Wang Chiu-hwa (b. 1925) is one of Taiwan’s most prominent female architects. She has earned the unofficial title of ‘Taiwan’s mother of libraries’ not only for the many libraries she has designed, but also for pioneering the earliest modern university library in Taiwan. Her work as a Chinese female architect practising in the United States and Taiwan has been underrepresented both regionally and globally.
The M+ curatorial team met Wang in 2015 and learned about her archive, of which she generously donated a large part to the M+ Collection Archives. Acquiring this archive was the beginning of M+’s efforts to uncover the histories of women architects, whose work often lacks documentation and research. Below are seven facts about Wang Chiu-hwa, told through images of her work represented in the M+ Collection Archives and her personal photos.
1. Wang Chiu-hwa is one of the few women to have been trained in China’s first architecture school.
She received her Bachelor of Science in Architecture from China’s first university programme for architecture at the National Central University in Chongqing. After that, she briefly studied at the University of Washington in Seattle before heading to Columbia University School of Architecture, where she earned her Master of Science in Architecture in 1949. Wang was one of the few women in these programmes, as shown in the above photograph of her surrounded by her fellow students at Columbia University.
Despite her status as a pioneering woman architect, Wang does not believe in being defined by her identity as a woman, but rather for pursuing her passion and talents without being bound by gender (or ethnic) labels. When asked three years ago if being a Chinese female architect in 1950s–1970s New York had ever posed a challenge for her, she said, ‘Not really, but it helped to be humble and good at what you do.’
2. Wang lived and worked in the United States for more than thirty years.
After graduating from Columbia University in 1949, Wang joined the office of Percival Goodman, Professor of Design at Columbia, with whom she had interned as a student.
The first project she designed (while in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis) was a synagogue: Fairmount Temple in Beachwood Village, Ohio (1953). It was one of the many synagogues Wang designed in collaboration with Goodman, a leading theorist in synagogue design, who designed more than fifty modern synagogues across the United States. Goodman not only believed in the synagogue’s fundamental function as a place of worship, but also saw it as fulfilling the diverse educational and social needs of newly settled suburban congregations. This resulted in inventive features like the ‘flex sanctuary’—a system of movable folding partitions that allowed the main sanctuary to expand into adjoining social halls or classrooms.
After getting her architectural license in 1960, Wang became an associate at Goodman’s office, and a partner in the late 1970s. With Goodman, she designed numerous synagogues, schools, and residences in the United States, as well as The Center for American Studies (1972) at the Academia Sinica campus in Taipei. However, much of her work in the United States has not been well-documented, partly because Goodman was recognised as lead designer of the projects. Most of Wang’s projects in the United States are represented in the M+ Collection Archives.
In the United States, Wang was often called the ‘architect in a qipao’: ‘I wore qipao most of the time when I was in the United States. So (sometimes) when I paid a visit to a construction site, people would say, “Oh, here comes the architect in a qipao.”’
3. Wang considers architecture a form of social art.
Wang once said that architecture is ‘an integral part of the complex built environment, charged with human emotions and social meaning—beyond form and function, beauty and utility’. According to her, ‘When you are a designer, you have to first take into account the interests of the majority of people, instead of just the few who are rich.’ She has consistently designed with a people-first approach, believing that architecture should be a force of social good. This had led to her commitment to nurturing communities and public life in her design of synagogues, schools, and proposals for community planning.
This is evident in how Wang commissioned art for the public primary schools she designed while at Goodman’s office. She included the students’ own creations to increase their sense of ownership of the space, reducing cases of vandalism. When planning Queensborough Community College, she noticed an eight-metre difference in height between the top and bottom of the campus site. Wang designed a gently sloped, stepped street interspersed with occasional plazas and lined with planters, to make the various buildings onsite accessible to students, who could also sit in the plazas. This became such a popular space that it was a de-facto outdoor student activity centre even before the Student Centre was built.
These values reflect those of Percival Goodman. Goodman and his brother Paul Goodman wrote the influential book Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life in 1947. The book explores principles and values behind design and planning that were utopian in their ideals and pragmatic in their means, with a concern for social justice.
