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2021-08-13

Reconstructing the Taiwan imagination — Public administration alumnus Cinco Hsinko Yu (于欣可)

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“Hey, can you see me?”

The voice is coming from a faraway nation where it is 8am. I peer into the computer screen to see Cinco Hsinko Yu (于欣可) dressed casually at his apartment in the Netherlands, a freshly brewed cup of coffee by his side. “What’s the structure of the interview?” Just like laying out the blueprint before an architectural site breaks ground, Yu is accustomed to planning out all projects, big or small, before diving in. It’s good practice that reflects his public administration background.

Yu began his academic journey here at National Chi Nan University (NCNU) in 2002, as a public administration major, and enrolled in National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Building and Planning by 2007. He then relocated to the Netherlands to pursue a Ph.D. in urbanism at the Delft University of Technology in 2018.

His current roles include: doctoral candidate, citizen reporter, photographer, veteran netizen. The latter title stems from his active participation in many Taiwanese forums and online communities dedicated to architecture, city planning, and other urbanism topics.

Living needs imagination

Click and read, and one can quickly gain a sense of Yu’s spatial thinking — analysis built upon layers of critical knowledge and lit by bright ideas. Imagination is his sole superpower, and “living requires a lot of imagination.” Hence the need to reimagine architecture for humanity.

When a national infrastructure project became embroiled in scandal in 2020, most media coverage and public discourse were centered on the plagiarism aspects of the Taichung sports dome proposal. Yu re-circled back to the building — affectionately known as “The Big Egg” — itself.

His thoughts were with the Egg, its internal design, external shell, the flock of businesses that will be housed there, even the surrounding streets and existing neighborhoods. His attentiveness to the socioeconomic needs and spatial demands of the overall community stems from his belief in the need for integrating the “snags and paradoxes” of human cities.

Yu is quick to add that “public infrastructure should be grounded in public communications,” and that each citizen can bring more to the table by keeping abreast of the latest trends and breakthrough research, reviving regional memories and connections, and contributing to the public pool of knowledge.

Culture is comparable to invisible architecture, with the art of architecture itself a very tangible representation of culture. Traditional structures embody a community’s connection to their land and lineage. The old Paiwan slate house settlement of Kochapongan in Pingtung County, for example, is constructed out of slabs of innocuous stone — rocks, to some, but strata of heritage to Yu and others in the know. 

He then talks about how Cinemnemay, an Amis community in Xindian that was devastated by Typhoon Soudelor in 2015, inadvertently started a housebuilding movement with their necessity-driven innovations and frugality. From early brushes with law enforcement due to lack of familiarity with construction regulations to the group’s commitment to the labor demands of each member’s independent house, the community’s experiences are invaluable to all those who are passionate about building one’s home from scratch.

Yu also cites the considerable build-your-own-home experience of the Dutch, noting that this initiative will come with its own set of challenges unique to Taiwan, depending on implementation and “what one envisions home life to be.” Apart from purchasing or leasing, building one’s own shelter is an equally viable third option, especially when demand outpaces supply.

Moreover, for Yu, research on the reconstruction efforts surrounding Taiwan’s indigenous cultures began in university. “In Puli, I met two professors who had a profound influence on me: Hsieh Ying-chun (謝英俊), an architect who was helping the Thao rebuild their homes then (if you go now, their work station remains by Ita Thao at Sun-Moon Lake); and Huang Mei-ying (黃美英), an anthropologist who played an important role in the reconstruction efforts after the devastating September 21 Earthquake of 1999. Based in Puli, she traveled to Taichung’s Wushe settlement and as far as Miaoli’s indigenous Taian township to help them rebuild.”

Hsieh and Huang have brought a new brand of humanitarian thought and action to life, and Yu is a disciple. However, just like the indigenous warriors returning home to Ita Thao after a mission, those who wish to practice architecture must first complete their initiation via public administration.

Talk it out

As displayed on the wall of the department office, the visual language of the NCNU Department of Public Policy and Administration is characterized by the Mandarin character for “human,” for “communicating is the tenet of our field,” he explains. The focus should always return to the “users” of architecture — the people.

The conversation turns to the at-hand issue of whether to allow visitors to freely wander the NCNU campus. It is a stout “yes” from Yu, who is a major proponent of the university’s barrier-free policies and sees an open campus as a way to achieve more inclusion and forge closer ties with neighboring communities.

From becoming a new leisure destination for nearby residents to promoting local interest in university affairs, NCNU’s next steps should focus on evoking emotional ties with the land, Yu says. He cites engagement such as voting on what types of trees will be planted in the next round of gardening, or having members of the public “adopt” certain leafy members of the campus.

From trees we jump to books. The library is his favorite building on campus. He points out, however, that such spaces shouldn’t be “hijacked” by books. Many European libraries are now accumulating digital collections, freeing up space for human usage, he says, adding that the coronavirus crisis accentuates the need for practical and comfortable spatial design to accommodate students.

Is promoting engagement between public resources such as libraries and their target users — i.e. students and other NCNU campus members — not one of the important goals of the university’s administration? Hereby Yu brings up his vision for library transformation: labs. Like science labs, but for experimenting with text, new media, Instagram posts, and other interdisciplinary endeavors.

Not only can students learn by doing through such programs, they can even supervise the operations of the labs and the libraries, Yu proposes. Responsibilities are equal across the board as adults, after all.

A university made of labs

“If you were asked to give a speech at NCNU, what would you like to share?”

“My topic would be: universities should be full of labs!” Responding without hesitation, Yu sounds like he is already speaking on stage. Young universities such as NCNU have a chance to be free from traditional constraints, to become an academic institution that sincerely responds to the needs of the era at hand.

He stresses that NCNU students are equal in strength to those who graduate from Taiwan’s top schools, but the lack of privilege and prestige associated with the young university’s name often give rise to imposter-like feelings. Confidence can be trained by “aspiring to output by seeking new input,” reminds Yu.

University lab projects can help with that too, he notes. When students themselves become drivers of the learning process, and schools provide the resources and knowledge for their exploration, innovation leads and confidence follows.

The conference call ends with a question to satisfy my personal curiosity about the peculiar lopsided arrangement of his rental apartment, to which he responds: “this is the classic slanted rooftop of the Dutch, this house is over a hundred years old!” He contrasts the monthly maintenance fees mandated by the Dutch government for centennial housekeeping with Taiwan’s habits of tearing down old buildings. And thus the transatlantic conversation ends on Puli, a central Taiwanese township awakening from siesta as us two depart from speech to reflect upon its historic and contemporary ties with the Netherlands and the world at large through people and their architecture.

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