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The National Theatre and Concert Hall

Taiwan’s Cultural Icon

national theater 4

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

The National Theatre and Concert Hall in Taipei are situated within the park that includes Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and Liberty Square.  The entire park covers a vast area of approximately 250,000 square meters in Zhongzheng District, on land that had belonged to the military and included a military dependents’ village.  Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a striking structure in pristine blue and white, overlooks the entire park.  In front of it and facing each other are the National Theatre and Concert Hall, prominent in red and orange, in the style of Northern Chinese imperial palaces.  The grandeur of this civic space is to inspire awe and pride.  It shows the nation’s growing confidence in the late 1970s and 80s.  

The National Theatre and Concert Hall project was prompted by the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975.  The government decided then that it was necessary to commemorate Chiang, but more importantly, these two prominent cultural institutions were part of the government’s “12 Major Constructions” which included projects to promote culture and the arts, such as libraries, museums and concert halls in cities all over Taiwan.  Construction for the two performance spaces, commonly known in Mandarin as Liangtingyuan (兩廳院), literally “two halls”, began in 1980.  It was completed in 1987 with the official opening on 31 October 1987.  Up until then, the biggest performing arts space in Taipei had capacity for only 500 people.  Upon completion, the largest space in the National Theatre has a capacity of 1,498 seats, and the Concert Hall 2,022 seats, making it possible to host events on a scale not seen before.   

The architect chosen for the project was Yang Cho-cheng (楊卓成), whose previous designs included Grand Hotel and Chiang Kai-shek Shilin Residence.  Nostalgia for and pride in Taiwan’s Chinese heritage is obvious in the design.  The intricate and numerous architectural details are often direct references to classical Chinese culture.  One example is the mythical beasts on the ridges of the roofs.  These include a celestial man on a phoenix leading the pack, followed by dragon, another phoenix, lion, sky horse, ocean horse and many others.  These beasts are believed to fend off fire and evil, while bringing in luck and fulfillment. 

The iconic orange roofs are the largest glazed tile roofs in Taiwan.  The National Theatre’s roof is covered by approximately 275,700 glazed tiles, and 243,000 pieces for the Concert Hall.  These tiles were locally made, and laid by experienced craftsmen who had to shoulder up to 48 kg of tiles up on the roof and lay them by hand.  

Igniting People’s Imagination

Grandeur continues in the interior of these two buildings, with sweeping, curved staircases carpeted in red; and massive chandeliers hanging from ornate ceilings.  Nevertheless, it is functionality as professional performing arts spaces that is vital to the entire project.  Sound, lights, stage, seats and air conditioning were designed by a team of European and local experts.  In addition, the interior is filled with public art pieces by Taiwanese artists, many with links to performing art.  The total construction cost of the the two structures was over 746 million dollars, partly funded by donations from public and private institutions, local people and the Taiwanese diaspora, showing how this was a project that ignited people’s imagination, and brought people together in their pride in national identity; and desire for a cultural icon at the time.  

The first performances at the National Theatre and Concert Hall took place on 6 October 1987. The official opening was on 31 October 1987, on the anniversary of Chiang Kai-shek’s death.  As per the customs of the time, the audience and performers bowed to the flag and portrait of Chiang Kai-shek. They sang the national anthem together, before the performance of the evening proceeded.  The National Theater showed Peking opera, Cai Wenji Returns to Her Homeland (新文姬歸漢); whereas the Concert Hall opened with a symphonic poem Ode to The Republic of China (中華頌歌).

As a result of how the National Theatre and Concert hall project was initiated, it is difficult to untether these two institutions from political controversy.  Efforts to distance from the political era of Chiang Kai-shek are partly reflected in the renaming of the public outdoor area. This area is now called Liberty Square to celebrate Taiwan’s successful transition to democracy. 

Yet, politics aside, the National Theatre and Concert Hall have never stopped being a venue for top performers to perform.  These two institutions have witnessed the explosion of performing arts in Taiwan. Providing a platform for local artists such as the National Symphony Orchestra, the modern dance company Cloud Gate, the musical Ju Percussion Group; and theatre company Performance Workshop.  Throughout the years, they have also attracted international superstars such as Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domigo, José Carreras, Yo-Yo Ma, Lang Lang, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Itzhak Perlman, Berliner Philharmoniker, Martha Graham Dance Company, National Ballet of China, to name only a few.  

Since the 1980s the performing arts landscape in Taipei has flourished and diversified with several major performance spaces dotted around the city.  Taiwan’s growing confidence in, and appetite for arts and culture, can be seen in the establishment of NPAC – National Performing Arts Center in 2014 by the Ministry of Culture.  Under the NPAC umbrella there are several national flagship cultural institutions: National Theatre & Concert Hall (Taipei), National Taichung Theatre (Taichung), National Kaohsiung Centre for the Arts, Weiwuying (Kaohsiung), and the National Symphony Orchestra.   The National Theatre and Concert Hall provided many of the ‘firsts’ in Taipei’s cultural scene for both performers and audiences.  Their establishment not only mirrored the nation’s growing prosperity and sense of identity, but also drove the growth of Taiwan’s cultural industries.  The institution itself continues to evolve, maintaining relevance and connection to audiences in an ever more complex and competitive environment.  

The Community Services Centre will have a guided tour of the National Theater and Concert Hall on November 2, 2023.

TEXT: JESSICA WANG SIMULA.  IMAGES: WEB
Jessica Wang Simula was born in Taiwan but has lived in six different countries since adolescence before relocating back to Taiwan with her family over three years ago. Having worked in the arts in Shanghai and London, she is interested in how the arts can start new conversations, build communities and connect people.

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