Tseng Wei: Venice Architecture Biennale Taiwan Pavilion Curator
Taking Venice with 'Lightness' and 'Softness'
The selection of curator for the Taiwan Pavilion at this year's Venice Architecture Biennale was a major departure from the norm. What made the selection committee decide this upstart was the right architect to represent Taiwan?
Taking Venice with 'Lightness' and 'Softness'By Shiau-Jing Ding
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 455 )
Known around the world as the "Olympics of architecture," the Venice Architecture Biennale kicked off on August 29th in Italy's fabled city of gondolas.
Taiwanese officials have long viewed the Venice Architecture Biennale as a key international stage for making Taiwan's voice heard, with the Council for Cultural Affairs assembling a panel of overseas and domestic architecture experts every two years to select a curator for the "Taiwan Pavilion." As it turns out, the selection for this year's pavilion curator was something of a curveball, a relative unknown without impressive experience in the industry named Tseng Wei.
Sporting a goatee and large tattoos of the letter "W" and the Latin word "Illuminati" ("The Enlightened") on his neck and arm, the 40 year-old Tseng is not only an audaciously innovative architect who disdains wearing socks inside his shoes and seems to continually have a cigarette in his hand, but is also the youngest Taiwan Pavilion curator since Taiwan began taking part in the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2000.
So on just what grounds did such prominent members of the architecture establishment as Han Pao-teh, Lu Li-hwang and Taro Igarashi determine that Tseng was the right architect to represent Taiwan? And what new vitality is the new generation of architects like Tseng Wei infusing into the cultural life of Taiwan?
Tseng secured the Taiwan Pavilion curatorship with his proposed theme "Take a Break – Spatial Variability in Contemporary Taiwan." Spurning conventional materials and instead making extensive use of transparent, inflatable plastic materials to construct the ceiling, supporting beams and pillars as well as sofas, Tseng makes the Taiwan Pavilion a space where visitors can sit or lie down and take a load off.
Tseng felt that, instead of wracking his brain to come up with various architectural devices to highlight Taiwan's distinguishing qualities, it would be better to use "lightness" and "softness" to create a space where modern people, fixated as they are on efficiency, would want to take a timeout from their hectic lives, and perhaps to interact. This outside-the-box thinking allows the Taiwan Pavilion to dovetail neatly with the biennale's theme – as set forth by this year's director, Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima – "People Meet in Architecture."
Tseng, who also lectures at National Chiao Tung University's Graduate Institute of Architecture, secured the right to represent Taiwan as curator in tandem with a group of his students. Consequently, this year's Taiwan Pavilion has another major defining characteristic: the average age of the team that constructed it is just 25.
"To raise money for the students' travel expenses, I even had to take out a second mortgage of NT$2 million against my house," Tseng reveals.
Although the Council for Cultural Affairs provided NT$4 million in financial assistance, Tseng estimated the costs of planning and executing this year's pavilion would be at least twice that. While substantially less than the NT$10 million-plus budgets past curators such as C.Y. Lee, Kris Yao and others were provided with, Tseng frankly admits that his relative youth and low name recognition within the industry made it more difficult for him to finagle financial assistance than past curators.
Despite feeling no small amount of financial pressure, Tseng is proud of what he's accomplished and expresses no regrets. After graduating from Tunghai University's Department of Architecture 15 years ago, Tseng was accepted for continued studies at the U.K. Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) – the dream program for architecture majors. While at AA he became a protege of noted architect Zaha Hadid. He graduated from AA two years later with the best academic performance since the school's founding 150 years prior and was subsequently retained for an AA teaching position. While teaching at AA, he also took up a one-year apprenticeship with an English shipwright to improve his woodworking skills.
Refusing an Enviable Offer
After returning to Taiwan, Tseng took up a string of associate professorships at Tunghai University, Shih Chien University and National Chiao Tung University. Three years ago, his former mentor Hadid's architectural firm contacted him to offer him a position.
"I really didn't want to be a cog, drawing pictures all day," he says.
After mulling it over extensively, he turned down the offer, one everyone had said they envied. At the same time, however, he began thinking that he really should rustle up some outside business, so he partnered with some students and opened the architectural firm "Red Space Design Association" in Taichung.
"Our firm only employs seven young people, and although we still haven't made any money, working together with our teacher is really quite extraordinary," says Bihoe-Sapu, a former student of Tseng's and a founding partner of Red Space. "We can do what we want."
In addition to the Venice Biennale, Bihoe-Sapu, a member of the Sediq people, one of Taiwan's indigenous groups, has recently been revved up over Red Space being awarded the contract for a renovation project of the site of the Houlong Kamikaze Squadron Aerodrome in Miaoli County.
"Do you know why the Japanese put the training base for their Kamikaze squadrons in Miaoli?" Tseng asks excitedly when discussing the project. "Because from here to Okinawa was exactly the distance needed for planes to run out of fuel."
Tseng says whenever Red Space takes on a new case the partners never tire of immersing themselves in researching the cultural history of the local site.
"It's just like when he played basketball for the university team – he was small, but he became known as an iron man," says Lin Chun-nan, a former classmate of Tseng's from Tunghai University's Department of Architecture. "Whatever he did he threw himself into it with no regard for personal consequences."
Despite not being the best student in the class, he always showed a certain intellectual verve, Zhang says.
"When you do what we do in this business, sometimes you need to be a little childish," he insists.
This observation from a stern former teacher who Tseng venerates to this day perfectly captures how Tseng's free and uninhibited personality remains an element of appealing interest in his creations.
On August 6, as nearly 40 members of the team that would travel to Venice for this year's Architecture Biennale gathered in Red Space's ramshackle offices, the excitement was clearly written on all their faces.
"If I'd been presented with an opportunity like this back when I was a student, I definitely wouldn't have been able to sleep for days," team member and Red Space project designer Liao Jiong-sheng privately noted with a hint of envy.
"Every one of you, damn it, don't let me down," Tseng exhorted, abandoning none of his brash personality in his pre-departure pep talk. Such unrestrained vigor bodes well for this year's Taiwan Pavilion in Venice, and stokes the imagination regarding the future of architecture in Taiwan.
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy