Fusing Western technology and Eastern sensibility

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Fusing Western technology and Eastern sensibility

Looking out his office window at a tall, skeletal tower, the architect Aaron Tan opens his laptop computer. Right now, the 33-story building he’s looking at consists of brown steel beams, masses of grey concrete and bare cargo elevators, but on his laptop screen, time fast-forwards to show the skyscraper complete, in the year 2004. Glistening against the sunlight, the building is angular, vibrant and futuristic, making its surrounding landscape look rather bland.
Mr. Tan clicks through photographs of world-famous buildings in major metropolises, from the Woolworth and Chrysler buildings in New York, the Tribune Building and the Sears Tower in Chicago, through the Shanghai Tower in Hong Kong.
When he began considering the design of SK Telecom’s new headquarters in Seoul ― the unfinished building visible from his office ― Mr. Tan began looking into the office buildings used as headquarters by major companies around the world.
After some study, it was his conclusion that buildings had become generic, having stopped evolving technologically. “With focus on the facade, even as decades passed by, buildings competed by height only ― they just became taller and taller,” he says. “To make the building look taller, they just placed a cap on top of it.”
He points out some rather nondescript buildings near the construction site. “The interiors of ordinary buildings are uniformly divided vertically,” he says. “They have a big lobby, with a high ceiling. The middle part of the building is very boring-looking offices, and top floors are for executives.
“There is a lot of software to design hardware available today, and if you redesign the software for buildings, the building can reinvent itself.”
In one of his projects, Universal Studios’ headquarters in Los Angeles in the late ’90s, he explored a blend of interior elements that could bring employees, employers and the public together. But that idea didn’t go beyond conceptual planning. It was SK Telecom’s chairman, Chey Tae-won, who wanted a new symbol of the country’s largest telecommunications company and, more importantly, a building that would be recognized internationally. To comply with his client’s wish, Mr. Tan planned to introduce a “thinking building that could be distinguished from the rest, a building that could reinvent itself ― replete with today’s innovative technology.”
He wanted to create a transparent space where employers and employees could mingle in the fitness center or in the lounge located within the “business sector” of the building. The building is also designed to bring product developers and consumers together. The lobby will be used as a public passageway, and below ground will be an entertainment complex centering around media technology.
The idea is to create spaces “where both top managers and employees can get the feel of the everyday life of their consumers, instead of relying on polling companies,” Mr. Tan explains. “They simply go downstairs and look around their special technology rooms on a daily basis, so that there can be natural sharing of people and energy.”
Asked about the scale of his projects, the soft-spoken Tan breaks into a quiet smile and says, “Pretty small.” That’s a humble statement for an architect whose specializes in developing iconographic establishments.

Mr. Tan, who is Singapore-born Chinese, leads more than 30 architects, urban planners, interior designers and media researchers of multinational origins in RAD (Research Architecture Design), an architectural firm based in Hong Kong. Since 1994, he has worked on high-profile developments in the Asia-Pacific region whose addresses include Hong Kong’s Wyndham Street, Singapore’s Orchard Road and Seoul’s Cheongdam-dong. His work has been exhibited in Vienna, Paris, Seoul, Michigan, New York and Denmark. The 40-year-old architect is also a lecturer and an author of books on Asian and European architecture.
In Korea alone, he has renewed the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill hotel in Seoul in 2001 and built two commercial buildings, EAT Club, which houses a fusion restaurant, Kokage, and the MWD building in southern Seoul, due to be completed at the end of this month. Besides the SK Telecom Headquarters, he’s also working on the W Hotel in eastern Seoul, the first of the chain’s hotels in Asia.
Mr. Tan believes research is an important part of preliminary planning for a building. His task last year in Seoul’s most fashionable district was to turn a small, nondescript building that had housed a failing family restaurant into a unique, memorable destination.
When his EAT Club was done, drivers and passers-by stopped to look at the eye-catching exterior of the new building, which had box-like windows that stuck out at various angles.
“View was one of the most important elements in the interior design,” he says. “Openings that had different angles showed parts of the sky and the earth. And when seen together, the square images seemed to connect the sky and the earth like paintings ― except they contain real scenery.” He was later extremely disappointed to learn that the beauticians working on the third floor had blocked all the windows.
Mr. Tan says his MWD building in the heart of Apgujeong-dong is the commercial building that boasts the highest production cost per unit in southern Seoul. The entire five-story building seems tilted as if it were a paper art work. Mr. Tan applied a special film whereby the glass reflects light that strikes the surface at particular angles. Passersby can see inside only at certain angles, as the glass turns eerily opaque.

For Asia’s first W Hotel, due next year, he had two important issues. Unlike most boutique hotels, the Korean W was located far from major business centers. He was asked to abide by the city’s strict landscape preservation regulations in the densely wooded eastern end of Seoul.
Mr. Tan came up with an exterior design that harmonizes with the surrounding nature. The mirror panel seems to capture and expand the picturesque scenery. A metallic panel consisting of dangling circles on the rooftop shimmers against the sunlight as the wind blows. Because of the hotel’s relative remoteness, he planned to turn the area into a memorable destination, an entertainment complex for all ages.
The hotel, for instance, will feature a full-scale spa, the first of its kind in Korean hotels. W Spa, a $3 million project, will include a sunroom with a view of the Han river and southern Seoul. “The hotel is not only for overseas travelers, but also local Koreans who simply crave tasteful, wholesome relaxation and entertainment in the city. The concept behind the W Hotel is to create a true urban resort, where people will want to come and stay.”
This theory is made clear on his laptop computer again, which features connecting orange dots bearing some of his keywords ― Business, Play, Rest, Trendy, Money. He makes the project look as simple and easy as Lego play.
As an ethnic Chinese man who grew up in Singapore, was educated in the United States, now lives in Hong Kong and works all over Asia, he feels that his role as an architect in Asia is significant.
“There are architects with internationally bigger reputations, yet clients in Asia choose to work with me because I can offer them something of a cross between the East and the West,” he says. “Methodologies and technology I learned in the West can be applied in the Asian context. Because of cultural differences, it takes a lot of patience, communication skills and assertiveness, and often compromise is inevitable.”
When deciding on the final design of SK Telecom’s headquarters, Mr. Tan submitted three different sketches ― even though he already knew which one would have eventually been chosen. The Korean company wanted something technologically revolutionary, but it was not easy for the company to actually give Mr. Tan the final green light.
“My clients panicked when they saw that the building would be covered with a series of glass panels tilted at varied angles,” he recalls. “They were worried whether the cost would be too high, and whether the glass would fall.” He had to prove that it was not only safe but cost-effective. To satisfy the client, the angle of the glass panel was adjusted. “Just a little,” he says with a smile.

Passing by some of Seoul’s countless construction sites, he comments, “Change is not necessarily bad; it is just a natural process. By constructing and deconstructing, the city is slowly evolving to take a certain shape. And architects take part in those changes.”
While giving lectures, he says, he quotes I-ching, the ancient Chinese philosophy, to explain the change in life.
“Above it all, there is God that plans and conducts all life forms. If He has done all that, imagine ― He must be really, really big. I’m just too small.”

by Ines Cho
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