Interview With Taipei 101: Newsweek’s “One Of The Seven New Wonders Of The World”

BY WENDY HUNG

For most Taiwanese, the sight of Taipei 101, up close or from afar, symbolizes two sentiments near their hearts: home and pride. “I’ve heard teenagers say that in the elevator here,” Michael Liu, Assistant Vice President and Corporate Spokesperson, shares, “when they come back to the city from trips and see Taipei 101 as part of the skyline, they know they’re home.” As the tallest building in the world from 2004 to 2010 and presently the world’s largest green building, Taipei 101 has become an architectural phenomenon of modern designs; astonished by internationals, embedded in the lifestyles of locals.

Every year, 800,000 spectators, comprised of Taiwanese and foreigners, bear the jammed and overstuffed crowds to witness Taipei 101’s infamous fireworks display, which is now a staple image across international media broadcasts that feature New Year’s Eve festivities around the world. Newspapers are laid out across modern streets, blocked from Taipei’s habitual bustling traffic. Ten hours prior to midnight, people begin to occupy spaces for family and friends, on grounds that hover around Xinyi District, a chic and prominent area of the capital, where Taipei 101 breathtakingly rests. Hundreds of street carts and food vendors thrive in business during hours of wait that lead up to minutes of elation, transforming Taipei’s dark navy sky into flaming flashes of extravaganza. Due to the building’s funnel-shaped design, Taipei 101’s fireworks show is unlike any other skyscrapers’ vapid rooftop display. With a record-breaking height of 508 meters, colorful beams of fire, shoot off from eight different layers of the structure, creating a lasting image of a blazing tree, igniting fanatical crowds.

Each year, the excitement is beyond a sensational show. The hysteria is truly fastened in pride of the people. Prior to Taipei 101, many locals wouldn’t dare place Taiwan as a must-see travel destination. Compared to France’s Eiffel Tower, Australia’s Sydney Opera House, or India’s Taj Mahal, Taiwan was merely an island known for: manufactured products massively distributed to international channels, a land of extremely passionate people and an agricultural goldmine that produces abundant local fruits and exotic seafoods. After the completion and launch of Taipei 101 on December 31st, 2003, Taiwan was immediately dazzled with the crown of compassing the tallest building in the world that also embodies numerous groundbreaking features. “Our double-decker elevators are still the fastest in the world, and our steel pendulum – a mass damper (that weighs 660 tons) is still the world’s biggest and largest.” Michael explains, “To any architect, Taipei 101 is known for its magnificence. Our island is naturally inclined to earthquakes and typhoons on a regular basis, so many thought it was nuts to construct a building like this. But we did it!”

As nuts as it was, the completion of Taipei 101 gives all Taiwanese something to show for and reasons for travelers to come and see. The story began in 1997, as the first ever Bill of Operations & Transfer project in Taiwan. City government had 30,277 square-meter of land, and grew uncertain on how to put the property into best of use. A group of 14 Taiwanese business enterprises, including leading banks and insurance companies as well as the stock exchange, eventually became investors and shareholders. They formed Taipei Financial Center Corporation (TFCC,) and treated Taipei 101 as a case they successfully pitched to the city government. The concept morphed from a two-part, 60-story building to an 88-story financial center (since “8” is a number signifying “prosperity.”) “Then the idea shifted to 99 floors, since “9” also symbolizes ‘longevity.’” Michael recalls, “Then it moved on to making it 100 – perfection. Everyone asked, ‘why not build the tallest building in the world?’ So all parties settle on the idea of 101 floors.” If 100 signifies perfection, then adding one more would be a breakthrough. “0” and “1” also acts as the binary system of the digital age.

In Chinese philosophy, one should never be satisfied with 100. The cycle of life centers around the idea of: starting again. 101 not only presents: one better than perfect; the building itself was intentionally designed with Eastern cultural symbolisms. Architect C. Y. Lee created the body of a funnel-like shaped building with each funnel made of prosperous eight floors. The building emulates the figure of a growing bamboo, symbolizing wisdom and eternal progression. On each face of the building, silver discs represents ancient coins. Around eight sections of Taipei 101, there are also emblems of ruiyi, a cloud-like or ancient golden lock chip symbol. Ruiyi is a scepter often seen in Buddhist temples, meaning: happiness. “The reason for all these symbolisms, is to allow people to deeply understand that this is a building with much Eastern influence,” Michael indicates, “But the technology in earthquake prevention, for example, is extremely Western. So we want to showcase a true combination of East and West.”

Today, close to 7,000 visitors enter Taipei 101’s observatory online resume builder on a daily basis. A giant golden sphere, Tune Mass Damper (the world’s largest,) is located atop, acting as a 660-ton balance between strong wind forces and earthquakes. Taipei 101 also hosts a multi-story retail mall that houses luxury stores, international boutiques and numerous restaurants. “The layout of our mall is very different from what you may see elsewhere in Taipei. It’s less Japanese-influenced but much more European in regards to our use of space. Our mall is wide and spacious to provide an international atmosphere. We hope to be the leading world-class influence in Taiwan.”

Almost $2 billion (USD) was spent to complete the construction of Taipei 101. The celebratory launch, however, encountered two calamitous situations that negatively affected the building’s financial status: the aftermath of 9/11 and SARS. “We had to immediately shift our strategy from American tenants to European. Because of 9/11, Americans were understandably fearful of being in tall buildings. There was no way companies were interested in renting office spaces within the tallest building in the world.” Michael remembers the unfortunate start, “With SARS, it badly affected our retail implementation. We’ve had to fight hard to arrive at where we are today. Our building currently has: KPMG, Bank of America, Google, Wells Fargo used to be here, and the office space is currently 90% full.” In regards to the mall sector, there is a long waiting list to rent spaces that have already been occupied by flagship stores, such as: world’s largest Dior (with full collections of women’s, men’s and accessories,) Asia’s largest Burberry and Bvlgari. “For Taiwan, it means that our consumer market has risen so much that these brands are taking notice.” Michael notes, “From one of my first days of launching Taipei 101, when we were having all sorts of problems looking for tenants, to now, where we also have the world’s biggest watch collection here at the mall.” All of this, is a great indication of where Taiwan and Asia are headed in the future, economically.

To anyone purchasing a new home, a tagline that most Taiwanese real estate agents use too commonly well is, “you can see 101 from here.” Taipei 101 has raised the bar for the city’s property value just as much as it has lifted Taiwan’s international image in tourism. Besides New Year’s Eve fireworks that has become a regional event in Asia, many travelers across the continent have a dream: someday, to see Taipei 101 in person. Buses carrying thousands of tourists from other parts of Asia stop by each day, unloading foreigners who anxiously snap away photos outside of local Taiwanese’s prideful landmark. Michael, who was instrumental in the marketing efforts that brought so much international light to Taipei, concludes, “Regardless of whether they’re Taiwanese or foreigners, they should all feel proud of Taiwan. Taiwanese are survivors, we’re all about looking for ways to survive and getting the results that we want by experimenting with every angle and never giving up.”

All photos are Copyright Taipei 101, Yang Yong Zhi and/or Tsai Wen Hsiang

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