for a country that prides itself on its friendliness to outsiders, hospitality, and openness, taiwan presents a surprisingly unfriendly and closed off face in much of its urban domestic architecture
once one leaves major commercial streets for residential lanes and alleys, tall walls–often topped with bars, concertina wire, and broken bottles for added deterrence–shout “keep away” to the passerby. added to the narrowness of these urban lanes, the walls feel as if they lean in and push a would be flaneur on. but don’t worry–there’s not much to see here anyway. or is there?
walled residential spaces, both single family homes and apartment buildings, often wall in courtyards, which may or may not be covered with a variety of roof finishes, ranging from translucent plastics to the ubiquitous “metal skin” siding with which taiwanese builders create additions, roofs, and walls of all sorts. sometimes, trees or other plants peak out through gaps in this covering
this use of technologies of enclosure–broken bottles, bars, walls, concertina wire–aggressively pushes into public space, making it an architecture of repulsion. if one asks taipei people why such an aggressive demarcation of residential space, usually the answer is that the walls and bars, spikes, bottles, and wires give people a feeling of security. although i *sort of* understand this rationale, it seems overplayed: after all, taipei has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. there is next to no violent crime here. people say that there used to be more theft than today, however, the relative lack of crime and hyper-aggressive security seem a mismatch
this contrast pairs with the overall one between strictly enclosed private spaces in residential areas versus the blurred boundaries between public and private space in commercial areas dominated by chi-lou
historically, the use of these enclosures in taipei has both a sinophone and japanese colonial pedigree. walled enclosures were features of traditional sinophone architectures in old cities such as lukang and were often associated with class status; families that could afford their own wells located within walled courtyards could maintain strict privacy including the privacy of women in the household, who would not need to go outside to the well for water or do to washing. of course, this would deprive women of possibilities for gossip and other social networking described in the work of margery wolf, for example, as a source of women’s informal social power. in other words, the walled enclosures of traditional sinophone architecture maintained patriarchy. houses located within walled courtyards were a common feature of japanese colonial taipei, as well; there are still a few of them here and there for those interested in architecture to discover–but not to many given land prices in taipei today, which has selected for building ever upward
for people who live in these kind of residential spaces in taipei, the walled enclosure does offer a kind of buffer between the narrow alleys and one’s front door. the courtyard can fit scooters and bicycles, mops and buckets, and could also be a place to hang out laundry. the bars might even serve as an impromptu umbrella rack
if recent construction offers a sense of direction, however, the aggressively walled courtyard might be a feature relegated to old buildings. new architectures of exclusion seem to be taking its place. newer apartment buildings generally tend toward the manhattanesque lobby with door people keeping watch. the walls tend to be shorter and try to be more friendly to passing pedestrians. even renovations of historic residential structures with walls have tended to remove the more repulsive features of these walls, such as barbed wire or broken bottles. perhaps, then, the contrast between the relative lack of distinction between private and public space in commercial areas versus the architecture of exclusion in residential areas may be less evident in the future