Keeping alive Taiwan’s unique terrazzo heritage

You might have seen it in your neighborhood. Terrazzo is a building material, traditionally made by mixing colorful marble chips with concrete. There was a time when terrazzo was Taiwan”s flooring of choice in homes, stores, and public buildings because of its beauty and durability. But as labor costs rose in the latter half of the 20th century, terrazzo fell out of favor. Today a small but growing group of Taiwanese are discovering its vintage beauty and working to help it stage a comeback. Our Sunday special report.Chen Ping-yuan, the owner of a construction materials business, watches carefully as a tradesman pours aggregate into a mixer. They are making terrazzo, a building material that has become a rarity in Taiwan.Terrazzo is an ornamental material. Small chips of a material like marble or granite are combined with cement and a stone powder. The amalgam is plastered on walls or floors and polished smooth after it has dried and set. Chen Ping-yuanConstruction materials business ownerThe standard procedure calls for 12 steps, none of which can be omitted. If you omit one of the steps, the quality of the product will be affected. The procedure includes steps like laying the undercoat and placing the stone chips.Installing terrazzo is a complicated process. When grinding and polishing, water must be sprayed on the floor to keep it from overheating.Chen’s company was established by his parents in Kaohsiung 40 years ago. The 1960s had been Taiwan’s golden era for terrazzo.Chen Lin Hsiu-miaoChen Ping-yuan’s motherBusiness was extremely good. I was so busy that I had no idea whether the kids had eaten. I spent every day attending to our clients.By the late 1960s, an agrarian revival was underway and businesses everywhere were booming. For many Taiwanese back then, the first big splurge was on home improvement.Lee Chian-langProfessor of architecture conservationWooden structures have been the mainstay of Asian architecture for thousands of years now. Over in Europe, and notably in North America, the architecture has mostly been made of stone. Taiwan was colonized by Japan in the early 20th century, and it became thoroughly westernized. So in Taipei – in Taiwan – there’s a great deal of architecture that draws on stone.Taiwan didn’t have many quarries and stones were expensive to excavate. Terrazzo offered cost-effective flooring that was cool to the touch, easy to clean, and perfect for humid climates. Terrazzo became a Taiwanese favorite, and it began appearing everywhere. But things started to change around the late 1970s.Lee Chian-langProfessor of architecture conservationTaiwan’s economy took off, and suddenly labor was more expensive. You had to get the professionals to paint and then polish the terrazzo. A large surface would require a grinder. A small surface like a staircase would have to be polished by hand, one step at a time.As terrazzo became less and less cost-effective, it was overtaken by other construction materials. Chen’s family business stopped relying on terrazzo for its main source of income. But to this day, Chen has a soft spot for the material.Chen Ping-yuanConstruction materials business ownerYou mix the ingredients and it takes shape. Then you polish it, and its appearance changes. At that moment, you feel that you’re uncovering its value. You cannot fully appreciate that value right then and there. That value will be preserved in that floor for the next 20, 30 years.We’re at Taipei’s Dihua Street. This old storefront has been renovated and transformed into the 207 Museum. It was originally a pharmacy, and it is home to beautifully preserved terrazzo art. Visitors can see one right at the door.Its terrazzo flooring is lustrous with the cross sections of stones. It also glitters with lines of copper and the variegated hues of different minerals and powders, which turns the floor into a breathtaking gallery of art.Terrazzo has another special trait. It is hard and durable, and the terrazzo has preserved the integrity of this building for more than 50 years.Hsin Yung-sheng and Yang Chao-ching have found themselves captivated by vintage terrazzo designs. They stumbled upon this bed and breakfast in Tainan by chance. In this ground-floor living room, the flooring is adorned with colorful geometric patterns. An orchid decorates the stair’s half landing. Yang Chao-chingVintage architecture enthusiastBack then we asked Ms. Li, the owner of the hostel, how long ago the house had been built. She just said, “Come, come, come, move this table away.” When we moved the table, we saw that underneath it said “1968.”Hsin and Yang couldn’t bear to let the stories of these houses be forgotten, so they began posting photos of this vintage architecture online. What they weren’t expecting was that their snapshots of terrazzo flooring, window gratings and hand-made tiles would become a huge hit online. The…

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