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Fighting for Taiwan: Architect Borden Tseng

Turning Heads with Public Projects


Turning Heads with Public Projects


Borden Tseng has been highly acclaimed internationally for designs that have brought a cool vibe to Taiwan’s sometimes drab public projects. He now hopes to reverse the negative stereotype associated with social housing.



Turning Heads with Public Projects

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 600 )

For the past four years, Borden Tseng has been a fixture at the World Architecture Festival Awards, known in the profession as the Oscars of architecture. The first year, he attended as an observer, but for the past three years his works have been nominated to compete against those of internationally renowned architects for top prizes.

Since first making a splash in the international arena, Tseng has won several prestigious honors. One of the projects that garnered major recognition was a multi-story parking garage in Wulai in New Taipei. Its curved façade composed of metal slats uses light to create interesting light patterns and reflections that play off the ridgeline of the hill sitting behind the structure. From a distance, it looks like an upscale fine arts museum, an illusion that earned it the jury prize in prestigious architecture design platform Architizer’s A+ Awards in the parking structures category in 2014.   

Bringing ‘Cool’ to a Sports Center

From Jinhe Sports Park, the Zhonghe Community Sports Center rises up in the distance like a massive sports display window. Tseng’s company, Q-Lab, used technology to create undulating exteriors on the facility’s two sides consistent with architectural principles to symbolize the speed and rhythm of sports. At last year’s World Architecture Festival, Business Insider featured it as one of the 27 “coolest new buildings on the planet.”

All of Tseng’s projects, from the National Tainan First Senior High School Gymnasium and the Wulai parking garage to the Zhonghe sports center and the Tucheng Community Sports Center, reflect his core design concept – an emphasis on spatial structures and geometric design. His works have broken the mold of conventional architectural wisdom and redefined how people in Taiwan view public buildings by bringing once drab structures to life.    

When famed Japanese architect Tadao Ando was getting his start in the profession, he traveled the world to take in many of the greatest architectural masterpieces, and concluded that the purpose of “architecture” was to build places where people could gather and converse. Tseng believes architecture’s attraction is its power to “move people emotionally.”

But to achieve that, architects must constantly explore and experience the world around them. Having grown up in the architectural firm of his father, Sense Tseng, Borden went abroad to study when he was in junior high school. Though he received a master’s degree from Columbia University and worked for prestigious architectural firm I.M. Pei & Associates, he found it hard to stand out in New York’s fiercely competitive environment.

After careful consideration, he decided to return to Taiwan in 2007 to start up his own firm, calling it “Q-Lab.”

Making Public Buildings a Part of Life

“In the 21st century, quantum physics are overturning Newton’s laws, and world science is being rewritten,” he says, and he hoped his designs could take a similar architectural quantum leap, explaining the “Q” in the name “Q-Lab.” The “Lab” represents his desire for greater experimentation and creative space.

“Ultimately, the name conveys the idea of overturning existing architectural frameworks,” he says.

Much like many young people with entrepreneurial ideals, however, Tseng initially suffered several setbacks when he ran into reality. Lacking a network of personal contacts and having yet to make a name for himself in Taiwan, he had trouble getting jobs. His only alternative was to compete for work in tenders for public projects, and that initially proved rough going.

In his first year, he received nine “red cards” – the euphemism for being eliminated from a tender – before finally getting a job on his 10th try – the National Tainan First Senior High School Gymnasium. Asked to create a facility housing two international-standard basketball courts, Tseng applied a combination of structural techniques in designing a multi-dimensional bridge-like building allowing for large open spaces free of columns that could block sight lines. An expansive, semi-outdoor space was designed as a gathering place for local residents.

When he designed the Tucheng sports center, Tseng went a step further in deconstructing a building’s “public nature,” starting with an interior layout that offers plenty of connecting spaces and sightlines that accentuate people-to-people and sport-to-sport connections. To allow in large amounts of natural light, a Q-Lab team developed a composite window/wall system that meshes perforated aluminum and glass. This new cladding system enables people inside the building to see outside but blocks the view of people outside the building looking in.

Beyond gaining fame as a “cool” landmark with its exterior’s many eye-catching lines, the Zhonghe sports center also manipulates space to create interaction. The 60-meter-long, nine-meters-wide building lobby has provided a welcoming space for senior citizens to get together. Tseng, who plays badminton at the facility on a regular basis, often sits to the side and observes seniors drinking tea, chatting or even swapping antiques.

“This space is free for everybody to use and serves a public welfare function, meeting the standard for a public building’s “public nature,” Tseng says.

Radiated by a scorching sun one afternoon, the building’s interior remains cool, and observing the flurry of activity inside, a proud Tseng affirms: “This is the kind of place that gives an architect the greatest sense of achievement.”

Taking on the Social Housing Stereotype

Tseng’s next step is to take on the social housing challenge.

“Taiwan’s public housing complexes are like bird cages. I want to change that and turn them into something different,” he says, his sense of mission rekindled.

Fully aware that only architects can give buildings “life,” Tseng is desperate to change the stereotype of social housing in people’s minds and reshape the fortunes of social housing in the country.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Fighting for Taiwan