Enabling Solidarity into the Steel: Rethinking Innovation from East Asian Cases

Volume 03, Issue 1

What is the exemplary architectural innovation in contemporary East Asia? The skyscraper Taipei 101, or the Watercube in the Beijing Olympic Park? Take a look at this issue's cover, as EASTS invites you to enter a new world of East Asian innovation based on insights from Hsieh Ying-chun's (謝英俊) years of post-disaster reconstruction efforts in rural Taiwan and China.

In September 1999, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck Taiwan, killing more than 2,000 people. Several aboriginal tribes suffered most seriously and were among the groups who had the least resources to rebuild their communities. Taiwanese architect Hsieh Ying-chun and his team Atelier-3 Worldwide came to those tribes to help, but he aimed to achieve a vision that went beyond a temporary resettlement. He believed that making new living spaces after a disaster could instill new hopes in a community by promoting such ideals as solidarity, democracy, and sustainability. Hsieh once reflected that “it is indeed the earthquake that gave me the chance to put the theory of green architecture, public participation, and sustainable development into practice” (Hsieh and Roan 2003, 4). Could it be possible to develop a new housing project among the ashes and at the same time empower the local residents, exalt the cultural heritage, increase employment, and restore the ecosystem—all within a limited budget? The answer for Hsieh was a definitive Yes, but the question for us is how was it done?

A technical innovation—the lightweight steel construction—plays a significant role in Hsieh's inspirational project, whose major elements include “simplified construction” and “open architecture” (Roan 2007). Lightweight steel construction is expensive in some industrialized countries due to the high patent fees for building complicated connecting points. Hsieh, however, was about to reduce the number of connection points to 10%, a feat that considerably cut down the costs of construction. To involve aboriginals and volunteers in rebuilding communities, Hsieh created a do-it-yourself method so that even people without formal training could get their tools to work without too much effort. The flexibility of Hsieh's invention is further shown in the fact that residents could employ locally available resources such as bamboo, wood, and bricks when building walls, façades, and roofs. Hsieh, thus, inscribes the core values of social relationships—solidarity, public participation, and local knowledge—into bolts, lightweight steel, and his open architectural system. STS scholar Hsin-Hsing Chen (2004) calls this rebuilding effort “the first large appropriate technology project” in Taiwan, for it consciously designs progressive social values into technological innovation and social organization.

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