Video Length 2:03
Who Should Read It
Anyone with an interest in architecture, Taiwan, and/or temples
Why Should We Read It
Eclectic information and beautiful photos and diagrams make for a satisfying and easy read
What Will We Learn
We begin to see how tradition and spirituality negotiate for survival in our modern 21st century.
In January 2018, I was meandering through Taiwan's Taoyuan International Airport shopping mall when I stumbled face-to-face with a nearly 30 cm^2, boldly red book that emblazoned Parasitic Temples on its cover. "Parasitic" is not a word that I have ever used, or heard anyone use, to describe a temple. In my mind, "temple" evokes a feeling on par with "cathedral"- something grandiose, holy, and transcendent. "Parasitic", on the other hand, conveys the complete opposite emotion: unwanted, unclean, and- to borrow from medical terminology- disgusting. Like many new books sold in Taiwan, its tightly shrink-wrapped state prevented me from flipping through its pages; this one seemed to be daring me to find space for it in my carry-on luggage without knowing its contents. Why not? I was departing Taiwan, and my New Taiwan Dollars were one international flight away from again becoming worthless paper anyways.
"Whether in parking structures, on traffic roundabouts, or above rooftops, these new temples are effectively illegal constructions that parasitize their urban host."
Thankfully, Parasitic Temples is fully translated in both Chinese script and the English language. The author, Po Wei Lai, explains that he is a licensed Taiwanese architect who studied at Harvard, and subsequently lived and worked in Boston, Beijing, Shanghai, and Tokyo before returning to Taipei. He is well-aware of Taiwan's architectural past: in previous centuries, wealthy Taiwanese families provided immense resources to building large temples, partially to ensure personal spiritual equity in the next life. These temples became epicenters of communal spirituality and local commerce; if sufficiently prominent, they now attract tourism in the 21st century. But what of newer temples being built in the modern era? They are much smaller and tucked away in otherwise unwanted/unused urban spaces. To Mr. Lai's "foreigner's eyes", developed in his years away from Taiwan, the modern urban temple lacks any western aesthetic appeal, and they most certainly do not meet any regulatory building code requirement. Whether in parking structures, on traffic roundabouts, or above rooftops, these new temples are effectively illegal constructions that parasitize their urban host.
"Their (the parasitic temples') persistence therefore implies an unspoken cultural value that neither the decorum of law nor the sensibilities of architecture can overcome."
It is precisely the parasitic temple's ambiguous status that fascinates Mr. Lai. Space in the modern city commands premium prices, and building massive temples no longer yields the same return on investment it once did, especially to the younger generation. However, if these parasitic temples were worthless, they would have been promptly dismantled and removed. Their persistence therefore implies an unspoken cultural value that neither the decorum of law nor the sensibilities of architecture can overcome. Mr. Lai hypothesizes that the strength of these temples must originate from the devotion of Taiwan's elder generation. As this age group begins to die, so too will the parasitic temples. To that end, Mr. Lai created a research group, WillipodiA, to document the existence of parasitic temples before they disappear. They defined attributes of a traditional temple, and used those definitions to methodically describe different types of parasitic temples: whether built before or after the formation of the city, whether the parasite's host is natural or man-made, whether the parasite is inside or outside the host, etc. The fruit of that labor is this boldly red book in my luggage.
"But far from being unwanted and unclean, the book has also given me a new set of eyes through which I can experience familiar surroundings anew."
To its core, Po Wei Lai's Parasitic Temples is a coffee table book. Its black-and-white photographs effortlessly highlight the location of the temple being studied, as each temple is the only object in the photograph color contrasted (appropriately) in red. The book also includes architectural diagrams that break down exactly what makes each temple a unique parasite. It is simultaneously a graduate-level dissertation on architecture, and also a work of art to for the general audience to enjoy. Curiously, Parasitic Temples does not appear in either goodreads.com or amazon.com. Even the Google Search Engine has trouble locating references to Mr. Lai's book. Like its subject matter, the book seems to be something of a parasite itself, piggybacking all the way to the United States. But far from being unwanted and unclean, the book has also given me a new set of eyes through which I can experience familiar surroundings anew. Be sure to follow us on Instagram (@thebusyreader_) for our own efforts to find parasitic temples!