the architecture of making do (5): surfaces

like commercial architectures in urban taiwan, domestic architecture in taipei depends a great deal on surfacing

older brick and timber structures, now a relative rarity in taipei, are often surfaced with plaster, concrete, and the ubiquitous metal siding. and of course, metal siding appears in countless add-ons: as roofing, enclosures, rooftop additions, and supplemental covering over leaking concrete roofs

and how could we talk about domestic architecture in urban taiwan without mentioning tile?

how could we fail to mention tile?
how could we fail to mention tile?

readers of this blog will know that i have been obsessed with tile, which appears in both interior and exterior structures in taiwanese domestic architectures. initially a decorative feature to brick buildings in the early 20th century, tile eventually became the dominant surface material, covering entire street facing–and sometimes all–exterior walls of most structures beginning in the 1970s. while in 2022 other surfaces have become popular in new construction, the reign of tile is still undisputed. whether in my house in rural taitung county or at the apartment i rent in yongho, i see tile all about me (i know i’m not the only one! — here’s another blog post that talks a great deal about tile in relationship to taiwanese buildings)

there’s even a museum of old tiles (the 花磚博物館 in chia-yi)–about the kinds of tiles that one would see on historic buildings–but i’m more interested in the kind of tile surfacing on domestic architectures dating from the mid-20th century

originally, tile gained popularity as a non-porous and thus in theory relatively easy to clean material. ok–i know that the lack of exterior maintenance for most taipei buildings means that the tile is often mildewed or otherwise stained rather than gleaming–yet tile, as opposed to plaster, offered multiple textures, colours, and finishes. in theory, the tiles also keep moisture from penetrating concrete walls, thus avoiding the combination of water damage and mildew on interior walls that taiwanese people call  “wall cancer” (壁癌).  and tile is also produced locally.

a versatile covering for relatively simple, featureless poured concrete buildings, tile became an index for a kind of vernacular modernity, associated with multistory buildings featuring indoor plumbing (the bathroom often located underneath the stairwell), stairwells with a relatively low pitch, and good hygiene. tile becomes the surface marker of this sort of modern house

tile surfacing is likely the dominant feature of taiwanese domestic architecture from the 1970s onward
tile surfacing is likely the dominant feature of taiwanese domestic architecture from the 1970s onward

tile–and surfacing more generally–was particularly appealing for a kind of architecture that had to respond to the rapid growth of taipei’s population in the mid- 20th century, particularly the 1970s and 1980s which witnessed substantial rural to urban migration, and associated housing needs. people had to build cheaply and in a hurry. surfacing provided a bit more visual interest, more texture to what would have been a grey concrete landscape. the tiles also look good before taiwan’s subtropical climate begins to mildew them

yet, tile colours and sizes changed along with hem lengths and other fashions. generally speaking, tiles on exterior surfaces increased from the 1960s through the 1990s, the tiles becoming larger and eventually in the 2000s in colour more brick like. because domestic surface treatments tend to remain relatively constant–unlike commercial facades which change rapidly–it’s possible to date houses and apartment buildings relatively accurately by looking at the tile surfacing

looking at surfacing, at the contrasts among adjacent structures, we are looking at an ongoing architectural history

from the first concrete structures with pebbled, rather than tile surfaces

to the miniature, multicoloured tile of early tile surfaced buildings, through the deep emerald tile of the 1970s, and the ever larger tiles in yellows, beiges, and red brick colours of the 1990s and 2000s

it’s true that many of the buildings could use a powerwash to clean the grout. but looking closely at surfacing is one of the many ways that we can all be amateur archaeologists of urban taiwan’s domestic architectures

today with urban renewal in many of taipei’s districts, several of these varieties of tile and other surfacing may become less common. not all of them are beautiful, but they deserve our attention as part of taipei’s history of rapid mid-century development

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