Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Oct 11 2012

Cities Happen

I recently wrote the following article for URS/Village Taipei on my city and its urban development from the standpoint of a photographer:

The best cities happen. They develop organically according to the varying trends among their inhabitants, the supplies and demands of the shifting citizenry over the decades. Even the best-laid grids imposed from on high over the twisting, labyrinthine networks of alleys are co-opted and bent to the will of those who inhabit every corner of the spaces within the bold, straight lines, from basement to cupola. The residents are tied to each other but not particularly beholden to any exterior force. Lesser cities, on the other hand, tend to be comprised of awkward, unreasonable structures that defy the attempts of anyone to comfortably inhabit them. The people of such places live with the nagging suspicion that they have been shipped in from the outside and put on display inside a mall for a shopping trip that never ends, and even the most luxurious of malls in the end incites rebellion against the yearning for space of one’s own.

Taipei is, in spite of itself, the former kind of city. Originally formed from settlements along the riverside, it grew gradually into a city, only to be briefly ensconced within high stone walls with five grand gates before the Japanese arrived and tore down the walls, leaving all but one of the gates, and laying down a geometrical grid of their own.

However, throughout Japanese rule as well as following retrocession in 1945, this city has paid only the merest lip service to ideas and goals that didn’t serve the interests, from the lofty to the base, of its inhabitants. The result is the most democratic of appearances, a strange kind of order masquerading as chaos. The result of many masters is inevitably none, and from this all-encompassing stew occasionally arises the most startling serendipity, all the more valuable because it arose from nobody’s plans, was the result of nobody’s intentions, and according to nobody’s vision.

Buildings in Taipei instead contort themselves in the most incredible fashions in order to occupy every inch of the land sky they possibly can, and their inhabitants take it from there, asserting their domain over not just the buildings but the various surrounding corridors, sidewalks and even streets, everyone’s territory melding together in such a fashion that the public and the private become almost indistinguishable and in the process opening up for examination the most sublime details of life in this metropolis. You may be walking on the sidewalk, but it may also be someone’s living room. A shop is also a den where the owner gets up from his dinner table to serve a customer. A night market is our collective kitchen. Even in large corporations, where in other countries the private would not dare show its face, elements of the private can be found, not only in the physical structures, but also in the interactions of the people, in their language and attitude. The result is a rough intimacy like cotton wrapped in the mesh of officialdom. It is a surprisingly resilient combination.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, and this is where Taipei’s genius lies. Whereas cities like gleaming Singapore feature carefully contoured environments designed to be visually pleasing, or Shanghai, where the sight of any building that is not old or “historical” is becoming increasingly rare, the occasional, incidental beauty that appears in certain moments, be it revealed in a flash, uncovered after decades or hiding in plain sight, is stunning because it is not bound by the limited imaginations of city planners, however gifted they may be. Most of the time the chaos is chaos, but here and there, pure genius appears, seemingly out of thin air; all we need are the eyes to see it, to recognize it for what it is, apart from the smokescreen of regrets or what we think it should be.

So far, this has been a mixed blessing for me as a photographer and director, as well as for Taipei itself. The open nature and general overlap of public and private, not just in the physical infrastructure but in the general outlook of this society, have allowed me access to scenes I simply wouldn’t see in other scenarios. In filming, many times no costly, involved setup is required, and a small, fast crew can accomplish a great deal before anyone even begins to care what is happening.

Over the nearly quarter century I have observed this city, I have learned to seek out instances of incidental beauty by striving to remain open to its appearance at any time, in any place, an ability most denizens shut off as soon as they can, resulting in genuine cognitive dissonance when presented with its existence. I often hear people presented with my photos saying, “I recognize this, but I’ve never seen it!” Yet, a growing antipathy for the haphazardly pragmatic architectural “designs”, if one can call them that, of the 60’s and 70’s, resulted in efforts to purposefully make spaces aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, many of these efforts have resulted in empty, superficial structures and areas, imposed upon the urban landscape rather than integrating with it. Though momentarily popular, such efforts lack pragmatic human involvement and end up gathering dust rather than memories. Even older, well-used and lived-in communities, once “cleaned up”, lose their connection to both the past and the future if the very things that made them livable are removed for the sake of some artist’s or planner’s idea of “modern surroundings.”

There is, after all, an inevitable gap between who we are and who we like to think we are, and urban design needs to take into account not only visions of a better future, but the realities of the present and even the horrors of the past. All of these make us who we are, and ignoring our baser natures will not make them go away. On the contrary, the results will falter for reasons nobody is willing to admit, and therefore be allowed to fester longer, in the end doing more damage than anyone expected. For most of Taipei’s history, urban development has followed the winding path of least resistance, the details left to a more or less freely random process, unconstrained by considerations of the larger picture. There are those who would claim we deserve better, and they are right, but we must first recognize that we make what is provided to us our own.

This city is distinguished by the unrelenting reality of its creation, every day, at the level of its inhabitants’ desires and needs, without regard for superficialities or design. It is the kind of reality over which artists grieve for being unable to relate, but the bottom line is that it works. It is, the lion’s share of the time, not a pretty sight, but it works. And, occasionally, it not only works, it is the perfect picture of ourselves.

posted by Poagao at 2:46 pm  

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