecture and design develop in Taiwan. It's all done in English, and the long term plan is for students to have more skill sets. How to schedule their lives, and take inspiration from best practices abroad. It is also about social awareness, so not only to design for the top pyramid but to pay it forward. Give back to the community, share your knowledge.
Said and done, Johnny called up three friends at other design firms, and asked them each to make a 3,000 USD financial contribution toward a fund that enables four selected students to go abroad for a few months to immerse themselves in another culture, to study and to learn about design and design thinking in other parts of the world. Four lucky students get this chance every year, and they all get a 3,000USD contribution to their trip each. But the selection process is rigorous. Each applicant needs to send in a CV with an accompanying video. They need to prepare a proposal outlining where the want to go and why. Also the candidate needs to be a spokes person for Taiwan, and willing to share their culture and socialise with people at their destination. They need to make a schedule of what they will do with their time, and finally make a financial proposal. From the applications, 10 people get called to an interview.
The group provides mentoring for the chosen students. They also contact the embassy at the destination, to make sure the students are safe when they go. Once there, the students are required to make a diary, and to have a Facebook page where they share their experiences as they go. Johnny mentions one example, where one girl went to Holland to study the elderly and to interview them, all with the aim to look at design solutions for the older generation back in Taiwan.
For the future, Johnny would like to expand the initiative, and was talking about internships and exchanges with Japan, Hong Kong, Australia etc. We can't wait to see it happen.
Want to know what they are looking for? Check out the poster for 2016's applications:
There is a lot of fun going in on the JCA space, you can tell by just walking around in their offices. There are many spaces for collaboration, talks and impromptu design chats. Every two weeks they have internal design talks for the staff, which they invites speakers to. The teams also use it to share what they have learnt. Johnny DJ's at these events as well sometimes. And sometimes at clients openings. He's got his mixer table set up in the office and you can see how it would be a great time. All this is designed to boost creativity.
Johnny and his team have not only done small businesses and public spaces, but many bigger projects too - I ask him: what is more fun?
He replies that going forward, he would be interested in designing hotels. And he would love to do an airport some time. Or a space station
Jokes aside, Johnny really likes the Socially Conscious ideas. He loves communicating with clients and realising their dreams, sometimes in unexpected ways. A new hotel he has designed builds on the idea of the small alleyways of his childhood, where neighbours borrowed soy sauce from each other through the window. Or had a love affair. Everything was done over the small spaces between windows.
He would also like to do more international projects, such as in Russia or Brazil, big collaborative projects with other design teams. In every collaboration you learn from each other and you take away more than you brought in the first place. It is great to learn more about architecture and design in other places around the world, he says.
However, Johnny concludes that Taipei these days really is great for good design. They make use of cheaper rent and labour than most other countries, and the difficult budget and speed constraints gives opportunity for creativity. We think that coupled with architects like Johnny and his team at JCA, this is the best combination. We can't wait to see what they do with it in the future.
JCA were Golden Pin Design Award 2016 Finalists (Spatial Design) for their Logistic Republic Office, and won a Golden Pin Design Award 2016 Design Mark (Spatial Design) for Happier Cafe. Congrats team!
The Golden Pin Design Award is administered by the Taiwan Design Center and organized by the Industrial Development Bureau, Ministry of Economic Affairs. The Ministry of Economic Affairs acts in an advisory capacity.
Check it out here: http://www.goldenpin.org.tw/en