One of the biggest cultural centres in the world, the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, has pushed the boundaries of design and construction to create a truly inspiring cultural complex.

The magnificent 141 000m2 National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts is nearing completion at the end of 2016 and is set to become an icon of culture for Kaohsiung and the southern part of Taiwan. Mecanoo project director, Friso van der Steen, shared the fascinating story of this building development with local architects at an international event organised by the Pretoria Institute for Architects (PIA).

Situated within the 64ha Wei-Wu-Ying Metropolitan Park, the giant cultural complex spans 225m by 160m, and will house a concert hall (2000), a lyric theatre (2250), a playhouse (1250), a recital hall (470) and a large outdoor seating area with a total of 6 000 seats.

Inspired by the trees
For the award-winning design, Dutch architectural firm, Mecanoo, drew inspiration from the wide crowns and solid trunks of the centuries-old banyan trees at the location. The result was a continuous cave-like structure with the individual halls representing the trunks, while the open spaces underneath the canopy roof will serve as informal public spaces where the Kaohsiung residents can stroll or cycle through the complex, practise Tai Chi, mediate or just relax.

Interestingly, at that time, (the international competition was won in 2007) the architects didn’t have access to BIM, so an absurd amount of 2D drawings were created (with the help of Digital Project, Rhino and AutoCAD), about 1 000 architectural drawings, plus many others from the rest of the project team.

One-of-a-kind building skin
The complicated building skin was engineered in a single, continuous shape that is layered to create different levels within the building and which links the floors, walls and roofs of the complex. With absolutely zero repetition in the entire building, every square metre is shaped differently.

To create the uniquely shaped design, an impressive curved steel structure was built in cooperation between local and Dutch shipbuilders. For the cladding, the curved steel plates were cut with CNC machines in varying sizes and thicknesses, and each plate was marked with placement, location and welding information so that later it could be put together like a very big puzzle.

Since shipbuilders don’t build ships with any tolerance, these precision builders formed each individual skin plate of up to 4m by 6m big to the exact curvature with hammers (cold bending technique) and without heat. Everything was engineered to necessity, exactly as it was required for the best fit, and even when cutting the plates, the shapes were efficiently organised to minimise waste. This meticulousness won a lot of time during the installation since everything fit the first time.

Creating the ambience
Inside, the space can adapt from daytime to night-time. During the day, giant 5m by 5m sky wells let in natural light to the building, enough so that no artificial lighting is required. At night, the painted building skin acts as a projector screen with which the space can be dressed in colours or images.

As an extension of the park, the complex is accessible to the public and each hall has big windows so that passers-by can see what is going on and get used to the idea of going to the theatre, something that wasn’t previously accessible in the south of Taiwan.

Full thanks and acknowledgement are given to the PIA and Mecanoo for making it possible to write this article.

Numbers to note:
•    20 642t of rebar goes up to 50m deep.
•    800 foundation piles between 1,5m and 2,5m in diameter.
•    ± 140 016m³ of concrete.
•    21 352t of steel in the main structure.
•    1 500t of steel in the building skin cover (23 000m2).
•    More than 500 people work on the site daily.