Spanish architect Lain Satrustegui has an impressive academic background: Superior Technical School of Architecture of Madrid (ETSAM), Higher Technical School of Architecture of San Sebastian (ETSASS), and Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture (KADK). What brought the licensed and experienced architect to Taiwan? “At first, I was attracted by the art of Feng Shui,” said Lain.
When he was living in Madrid, he often visited a vegetarian restaurant run by a Taiwanese. From the owner, Lain learned that in the East there was a school of thought exploring the relationship between energy flow and architecture. That was something very different from what he had acquired in the Western academic training, which focused on the aspects of functionality, technique and aesthetics.
Attracted by the mysterious Eastern theory, Lain registered for the courses of I-Ching University, Taiwan, and flew to Taiwan in 2009. Originally he planned to stay for only six months, but “you know what, Taiwan was hit by a strong typhoon soon after I came. The typhoon caused the most serious flood in 50 years in Taiwan. Because the school was located in a severely impacted area, it was forced to cancel all the courses for that semester. So I was considering if I should go home.” Not wanting to waste the $2,000 flight ticket, he decided to apply for Chinese language courses in another school first, while waiting for the Feng Shui course to be offered the next semester. The dramatic plan change turned out to be merely the first chapter of his life in Taiwan.
Soon came the theatrical second chapter. On the suggestion of another Spanish architect friend, Lain participated in the global competition for the Maritime Cultural & Popular Music Center, Kaohsiung, in 2010. In stage one of the competition, his team’s design was shortlisted from among 140 competitors from around the world, and finally won the first prize, beating other finalists including the team of Akihisa Hirata led by the Taiwanese architect Ricky Liu. “I didn’t have any working experience in Taiwan. I was very lucky to participate in the competition, and the success brought me more projects subsequently. So I decided to start my own business in Taiwan as an architect.” His company IMO is now based in Barcelona, Kyoto and Taipei, boasting international talents with remarkable spatial experiences.
In Taiwan, client services seem to be more important than professional skills.
Things didn’t always go that smoothly. In the first few years in Taiwan, Lain found it difficult to become a part of the Taiwanese architect network. “It was a closed network. It was harsh to join it as a foreigner.” After he won the global competition and learned to speak fluent Chinese, he finally obtained the opportunity to teach at Tamkang University, and gradually expanded his local connections. Now he not only is a visiting Assistant Professor at the Architecture Department of Tunghai University, but also gives lectures at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, Chinese Culture University, and National Taiwan Normal University.
As a foreign architect working in Taiwan for many years, Lain has in-depth observations about Taiwan’s architecture industry. First, as a foreigner, learning to speak the local language is important. “If you want to develop your career in Taiwan, you have to learn to speak Chinese to fully understand your partners and collaborators. Mutual trust and respect is crucial to complete our projects. In terms of teaching, most students would not have fully understood my lecture if I couldn’t teach in Chinese.”
Next, finding good talent is not easy in Taiwan. In the usual working environment, hierarchy really matters. “Just follow your boss’s order” has deprived junior employees from expanding themselves. Young people then become less passionate about their jobs and fail to develop the ability to work independently. Naturally local talent will move abroad for better opportunities and salaries, causing a brain drain in Taiwan. To Lain, he thinks that in a team, each team member plays an equally pivotal role, despite of his/her working experience.
What’s more, in terms of the architecture market, client services seem to be more important than professional skills. Clients seem to think that “I am the boss” and architects are just “paid for drawing blueprints.” Contracts between clients and architects don’t seem to be able to protect the latter. Lain explained with an example: in Spain, when an architect signs a contract with a client, the contract will be brought to the local Architecture Association by the architect. If the client wants to change the architect afterwards, he/she has to terminate the contract first before going to others architects, or none of the architects will work for him/her under the supervision of the Association. This consensus among the industry had created a positive cycle, which protects the right of architects.
The lack in respecting the profession of architects has hindered Taiwan from innovation and progress.
