A performing arts centre for whom? Rethinking the architect as negotiator of urban imaginaries

31 Jul 2023, 10:45 a.m.
Inge Goudsmit, Maria Kaika, and Nanke Verloo

The Taipei Performing Arts Centre (TPAC) is a new cultural flagship, recently built in one of Taipei's oldest night market districts. The project, designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), was commissioned to provide a world-class performing arts venue that would be embedded in the local, national, and East Asian cultural scene. The architects, though, imagined integrating the existing night market into the theatre as an opportunity to juxtapose the old and the new, allowing chance encounters between different urban users of “all classes, all nationalities, locals and tourists” (Koolhaas, 2009). However, the government's narrative and that of the architects conflicted with the imaginaries and narratives of local residents and market vendors, leading to the TPAC being perceived as a site for other people rather than a People’s Theatre.

The TPAC project highlights the complexity of the architect's role in negotiating urban imaginaries of the architecture they design. While addressing the client’s brief, architects also advocate their own agendas, which may be critical of the city’s imaginary of an emblematic cultural object used to regenerate a neighbourhood.

Urban imaginaries have been developed as part of critical spatial theory, and a growing body of research on urban visions documents how they play a role in shaping global urban futures. In this study, the authors mobilise Castoriadis's theoretical framework in which he uses the imaginary institution of society as a basis for an analytical structure to interpret the production of aesthetic symbols. The authors analyse the imaginaries of both top-down and bottom-up stakeholders and examine how architects connect these imaginaries to their designs and use these to persuade others of their views. Our article, however, also analyses how these persuasive imaginaries often change or even disappear when the project moves from design to actually being built, leaving us to rethink the role of architects throughout the entire process of architecture and urban development.

This manuscript is part of a larger study investigating urban politics around the production and reproduction of iconic cultural buildings. We present detailed empirical insights through a review of internal documents, interviews, and content analysis on archival data, and expose the controversy over the integration of the historical 'low culture' local food market into the design for the new 'high culture' Performing Arts Centre.

In conclusion, this study highlights the importance of considering the multiple situated forces in urban situations and the role of architects in negotiating between conflicting imaginaries. The TPAC project serves as a reminder that iconic buildings are not viewed objects but have constitutive and constituting aspects that are negotiated through both top-down and bottom-up forces. The authors' analysis provides a critical reflection on the complexity of the architect's role in negotiating urban imaginaries of the architecture they design.



Koolhaas R (2009) ‘OMA*AMO; What can Architecture do?’ (Lecture). Taipei: Architectural Institute of Taiwan. Google Scholar


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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