In the heart of Taiwan, in Taichung City stands the National Taichung Theatre. It is the centre for cultural activities, mainly opera and theatre. Toyo Ito & Associates started planning the structure back in 2005, and after eleven years they finally completed all stages of construction of the National Taichung Theatre in 2016.
The theatre spreads over about 551000 ft2 and is an extension of the adjacent recreational park. It has grown to become the centre of attraction for the people of Taiwan. People from all parts flock to the National Taichung Theatre to display and keep their art forms alive.
“I am always searching for a building which is something like a ripple on a river—one that can follow the river’s currents but maintain its spatial integrity”, said Pritzker Prize 2013 winner, Toyo Ito. This thought has been the foundation for the National Taichung Theatre, the concept and building form has emerged from this point onwards.
Inspired by the medieval Belgian City, Ghent, the concept of ‘sound caves’ was born. All the walls on the interior were curved, they flow all around the structure and emerge out the top of the glass skin box. The advantage of these curved walls was that they allowed spaces within the theatre to flow into each other. No clear defined boundaries can be seen anywhere, thus making the interiors extremely flexible allowing activities to take place without any structural obstructions.
These curved volumes or irregularly shaped tubes called catenoids define the National Taichung Theatre. Catenoids are curved surfaces generated by rotating a catenary curve around an axis. They create a canyon-like experience on the interior and account for the bold appearance of the structure on the exterior.
To make these catenoids three-dimensional, five two-dimensional ‘emerging grids’ were created and overlaid on each other, slightly staggered. About 400 points came from this and the shape and position of the catenoid were determined. Toyo Ito said that the geometry of the structure was developed before the plan. A space like this was a new experience to the public, to see a two-dimensional grid converted into a continuous volume that separates yet defines spaces on both, horizontal and vertical planes.
The dynamism and fluidity of the National Taichung Theatre reflect nature’s dynamism. The volumes are designed in a way that they attract people into the structure and then transport them to the rooftop that opens up to a view of the surrounding landscape.
The National Taichung Theatre is accessed by the main entrance and additional multi-directional entrances as well approached through a plaza, a part of the outdoor landscape which comprises a fountain and outdoor theatre as well. All of these entrances open into a lobby. The second basement level has rehearsal rooms, a mechanical room and a black box. The areas on the ground floor- café, open marketplace and a ticket desk are separated by only furniture and not the catenoids. Separate stairways for three different areas emerge from here.
The staircases lead to the 2000 seat Grand Theatre, the 800 seat Playhouse that can be accessed from the second floor or basement level black box, and the 200 seat theatre that opens into an outdoor amphitheatre. The fifth floor holds the gallery, restaurant, office space, retail area and a roof garden. The catenoids emerge out through the roof garden, which also houses the HVAC equipment. The national Taichung theatre is a total of six stories.
The construction of the national Taichung theatre was a challenge. Concrete was the chosen material for the project, and to build with concrete requires formwork. The irregular shapes of the catenoids meant that the construction process would be extremely time-consuming as the formwork had to be customized and then the structure would emerge.
The solution to this was an interlocking truss wall system that was local to Japanese architecture. Two-dimensional trusses of different curvature were prefabricated and brought to the site. They were tied together 8 inches apart to create a three-dimensional unit. These units were placed within layers of steel mesh which behaved as formwork for concrete.
Once the concrete was poured into this after partial curing, the mesh was removed to ensure a smooth exterior surface and thin layers of mortar and white paint were applied on each side of the curved wall. These walls were not only structural but also functional in terms of interior spaces. The structure stands on just these curved walls and is not supported by any columns or perpendicular walls. This was achieved due to the combination of a local construction technique and modern construction technology.
Horizontal plugs made of steel deck and concrete were placed to maximize floor area. Due to the variation in diameter of the catenoids, supplemental beams were used to achieve the desired ceiling heights. Vertical plugs were added to walls for strengthening and covering up cut edges on the elevation. Circular glass disks were embedded into the exterior concrete panels to allow daylight to filter through them.
This type of lighting not only naturally illuminated the National Taichung Theatre but also added drama to the interior due to the play of light and shadows created.
Sustainability was an important factor of the National Taichung Theatre. Underneath the ground floor are cold fusion pipes that lower room temperature and emit cool air through ventilation outlets into the surrounding, lowering the microclimate. On the curved walls of the lobby and first floor are dots arranged like a constellation, a water screen system from Japan. Each dot is a nozzle.
In case of fire, a thin water curtain will flow to block smoke and heat. This system not only prevents the spread of fire but also purifies the air. Natural lighting and ventilation were achieved by the glass walls, undefined interior and exterior spaces that flow into each other. Large amounts of daylight filters into the structure and at night the lighting from inside the theatre flows outwards, illuminating the outdoor areas.
The National Taichung Theatre is also earthquake resistant, responding to the disaster-prone context of Japan. Its walls were extremely cost-effective and resulted in lesser amounts of wastage when compared to a traditional formwork system for curved walls. The building was designed in a way to allow sound to carry through spaces, minimizing the need for large speakers all over the structure.
Some say the structure resembles a coral reef, some say the exterior resembles wine bottles, and some say the structure was inspired by cascades and rocks. Toyo Ito created this wonderful organic theatre, inspired by the fluidity of nature. He strived to build a relationship between the interior and exterior, made it as transparent as possible to allow the interior and exterior to coexist and create a relationship between humans and nature.
The National Taichung Theatre put Taichung on the map due to its unique form and structural system. The combination of Japanese techniques and modern technology gave rise to this iconic theatre.
Indesignlive | Daily Connection to Australian Architecture and Design. (2018). A cave of sound: Toyo Ito’s National Taichung Theatre | Indesignlive. [online] Available at: https://www.indesignlive.com/the-work/toyo-itos-national-taichung-theatre.