“I spent seven years studying architecture in Spain. Only one-fifth of my classmates received the architect’s certificate. I remember that I was studying all the time, from Monday to Sunday, from seven in the morning to eleven at night. I really had the passion for becoming an architect, and looked forward to contributing to my profession and serving my country.” On the contrary, as many Taiwanese students choose their college major based on the school/department ranking and the scores they achieve in the college entrance exam, many of those who enter the architecture department aren’t really interested in architecture. They study passively, merely following teachers’ instructions to complete their assignments. The attitude is apparently different from the passion that Lain and his fellows have.
As a professional and zealous architect in Taiwan, Lain successfully won many competitions. He used his laptop to show us a few impressive proposals he had presented to his clients. However, he also told us that Taiwanese clients often asked him to change the design (which had won the competition) drastically, and make it more conservative to avoid the risk of being criticized for a more innovation-forward aesthetic. Eventually the final design often ended up losing the creativity and innovative thinking of the original design. “If a society is not prepared for making changes, nothing will change, even if you invite the greatest architect in the world,” said Lain helplessly.
“In Spain, we see the job of an architect as a contribution to society. Everyone believes that the society will become more beautiful through architects’ professional skills,” Lain emphasized the value of his work again. However, the value has long been underestimated in Taiwan, which has also failed to nourish the talents of future architects.
“Taiwanese young people’s desire for ‘change’ has given me great opportunities.”
Lain pointed out another problem which has contributed to the ugliness of Taiwan’s urban scene. “When I was travelling in Germany, I found that there were many beautiful flowers decorating the city, and people cared about the beauty of their balconies, which not only pleased the owners’ eyes, but also enhanced the neighborhood. Taiwan, the so-called Formosa, has high GDP and education levels, and is one of the most friendly countries in the world, why does it have very few eye-pleasing public spaces? Taiwanese people seem to care more about the interior design than the aesthetic level of public spaces.” When many Taiwanese people complain about the ugly urban scene, they tend to ignore the fact that their own attitude towards their personal residence, is also affecting the aesthetics of the whole city.
Lain also thinks that the look of the city depends on the choices of the society in terms of aesthetics and functionality. “Every city has it’s own character. Even if they have similar architecture, the needs of the society, the architects, the construction companies, the local cultures are all different, so each city naturally looks different. For example, the street view of Yongkang Street is composed of high and low buildings, presenting a mix of old and new in the process of city transformation. It is hard to duplicate in other places.”
So what made Lain decide to continue to write his next chapter in Taiwan? “Taiwanese young people’s desire for ‘change’ has given me great opportunities,” replied Lain sincerely. “I still meet many young people who want to make progress. They make me feel that I still can embrace the ideal of changing Taiwan’s architecture. If we can first create something different, people who see those solutions will learn that there are actually other solutions to a problem.” Last year, Lain started TEDx TunghaiU, whose first event will be held this June. “Many talented young people have helped in the preparation of the event. I believe that they provide the momentum that will stimulate Taiwan to move forward, and make Taiwan a better place.”
Lain also sees that the younger generation now cares more about aesthetics. That is why there are more and more cafes with good taste of design. Although young people have fewer resources, and it might be difficult for them to make significant changes overnight, at least they can start from a small café to apply their taste. “The progress of architecture aesthetics will be relatively slow. It might take ten years to see real differences. Such cultural evolution always takes time, and we have to be patient.”
About Lain Satrustegui
Attracted by the art of Feng Shui, Lain arrived in Taiwan in 2009 with the intention of staying only a few months. However, winning competitions such as The Taipei Weather Station or The Xiafu Activity Centre and his vocation in education keep him on this wonderful island full of cordial people.
Lain is a Licensed Architect (studied in Spain (ETSASS, ETSAM) and Denmark (Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture); he is partner at IMO and Visiting Assistant Professor at the Architecture Department of Tunghai University.