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Suggesting that every society have their own ideas of what is authentic and what is not, might strike most people as too obvious to require re-iteration. However the charismatic contemporary ideology which suggests that authenticity and self expression are things to be encouraged by their own right, needs to be re-considered if it is to avoid contradiction with this basic principle.
The case of Treasure Hill artist village is illustrative of how these two suggestions are fundamentally opposed to each other. Treasure Hill is essentially a squatted community on the border of Taipei City and Taipei County. The neighbourhood has been preserved under the Cultural Preservation Act and turned into an Artist Village, where artist's can rent the emptied houses to use as studios or as living space. The complex includes various exhibition spaces and a cafe.
The current state of the neighbourhood has been settled after continuous negotiations involving various municipal departments and the residing activists/artists. Although the project has been motivated with all the best intentions and overall can be considered as a step in the right direction, it is still far from being an ideal template for future plans of urban regeneration.
As is the case with most heritage programs, the Treasure Hill project has not been entirely successful in incorporating the views of those who have used the space for non-heritage related purposes. It is this failure that has caused the neighbourhood to be stripped of it's prior residents and turned into a space which celebrates individual expression and artistic creativity at the expense of housing lower income families.
This is not to say however that Treasure Hill used to be an ideal place to live and should have been left untouched for eternity. In fact the view of the few residents who have kept their houses in the area range from indifference at worst, to approval at best. However a lot more residents have been moved out of the area, presumably further out into Taipei County or even beyond.
It would be tremendously unfair to criticise any particular organisation for the removal of residents out of the area. What has to be criticised however, is the global trend that grants notions like 'self realization' a cult-like status. The idea that if arts, culture and creativity are allowed to flourish, then urban problems of crime and housing will just magically untangle. It is unquestionable, of course that artistic and cultural institutions are extremely valuable to both local and global communities. Nevertheless, the suggestion that we can just add culture to an environment and stir, then proceed to statistically document the improvement of 'general well-being' is absurd.
This very same problem has been noted by London Mayor Boris Johnson's (whom I have to say without restraint I personally detest) Advisor for Arts and Culture, Munira Mirza. Although the Tory party's political motivations are far from being admirable, they are nevertheless making a good point about the instrumentalisation of culture under the previous administration. The problem in fact dates back to much earlier, to the slow but steady erosion of the Labour party's post-war settlement. In terms of housing this has been mostly concentrated around waging a war on council house projects. It is worth remembering after all, that the prioritization of home ownership and the rise of customisation often gloriously portrayed on television hour after hour, has been at the expense of collective, affordable housing.
To conclude, the twin subjects of culture-led urban regeneration and alternative building, need to be urgently re-evaluated. With as much emphasis payed to the residents who inhabit sites of cultural regeneration as the projects themselves. It is clear that the effect of cultural/architectural policy over the urban landscape needs to be studied far more rigorously and understood fully to be able to make healthier projections regarding the role of culture over the contemporary metropolis.
Photo courtesy of Marco Casagrande