© Iwan Baan

National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, Weiwuying

Interview with Friso van der Steen and Allard Bokma

The National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Weiwuying) in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan, opened to the public on 13 October 2018. Designed by Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo, the much-anticipated theater complex sits on former military grounds in Weiwuying Metropolitan Park. The 141,000-square-meter building encloses four performance spaces with more than 5,800 seats: a 2,236-seat Opera House, a 1,981-seat Concert Hall, a 1,210-seat Playhouse, and a 434-seat Recital Hall. Additionally, an Outdoor Theater links the building directly to the park. The building also includes a library, rehearsal rooms for music and dance, two lecture halls, workshop spaces for stage designs, dressing rooms, loading and unloading truck docks, and parking for 600 cars.

The most striking aspect of Weiwuying is its presence in the park as an undulating surface that admits people into the realm of the building in the form of a covered open space: Banyan Plaza. Inspired by the local Banyan trees, which cluster together to form continuous canopies, the building’s roof flows like a forest canopy and shades people in the plaza. The complex geometries of the large building – the world’s largest performing arts center under one roof – led Mecanoo to work with Dutch and local shipbuilders on the curved steel structure. This is fitting, since at around 160 meters wide and 225 meters long, the building is about the same area as a cargo ship.

We interviewed Friso van der Steen from Mecanoo and Allard Bokma from CIG Architecture, which handled the building’s steel skin, to learn about the building and their collaboration.

The interview

It’s apparent that this project, particularly its form and structure, is something special, the product of a solid relationship between architect and fabricator. How would you describe the process of working together?

Friso van der Steen (Mecanoo): It was a very interesting collaboration where we could innovate through collaboration. We merged architecture building and shipbuilding techniques.

Allard Bokma (CIG Architecture): Indeed, we merged our shipbuilding techniques toward architectural projects, which also opened the developments of future art and architectural projects we are involved now.

Had you worked together on a previous project? How did your cooperation start?

Mecanoo: We never collaborated with the ship building industry, but our design forced us to look beyond standard architectural products, materials, and techniques. The shipbuilding industry is used to making double curved, seamless, continuous, non-repetitive shapes in a cost effective method.

CIG Architecture: Although we had not worked together before, we were already exploring the ways of using this technology in other markets besides shipbuilding.

Please tell us a short story about working together, something unique that came out of your time on this project.

Mecanoo: The way of thinking in the ship building industry is completely different than the architectural field. One example: in shipbuilding they are used to working with zero tolerance. They have to, because otherwise the ship would sink! In architecture there is always tolerance, dilatation, expansion joints, etc.

CIG Architecture: The first response of the local ship building company in Taiwan, Ching Fu, was conservative: “Is this realistic, is this really happening?” Well, it was.

What are the design ideas that you take to the fabricators of your projects, be it this one or others?

Mecanoo: We want to challenge them to think beynod what they are normally used to doing. In this case the fabricator was very enthusiastic and ambitious. What is also important for us that we want to learn from them; that will give us new design ideas.


What characteristics do you look for in builders that you work with on your projects?

Mecanoo: We want them to be ambitious and committed.

At what point in the design process do you like to involve fabricators for unique applications such as the curved steel structure of this project?

Mecanoo: As soon as possible. In this case I contacted them shortly after we won the competition. The process of convincing all the involved parties took a very long time, so the earlier to involve the fabricator, the better.

At what point in the design process are you normally called upon to work on a project?

CIG Architecture: Often we are involved very early in projects, during the competition phase, in order to give ideas and advisement to architects regarding concept and how to build, as well as with budget estimates.

What are the ideas and concepts that architects come to you with? How often do the ideas require custom solutions?

CIG Architecture: Sometimes the question from the architect is simply, “What is your idea on how to build this?” Also, architects are looking to us for further inspiration, so we are working together on the architects’ concepts and ideas, as we did for this project. Many projects have the same ideas (e.g. the skin is the construction); however every project has its own principles.

What characteristics do you appreciate most with architects?

CIG Architecture: Being open minded and creative thinking outside the box.

How does the building form and its structure respond to different site conditions (culture, climate, social, etc.)?

Mecanoo: The steel skin provides a very generous covered outside space that people can use 24/7. It gives shade and shelter from the sun and rain and creates a very comfortable “micro climate.” Furthermore, the skin is “white canvas” that can be used for projections to “dress” the space differently every day.

CIG Architecture: Overall, the skin has its own parameters such thermal expansion, earthquake, wind pressure, etc. These are all integrated in the technical design with flexible connections that point toward the skin’s impressive secondary structure.

What was the main design problem with the structure and how did you arrive at the solution? Why did you use the particular system for the building?

Mecanoo: The wind pressure and suction was a challenge. We fixed the skin with suspension rods with heavy springs. The springs can absorb the suction and pressure.

How did the project change from its initial design to its realization?

Mecanoo: The concept nor the shape changed at all, that is also the biggest achievement.

CIG Architecture: One aspect driven by the technics was the limitations of the panels. The visible welding lines and panel patterns were something developed later in cooperation with Mecanoo.

What were strong influences on the building in terms of energy use and construction?

Mecanoo: The main structure of the building is made of concrete (underground levels) and steel (above ground levels). The steel skin is suspended from the main steel structure. The steel skin is 6mm thick, which is a bit thicker than a normal architectural cladding system and therefore a bit heavier. This additional weight didn’t have an effect on the dimensions of the main structure since it was designed to withstand earthquakes.

CIG Architecture: Indeed, the skin is thicker, but this also means less construction and fewer connection points to the main structure.

Were there any characteristics of the structure that required special attention both in design and construction?

Mecanoo: Since shipbuilding structural engineering differs from architectural structural engineering, to “align” these two methods was a long process. In Taiwan buildings are designed structurally for earthquakes and typhoons, while ships are designed to withstand the biggest storms.

CIG Architecture: At the moment of engineering this project we were using ship building software, based on the ship building simulation that the local partner, Ching Fu, was using. For communication with Mecanoo we used Rhino, which we are using more and more as the base software system at CIG Architecture.

About the interview partners

Friso van der Steen is Technical Director / Director International Projects. At Mecanoo, Delft since 1999. Professional Qualifiations: Architectural Engineer, HTS Building Design, Haarlem, NL.

Allard Bokma is Senior Sales Managerat at CIG Architecture, Groningen. At CIG since 2007. Education: Bachelor of Education / Civil Engineering.

Published on November 8, 2018