Three visions, one museum

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Three visions, one museum

Eight years after the Samsung Foundation of Culture was given a construction permit to build an art museum in Hannam-dong, the new corporate museum created by Korea’s largest jaebol has finally raised its curtain for the press.
Leeum, which opens to the public Tuesday, is supposedly a new space for Ho-Am Art Gallery, the museum near City Hall that hosted major shows for more than 20 years before it closed down in February.
But the scale of the new museum, budgeted at 130 billion won ($113 million) and born of a collaboration among three of the world’s leading architects ― Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaus ― is nothing like Ho-Am’s humble, boxy storage space, which was rented to the museum by Samsung Electronics.
Indeed, the 9,900-square-meter museum on the slope of Mount Namsan ― whose name combines that of the late Samsung founder, Lee Byung-Chull, with the word “museum” ― makes a clear statement that it is the brainchild of Samsung Group, which openly promotes itself as the future of technology.
For instance, the digital guide system, designed by Samsung Electronics, allows visitors to get brief interpretations of each piece in both audio and video, through a handheld device that receives signals from sensors built into the floor.
Architecturally, the museum, which essentially consists of three structures, has also gone through challenges in the years-long process of developing its three architects’ ideas.
For Museum 2, which houses contemporary art, Mark Quinlan, a well-known expert in metal corrosion, was hired to come up with a stainless steel surface that would rust ―essentially contradicting the point of stainless steel, in keeping with French architect Jean Nouvel’s playful ideas. The floor-to-ceiling glass case in Museum 1 was installed over a four-month period by a German glass manufacturer, Glasbaus Hahn. In Museum 3, black concrete walls are used as the finished surface for the interior space, apparently for the first time ever in a museum.
Leeum faced other challenges even before construction began. To comply with a regulation limiting the height of structures in the district to 10 meters, a hole more than 20 meters deep was dug in order to build, in the case of Museum 1, what in effect is a seven-level building. In 1998, almost two years after the excavation began, the project was interrupted by the Asian foreign exchange crisis. From then until the project resumed in 2001, art insiders wondered whether Leeum would really make it.
Museum 1, which houses more than 120 pieces of Korean traditional art, from the prehistoric era to the Joseon Dynasty (1395-1910), is a solid terracotta form designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta, symbolizing the earth and fire used to mold ceramics. The trees on the top of the building are meant to evoke fluttering flags on medieval towers; the building’s inverted cone is covered with a rotunda rooftop, a shape Botta has often used in his museum designs, including his San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Jean Nouvel’s design for Museum 2, a space for contemporary art from Korea and abroad, features a mix of black and gray iron sunk into the ground. The overall layout employs contrasts between iron and glass for a startlingly modern look.
A dominant feature of Museum 3, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhass, is a massive “black box” exhibition space, connected to the second basement by two escalators. For its inaugural exhibition, this space will host “Muse-Um?: Companionship of Plurality,” a show focusing on the concepts of the three architects who built Leeum.
Other shows to be held in this space in the near future include an exhibition of drawings by Korean artist Lee Jung-seop and a traveling exhibition of recent works by Matthew Barney.
But one of the most impressive aspects of Leeum is the scale of the museum’s collection, which has never been shown to the public in its entirety. It was often rumored that Ho-Am’s collections were never clearly detailed in order to avoid raising questions about the works’ origins or their import routes. But given that the museum’s official figure for its collection is over 15,000 pieces, visitors can well imagine that what they are seeing in Leeum is only the tip of the iceberg.
The pieces in Museum 1 include some of the country’s most coveted national treasures and some of the best examples of its art; among them are a celadon gourd-shaped ewer with a copper-red lotus design (designated National Treasure No. 133) and a blue-and-white porcelain jar with plum and bamboo design (National Treasure No. 219).
The scale of the contemporary collection in Museum 2 is just as compelling, gathering works by post-war artists ranging from Mark Rothko, Donald Judd and Frank Stella to more recent Damien Hirst, Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys.
An obvious question about the museum is its location, which seems like a risky choice, away from the traditional gallery districts and the central city. But it has potential advantages, such as its proximity to Itaewon, a center of the expatriate community. A more immediate question is whether the narrow roads leading to the museum will create traffic problems. Museum staff hope that simply barring walk-in visitors until after the first of the year, when they expect things to be more settled, proves to be the right solution.


by Park Soo-mee

Leeum will be open every day but Sundays and Mondays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission will be free until the end of 2004, but reservations by telephone will be required. Call (02) 2014-6901 to make a reservation.
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