Schools, housing, old neighbourhoods - Taiwan is surprisingly full of abandoned buildings. Taiwan-based writer and photographer Kayt Bronnimann has been fascinated by these spaces and shares her experiences exploring these places.
A roll of film lay unspooled at my feet, spiralling away like a loose curl. It was long exposed to the soft light coming in through dusty windows, fingers of eager plants stretching across their panes. The rest of the room was a mess of broken furniture, rubbish and wires. On a table I found a photo of a young boy in soccer gear, smiling and giving a double victory sign, in front of a bunch of baby cacti. Who is this boy? Did he know his image permanently lived there?
I found the image at a former military neighbourhood in Taiwan where soldiers and their families once lived. The place looked like it was vacated in a hurry. As though the former inhabitants had no time to decide what was worth keeping and what would be left behind. In some houses it felt like the souls who lived there had just evaporated. Part of some exclusive rapture that left the rest of us behind.
Taiwan is full of these places. Factories, shopping malls, hospitals, amusement parks, half built villages, breweries. I have seen them all. Places left to slowly fade, an unplanned but inevitable obsolescence. Sometimes all it takes to discover a new abandoned building is to jump on the back of a scooter and ride around seeking the tell-tale signs.
When I first lived in Taiwan I wasn’t interested so much in what these places once had been. I was more fascinated by what they were at the time I explored them. And by what was left behind: glass jars containing fleshy shapes in an abandoned hospital; an old projector in the fetid depths of an amusement park; clothes hanging in a dormitory; piles of cassette tapes, stickers faded beyond recognition; the formal stares of a collection of passport photos. Ghostly imprints of the past.
One of the first abandoned places I ever visited was in Changhua, a mid-sized city in central Taiwan. In the middle of the city is the somewhat diminutive Mount Bagua (Baguashan), home to a giant, smiling buddha and the abandoned Peiyun Middle School.
The buildings of the school are still relatively intact-though not much else remains after years of visitors and looting. Multi-storied buildings surround a courtyard that is slowly being taken over by giant banyan trees, Medusa-like limbs twisting through the overgrown grass. Blackboards caked in chalk dust still hold the ordered shapes of traditional Chinese characters. Chairs are pushed neatly behind empty desks, ready for a class that never comes. The dust has embedded itself into the grooves of graffiti carved by bored hands. The shelves in the library are fallen into one another like lonely dominoes, spilling their books to the floor.
In the nineties, as Taiwan emerged from decades of martial law, it underwent rapid economic growth garnering it “Asian Tiger” status. Much of this new found wealth was invested into real estate developments by eager businessmen with wealth to spare. One distinctive and ultimately failed venture lies on the northern coastline of Taiwan-home of the world’s highest concentration of ‘Futuro’ houses, the brainchild of Finnish architect Matti Suuronen. Intended to be a cheap and compact form of housing, they resemble old-fashioned UFOs suspended above the earth on four legs.
These squashed spheres found their way to Taiwan and the coastal town of Wanli. Over time they have worn with age. A skirt of dirt has collected on the underside of their yellow exteriors. At 50 square metres these homes are the ultimate ‘tiny house’. Their insides look like empty, protruding bellies. Closer to the ocean are another example of Finnish ingenuity-the more rectangular ‘Uturo’ pods. Wall to wall windows give seaside views but little privacy. Someone made the design choice of clown rubbish bins with mouths as the receptacle. They congregated together outside one glassless pod, a collection of wide, frozen grins.
Some of the Utoro houses are still inhabited by those who didn’t get the memo that this would be resort town didn’t pan out.
Or perhaps they prefer the vacancy.
Not all abandoned places are the result of misguided entrepreneurship. Some represent the waning of industry. Like the skeletal remains of the Agenna Shipyards, in the Northern port city of Keelung. Throughout the seventies, the Argonaut Corporation manufactured luxury yachts here for Western clientele. But it was not to last. The site passed from company to company and has been abandoned for decades-other than as a backdrop for Instagrammers, posing amongst the ruins.
On the day I visited the place was sealed off. The whole structure looked like a game of dominoes ready to tumble at any minute. This state of destruction was given a helping hand in 2016 by the company that leases the land. Deeming it unsafe (and uneconomic) they undertook a rouge mini-demolition that was swiftly halted by local government. There has been talk of designating the shipyards a heritage site, but for now, like many other abandoned buildings in Taiwan, it remains in limbo.
Sometimes Taiwan can tear down and put up a building in lightning speed. Sometimes it takes decades.
Publicly funded buildings and complexes that have been abandoned are known colloquially as Mosquito Halls (Wénzi Diàn 蚊子殿).Here cold blooded creatures now reign supreme. A surge in election promises following the lifting of martial law in the late eighties led to a frenzy of government planning and building of public works. “A carpark for every town!” “An incinerator for every county!” became the calling cry for different government departments. And yet within years of opening, many of these projects had closed their doors. Poor planning, mismanagement, lack of local interest, and insufficient operational budgets were just some issues that befell them.
Between 2010 and 2019 artist and teacher Yao Jui-chung, along with his students, photographed over 800 derelict Mosquito Halls across Taiwan. They dubbed themselves ‘Lost Society Document’, and their aim was to draw attention to the widespread mismanagement of public money. These photos are contained within seven volumes titled “Mirage I-VII: Disused Public Property in Taiwan”. The images capture disused parking buildings and airports, agricultural parks, organic farms, fishing harbours, elementary schools, swimming pools, elderly care facilities, retail outlets, waste and incineration sites, visitor centres and resorts. They tally the cost of these ventures- a most public of audits. The books drummed up enough controversy to elicit promises from higher up that these buildings would be fixed up and turned into spaces that would serve the public that paid for them.
Some have not waited for the government or private enterprise to step in, instead seeing an opportunity to reclaim these spaces for public use. This was the case with the disused Qianyue Department Store (千越百貨) in Taichung’s former downtown. The building spans a whole block and in its heyday was a mixed commercial and residential building. By the late nineties, the whole neigbourhood suffered from economic decline as the city’s commercial hub shifted west, and many businesses closed shop. But between 2017 and 2021 the building was partially occupied by graffiti artist group ‘Escape Plan X’. Their aim was to regenerate the building, as a way of recognising space as part of a collective memory. With the permission of the building owners they transformed the fifth and sixth floors with their graffiti art and established artist studios. They held events where they invited the public to reimagine the possibility of what the space could be.
Taiwan’s often relentless pace of real estate development has been described by one commentator as “the sacralized practice of Taiwan’s developmentalist religion”, and yet this land ‘conversion’ has not been uniform.
I’m reminded of this daily as I look out my window towards my own neighbourly dose of abandonment. A three story building, insides exposed through gaping holes. Blocks of concrete hang in the air like tumbling Jenga pieces. It’s been this way for years now. Frozen in the act of destruction. No longer a something not quite yet a nothing.
- Asia Media Centre