Neil Denari is weaving his way to the forefront of architectural practice, coming out of the shadows of academia where he is a well-known and respected voice, to taking center stage - finally getting the opportunity to build buildings rather than penning books and making beautiful drawings. It’s a halcyon moment for Denari with HL23 in New York completed and the recent news that he has won an international competition to build a new landmark and gateway to the port city of Keelung, Taiwan, a city of 350,000 inhabitants. And for the architects everywhere, it should come as welcome news that this major and complex commission went to a practice of seven.
So what is that edged Denari over the finish line, allowing him to scoop the commission and prevail over the finalists, including second prize winner, Asymptote? According to Aaron Betsky, one of the judges who wrote about the competition in Architecture magazine last week, Denari’s scheme has its problems but ‘the right scheme won’. Those shortcomings, said Betsky, are ‘a massive plinth, circulation inconsistencies, strange diagonal windows and office space that might be difficult to lease’ but ‘when it is built it will make sense of Keelung’.
Denari’s architecture, which has been branded with such labels as ‘a spaceship from mars’ and a vision ‘straight out of Bladerunner’, is not exactly what one would think of when it comes to architecture that makes sense of places, but his scheme for Keelung with all its architectural bravura is remarkably contextual on its own terms. It consists of two interconnected buildings, a long skinny terminal building and a large courtyard building. In its massing, materials, geometry and colors it responds to a complex brief and to the lofty aspirations to create a landmark and gateway to the city with great aplomb. Yes, there are odd moments, like windows that seem to be slapped on last minute. But for the most part, its formal moves make sense.
The long, skinny form of the terminal building is dictated by construction phasing that requires it to be built prior to the old one being demolished, thus leaving a 55m-wide slot into which to wedge a building of great size. The lime green and acid blue colors while at first glance seem a capricious choice, were chosen to blend with the lush green landscape and harbor waters of Keelung and ‘will create a camouflage’, says Denari.
Denari choose to house the Harbor authority’s operations (which consists of a police station, a large port office transfer facility, a weather station and harbor support facilities) in a courtyard type building rather than in a series of towers as he felt the former would be more conducive to making a place. The entire complex is wrapped in a perforated metal mesh and punctuated with a series of voids to create opportunities for plazas and communal space and to allow the sunlight and the breezes to waft through.
The result is an architecturally adventuresome and complex structure ‘that seems to drink in its surroundings’. “It is a curious character", said Denari, "and it’s a real identity maker for the city. I believe that’s why we were selected. Work on the project begins in earnest in October. The terminal, which will enter construction in 2013, will be phased in first with completion of the entire project expected in 2017."
In addition to NDMA, the winning team includes local architect Fei and Cheng (Taiwan), Thorton and Tomasetti (Los Angeles), and ARUP (Hong Kong).