Wang also spoke out against the practice of prioritising private cars over public transport, citing Robert Moses’ focus on building highways in mid-twentieth century New York: ‘Robert Moses particularly liked to build highways. He made contact with gas companies. We opposed [his proposals] to a great extent. Why do you have to build that many roads for private cars?’ Her and Goodman’s dissent was manifested in an unsolicited proposal for Manhattanville-on-Hudson, designed in collaboration with their students at Columbia University. Instead of completely razing existing housing and industrial warehouses to build highways, they proposed a ten-block urban rehabilitation project in Harlem, preserving selected structures while demolishing others to provide space for housing, educational facilities, industrial spaces for developing high-level technologies, and a public park on a site with only pedestrian and local service traffic.
4. Wang is best known for her libraries in Taiwan.
When she returned to Taiwan, Wang began designing Taiwan’s major libraries, which earned her the title of ‘Taiwan’s mother of libraries’. This began with her involvement in designing the furniture and interiors of the National Central Library, and then the first modern library concept (open-stack libraries did not exist in Taiwan before the 1980s) in Chung Yuan Christian University.
Every aspect of Wang’s library designs takes into account how people will use them. Her library plans reveal her mastery in planning for diverse programming (study halls, auditoriums, gardens, open stacks, offices, etc.) in a limited area, yet adaptable to multiple uses. In the context of Taiwan's poorly resourced universities and ambition to revamp facilities in the early 1980s, it was essential to meet the building’s various needs. She even designed her own library furniture.
For Chung Yuan University library, in response to the building's air-conditioning being limited to only offices and classrooms, Wang devised a mechanism and roof shaft for forced natural ventilation—the first of its kind in Taiwan—to cool the main stacks.
Wang also believes in making institutional buildings that can function as multi-purpose centres characterised by sociability. This is reflected in the multi-level entrances of her libraries with stepped piazzas and sunken gardens, the study spaces organised to visually connect across floors, dramatic stairwells inside, and green spaces outside. This approach is particularly evident in how the open-stack reading rooms are designed to surround a courtyard garden in the library of National Changhua Normal University, and how the landscaped terraces on each floor are connected by stairs.
5. Her work with libraries stemmed from her love of learning and education.
Wang has spoken about her lifelong interest in libraries: ‘When I was in junior secondary school, there was a library there. The librarian recognised me because I was the only person who was there every day. I would go there after class, stand by the bookcases and read for I don’t know how long.’ When she returned to Taiwan after her time in the United States, the construction of the National Central Library was just about to start. The Director General learned about her interest in libraries and invited her to take up the role of library consultant.
This love of libraries came from growing up in an environment of learning and education. Her father, Wang Shih-chieh, was the first Minister of Education (1933-38) in Republican China. He was also the head of the Academia Sinica from 1962 to 1970, the national academy of the Republic of China, located in Taiwan. He had the idea to establish a Center for American Studies in the Academia Sinica, which Wang Chiu-hwa designed in 1972. This influential building in Taiwan is known for its red-brick walls and grey-tile roofs, meant to harmonise with neighbouring traditional buildings but constructed in a modern Brutalist style. This project was the first of many learning and research facilities Wang was to design in Taiwan, particularly in collaboration with architect Joshua Pan (who was also a student of Percival Goodman) and his firm J.J. Pan and Partners, Architects and Planners, from the 1980s up to the early 2000s.
6. She designed her own apartment tower.
After her father passed away, Wang designed her first high-rise in the form of an eight-storey apartment building, the Xue Residence, on the same plot where her family house once stood. She and her mother lived on the top floor with a rooftop terrace, while the rest of the apartment units were home to other family members.
She again put a lot of thought into the ventilation system. She placed a specially designed fan on the apartment’s top floor, so that when the louvres are opened, she can turn on the fan to cool the entire house.
Within her home, Wang displays multiple collectables from around the world that are meaningful to her. She shaped the home, but the home also reflects her.
7. Wang has many talents outside of her design practice.
Wang has a penchant for literature and linguistics, including being well-versed in English and French, which led her to work with translation and literature. For example, Wang translated Percival Goodman’s book Illustrated Guide to Utopia—An Architect’s Travel Diary into Chinese and Taiwanese architect Wang Dahong’s novel Phantasmagoria from English and French into Chinese. For many years, she also ran a film club in her living room. She plays the flute and piano, and is an avid tennis player who attends the US Open almost every year.
This article was originally published on M+ Stories to coincide with ‘M+ Matters: Conversations on Women, Architecture and the City ’ on 23 November 2019.