Selecting the best of Seoul’s designer buildings

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Selecting the best of Seoul’s designer buildings


Cities distinguish themselves by their architecture; it is as true for modern cities as it was for ancient. But urban planning is more complex that ever before, and Seoul has had its fair share of failures in that department.
Historic buildings are demolished without public consultation, buildings look increasingly the same and urban regulations are full of holes.
These conditions, though, are also signs that growth in urban design and technology is only getting started here, and are quickly turning Seoul into one of the hippest cities in Asia.
The New York Times, for example, called Seoul “the new Tokyo,” in a long feature article on Korea’s capital, and the monthly magazine Wallpaper recently labeled Seoul the “model city of the future.”
The city has indeed come a long way since 1972, when the city government first began giving the annual Seoul Citizen’s award to architects who contributed to the aesthetic development of the urban landscape.
Starting this year, the Korean Architecture Association has been invited to provide the jurors, who are to select innovative designs based on designs of new works that were submitted by Seoul citizens over the previous year. Last year’s jury awarded the prize to the architecht of the Kyobo Tower, Mario Botta.
Winners of the award are selected with a general understanding that Seoul is still a developing city.
First place went to the designers of Leeum, a museum that was the product of a collaborative effort among three of the world’s leading architects: Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaus.
The museum, which is tucked in one of the city’s wealthiest residential neighborhoods, Hannam-dong, incorporates some of the most cutting-edge experiments in architectural design. For its gallery of contemporary art, it hired an expert in metal corrosion to design a stainless steel surface that would rust over time ― which is itself a statement about the nature of contemporary art.
In the gallery of Korean traditional art, Museum 1, an inverted cone covered with a rotunda rooftop ― Mario Botta’s trademark design ― made of solid terracotta symbolizes the earth and fire used to mold ceramics, a reference to the Korean celadon work housed in the building. The floor-to-ceiling glass case in Leeum’s Museum 2, by the French architect Jean Nouvel, was installed over a four-month period by a German glass manufacturer, Glasbaus Hahn. A boxy exhibition space by Rem Koolhaus, connected to the second-level basement by two escalators, uses black concrete walls as the surface for the interior space.
Seoul’s appetite for contemporary architecture was also embraced in the second-place winner, Ssamzigil. A lively complex in Insa-dong that houses shops and galleries, the project was designed by the American architect Gabriel Kroiz and by GaA Architecture.
Although the space is clearly intended for consumers of art products, the jury commended the architects for “opening up” the space to the Insa-dong crowd: the building has no main gate. The long walkway leading from the floor to the building’s top is designed in the style of a street on a hill ― “gil” means street in Korean.
In addition to the two awards this year, the jury also gave commendations to seven architects, including the two designers of W Seoul (Lee Young-hee, Jeong Young-gyun), SK Tower (Kim Jeong-cheol) in Eulgi-ro and the new headquarter for Seoul Broadscasting Station in Mok-dong by Choi Gwan-young and Jeong Dong-myeong.
In less than a year, W Seoul, on the grounds of the Sheraton Grande Walker hill Hotel, has become the place to launch shows for major brand-name goods and a hangout scene for funky young Koreans. One reason for this is the hotel’s design, which broke away from the traditional look favored by most Seoul hotels. Guestrooms feature the latest technology, including high-speed laptop Internet connections 100 times faster than conventional data modems. The building’s glass facade is a telling contrast to the old Sheraton Walkherhill Hotel, which looks more like a bunker than a hotel.
SK Tower, a block east of Cheonggyecheon on Eulgiro street, befuddled the public during its construction; The building’s bent structure, which is meant to resemble the shape of a mobile phone the company sells, left many nearby office workers voicing concerns that the construction was flawed because the metal frames were not arranged in a straight line.
While modern architecture is an important advertisement for any city’s technical and cultural sophistication, some architects are concerned that the influx of foreign designs is robbing Seoul of its unique character.
Many Korean contractors complain that major cultural instutions these days are quick to hire foreign architects without first considering the availability of local talent or having an open bidding.
Some say that any Korean architect hired here would automatically be suspected of bribery or cronyism.

Transformations back and forth

“Transforming Through Architecture” is an ambitious convention with a variety of academic forums, exhibitions and shows, highlighting works by some of Korea’s most talented architects.
The jurors of the Korea Architecture Association make their decision by collecting models and layouts from projects anywhere in the world, as long as the primary designer is Korean.
As a side event, a special exhibition and musical concert is then held to show how the selected projects reflect cutting-edge technologies and concepts in architecture; the exhibition and concerts will be held this year Nov. 19 and 27 at Heyri Valley, north Gyeonggi province.
One of the show’s highlights this year is an exhibition by the well-known Japanese photographer Murai Osamu, who as an architecture photographer has explored the theme of “Sculpture and Environment” since the 1950s.
His photos depict masterpieces of public art around the world, allowing visitors to look at urban settings from a new angle. The collection includes photos of early projects by Kim Su-geun, a late Korean architect.
A series of seminars featuring Korean and Japanese architects will also be held. Using examples from various projects in major cities in both countries, the sessions will explore ways to revitalize traditional market places and preserve the unique identities of cities.
“Transforming through Architecture” runs from Nov. 23 through 27 at Tapyeongyang Hall, COEX Mall. For more information, contact Admission is 3,000 won ($2.90).

by Park Soo-mee
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