Showroom apartments, large-scale art, and cutting-edge architecture come together in a South Korea building by Unsangdong Architects
Benjamin Budde -- Interior Design, 10/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
When visiting a model apartment with a mind to buying your own pied-à-terre, is it enough simply to examine your future home's layout, fixtures, and furnishings? Unsangdong Architects, led by principals Yoon Gyoo Jang and Chang Hoon Shin, are betting that apartment buyers want to know much more than that. So when their firm was hired by the giant South Korean real estate developer and builder Kumho Engineering & Construction to design a building in Seoul to exhibit model apartments for the corporation's luxury condominium brand, Uwoolim, the architects were determined that the structure be highly conceptual, a concrete reflection of the sensibility, lifestyle, and identity that the client markets.
Uwoolim is a Korean word that can be translated as "community in harmony," and the company cultivates a brand image centered on the idea of living in concord with neighbors, nature, and shared values. Unsangdong took this notion of the fully integrated life—a world in which the individual, society, culture, commerce, technology, and the natural environment interact fluidly and fruitfully—and explored it architecturally. So, rather than simply being a collection of model apartments, their building shows how life in an Uwoolim condominium interacts with the surrounding community.
In fact, there are only three model apartments in the entire 75,000-square-foot, three-story building. The rest of the space functions as a cultural complex for a variety of curated events and exhibitions, including dance performances, art installations, and design competitions. The liberal allocation of square footage to nonresidential purposes reflects Jang and Shin's belief that lifestyles are shifting and that architecture must respond to changing modes of living. "Today's lifestyle demands an unpredictable architecture," says Jang. "As ways of life are transformed, architecture also shifts away from a single restricted form."
This philosophy finds dramatic expression in the building's stainless-steel facade, which is covered in a series of enormous circular apertures. Each takes the form of a series of layered, concentric rings—like a cross between the ripples on a pond and a whirlpool—that funnel through the thick facade into the building's interior. While the largest of these cutouts surrounds a panel of LEDs that use flash programming to create an animated image of an archetypal cityscape, the others are mostly big windows, some of which front steel-and-glass tubes that crisscross the airy spaces inside.
These round openings not only give the building its name—Kring, which is Dutch for "ring"—but also reverberate with multiple meanings and associations. Along with rippling water, their allusions to the natural world run the gamut from the tiny orbitals of subatomic particles to the vast circling of planets around the sun. There are also echoes of man-made forms—Greek amphitheaters, Gothic rose windows, the spiraling ramp of New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—as well as social structures and hierarchies. As such, Kring's facade is the most public embodiment of the architects' stated intention: "to create scenarios that harmonize nature, life, and the city's various elements."
Kring's interior is no less allusive—or radical. The main entry, through one of the giant rings, leads into a huge, shiny white atrium that soars the building's full three-story height. Shin calls this large, echoing volume "the big sounds hole," and links its white emptiness to the concept of dreaming—a blank screen on which to project reveries and visions. The cavernous space is spanned at various heights by walkways and a couple of tubular bridges, one enclosed in glass, the other sheathed in perforated steel. As connecting elements, these airborne structures are natural metaphors for the realms of social interaction and creative imagination. As the architects put it: "The cylinders penetrating the space are images expressing dreams, passions, and communication."
Kring will continue functioning as a cultural center after Uwoolim dismantles its model apartments. (In South Korea, residential exhibition buildings like this one are usually demolished once their promotional purpose has been served.) Unsangdong cheerfully acknowledges that its aim is to "realize progressive architecture," and it's difficult to imagine an American real estate developer letting a design firm experiment so dramatically on a structure that's primarily intended to sell product. But Kumho evidently feels its luxury brand has been very well served by Kring. Plus it's a distinctive piece of urban sculpture that incorporates a rich array of influences—it even evokes a giant Swiss cheese from some angles—and certainly enlivens Seoul's mostly uninspiring cityscape. "Social identity is related more directly to consumption than production," explains Jang. "Through the process of consumption, 'manufactured space' can stimulate the consumer's desires." Sold!