Kaohsiung, Taiwan

December 24 – 28, 2019

Was it an art museum? A grand cathedral? An alien starship? Ki and I collected our jaws off the floor when we emerged from the subway platform. A dome of stained glass backlit to dramatic effect encompassed the lobby of Formosa Boulevard Station. Kaohsiung supposedly had nothing going for it if I were to go by my former students’ opinion of their hometown, but the city went all out to impress us in our first hour upon arrival. And we had yet to step out of the train station.

Formosa Boulevard Station @ Kaohsiung

We oohed and aahed at the world’s largest domed underground station and largest glass work comprised of hand-painted panels installed throughout the 60-meter length of this concave canvas. The creative vision of Italian glass artist Narcissus Quagliata took four years to come to fruition in 2008. It was all worth the wait. The public art had upgraded the metro station from mundane to magnificent, a quality usually reserved for religious and national buildings.  

I had imagined the dome to be a token mural on the ceiling. What could have merited an artwork of such scale at a subway hub?  Thanks to Google, I learned that the station stood on the site of the Kaohsiung Incident, a violent anti-government demonstration on December 10, 1979 that brought democracy to Taiwan. The glass dome was not mere eye candy; it commemorated freedom right at her birthplace.

Quagliata painted the quadrants in bold themes corresponding to water, earth, light, and fire which, in turn, symbolized birth, growth, glory, and destruction.  The result was a color-coded depiction of the cosmic cycle that mirrored Taiwanese history. However, the artist himself was quick to downplay such overthinking and, instead, hoped for his art to be emotionally accessible to the public. Perhaps, he had people like my former students in mind. 

At street level, the architecture of Formosa Boulevard Station was no less artistic. As luck would have it, we found affordable accommodations right at this historic heart of Kaohsiung. The appropriately named Centre Hotel was literally next door to one of the station’s four main entrances designed by Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu. The sail-shaped gable roofs of glass and metal, wholly illuminated at night, evoked the Louvre Pyramid sliced into quarters, not so much the two pairs of prayerful hands they were meant to represent.

We passed through the station every day. Without checking the schedule, we eventually caught the light show, not lasting more than a few minutes, that earned the station “The Dome of Light” moniker. Radiating illumination set to orchestral music imbued the otherwise static imagery with the illusion of movement. Painted figures came alive. The thematic quadrants blended into pulsating streaks of light and splashes of color extending to the pair of massive pillars at the center. Soon, the entire station turned into an alien spacecraft ready for lift-off. 

Most times, the dome either quietly impressed or doubled as a concert hall for the musically-inclined. One time, my ears perked up at a familiar melody faintly echoing throughout the lobby. An elderly man was playing Fairest Lord Jesus, one of my late mother’s favorite hymns, on the white grand piano cordoned off on one side of the station. Reverberating religious music made a church out of that stained-glass ceiling. The pianist barely looked up from his propped-up sheet music until the final note; only then did he wave and smile at my cry of bravo.

The days of Kaohsiung as a dreary industrial city were long gone. It had since reinvented itself. The Dome of Light ushered us to this reinvigorated creative environment. In the following days, we would see and interact with the city’s ubiquitous public art. Kaohsiung had won us over at first impression. I hoped it would likewise make a lasting one on the residents, particularly my former students, to rekindle their dimming hometown pride.