The South Korean city has commissioned the first of a series of 100 pavilions with which it plans to reassert its historic urban form
Since the Venice Biennale was first held in 1895, the phenomenon of the two-yearly art fair has rapidly spread throughout the world, mutating over time from an exhibition into an expedient means of fusing cultural capital with city marketing. From Shanghai to Sharjah, Beijing to Bucharest, the biennale has become a must-have accessory for any self-respecting global city, injecting the risqué edginess of the art world into the tired tourist offer.
These imported art extravaganzas have more recently been joined by sister design versions. This autumn alone has seen such design festivals in Lisbon and London, Paris and Prague, as well as Brussels, Beijing, Copenhagen, Eindhoven, Helsinki and the Polish city of Lodz — with Istanbul joining the crowd next year. Bringing a whirlwind of exhibits, talks, workshops and debates, these design-world caravanserais come and go, but rarely leave the city with a lasting legacy or meaningful engagement beyond the envelope of the conference centre or exhibition tent.
In Gwangju, South Korea’s sixth-largest city, which has boasted an art biennale since 1995 and sees its fourth design biennale this year, the organisers have attempted to steer the momentum of the fleeting fair towards something a little more permanent.
“Everyone says Gwangju is Korea’s capital of culture,” says Seung H-Sang, artistic director of this year’s biennale, and one of the country’s leading architects. “But I am very sceptical — there is nothing here to prove it.” He grins, a twinkle in his eye behind circular Corbusian spectacles.
What is here, as if in answer to his scepticism, is a 13ha hole in the centre of the city, a building site ringed with a bright blue metal hoarding: the $680 million Asia Culture Complex — “a culture powerplant toward the world,” trumpets a sign — to be completed by 2014. The site occupies about a quarter of the old Gwangju Eupseong, the fortified inner city that used to be demarcated by a wall — demolished under Japanese occupation in the early 20th century. Since then, the history of the walled city has been entirely forgotten, buried beneath layers of tarmac and concrete, karaoke bars and nail salons. It is a spatial history about which Seung is keen to raise awareness, in the face of this tidal wave of new development.
The mayor is building 10 new follies a year, leaving the streets groaning with the weight of novelty pavilions
“Only about 10% of Gwangju citizens even know there used to be a wall around the city,” he says. “It is one of the most historic places in Korea, but you can’t see that when you come here.” Having arrived to an endless field of Identikit slab blocks with appliquéd neon plumage, this is something I can confirm. Like most Korean cities, it looks magical by night, but is revealed as a cluttered, flimsy jumble by day.
In an attempt to summon a sense of the historic urban form from beneath the dense layers of accretions, Seung’s biennale sees a series of 10 “urban follies”, by a group of international architects, installed at key points along the historic route of the wall, marking the gateways and corners of the former boundary line.
“I asked the architects to really understand and engage with the history and context of Gwangju,” says Seung. “The follies should also be bright at night, creating places where people want to gather.”
These were the only constraints of the brief — apart from the budget, optimistically set at $100,000 per folly (which, after much negotiation, was raised to $200,000 in some cases).
Seung’s key achievement was convincing the mayor, Kang Un-Tae, to invest in the project, which was entirely funded by public money. Originally elected in 1994 — and presiding over the first art biennale — Kang has since spent time in central government, only returning to Gwangju as mayor last year. Mindful of the need for a physical legacy, he has reputedly now committed to building 10 new follies every year for the next 10 years — which will leave the city’s streets groaning under the weight of novelty pavilions by the time he is gone.
Taking wildly different formal incarnations, the first 10 follies nonetheless share common approaches, variously edging, roofing, or framing the experience of the pavement, or else creating a new stand-alone place, detached from the pedestrian flow. The more successful among them have a public generosity beyond the scope of their site; the least successful are nothing more than clumsy additions to the already cluttered streetscape.
Of the former, the works by Florian Beigel and Philip Christou’s Architecture Research Unit (ARU), Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Juan Herreros stand out as bringing more than the sum of their parts to unpromising locations.
ARU’s allotted site was a 1.5m-wide strip of pavement, stretching 30m along a busy road between two low-key memorial stones. One marks the site of the old east gate; the other stands in memory of the May 18 democratic uprising of 1980, in which more than 200 people were killed in a violent crackdown — an event that is credited with leading to the overthrow of the country’s military dictatorship. Since then, Gwangju has become known as the hallowed birthplace of democracy, and it is this turbulent history that ARU’s intervention aims to tap, particularly given its charged site opposite the former state broadcasting office, which was burnt down in the protest — and is now home to a police academy.
The proposal, built in collaboration with local architects Ahn Jong-Hwan and Shin Young-Eun, connects the two humble memorial stones with a 30m “memory pavement” between two striking, otherworldly, objects: one a double-aperture gateway, which now frames the entrance to a zebra crossing, the other an intriguing, shrine-like pavilion, reached up a climb of tall, processional steps. Both recall the language of ARU’s 2009 Youl Hwa Dang building in Paju Book City, composed with a precise vocabulary of irregular L-shaped figures, each element offset in relief to articulate the form as an assembly of parts. Cast on site in concrete, stained a deep, chocolatey brown, the structures have a strangely tactile quality, as though formed from damp, compacted soil.
It is a richly evocative language, mined from a promiscuity of references. Back in his studio at London Metropolitan University, Beigel shows me images of current interests, from aedicule structures depicted in Pompeiian frescoes, to the stepped 1920s stage sets of Adolphe Appia, to monolithic stone portals photographed by Louis Kahn in north Africa. These have all somehow been channelled, distilling form, figure and proportion, into this new, semi-sacred piece of pavement furniture.
Beigel refers to the stepped lantern structure as “a little stage house”, and there is a playful, performative quality about ascending the podium, as if to declaim to the street. It is a feeling strengthened by the relationship with a raised timber deck in front of the police academy and an adjacent bus stop, both drawn into a public pavement theatre, newly animated by the lantern. The portal, 30m down the street, has a similar effect: “People behave differently, walking on to the entrance carpet of the zebra crossing through a doorway,” says Beigel. “It civilises the street.”
Across town, Alejandro Zaera-Polo has also brought some civility to a noisy corner of the Geumnamro Park crossing, another major site in the history of the Gwangju Democratisation Movement, being the street where the protestors began their march. The site provided a tricky set of conditions: a pavement cluttered with two subway entrances and a melee of electricity, phone and ventilation boxes, floating above a sunken park, which lies a full storey below, home to a small stage for outdoor concerts.
‘People behave differently walking on to the zebra crossing through a doorway’
Zaera-Polo’s solution was to join the two subway entrances with an undulating timber shell, which swells and contracts along its length, enclosing the many service boxes and forming little niches and benches with spaces for existing trees to poke through.
“This wooden worm serves the dual function of blocking out traffic noise and forming a backdrop for a new kind of speaker’s corner,” says Zaera-Polo. Another key move was to replace a granite wall between the pavement and the park with a series of timber steps down to a wire mesh balustrade. “It’s a kind of haha,” he says, “that opens up views of the park from the pavement and provides seating to look down on the action below.”
A similarly successful social space has been formed by Juan Herreros at the crossing of the Jangdong junction. Here, a sinuous snake of perforated metal hangs in the trees like a distorted halo above a rugged ground of coarse terrazzo, laid in parallel strata, from which vast chunks have been lifted to form a landscape of benches and tables. Floating on slender metal legs, these hovering slabs come alive at night — illuminated from beneath, and from above by the wiggly halo — providing a popular new place for the youth of Gwangju to gather after dark.
An equally lively nightspot has been provided by Dominique Perrault in the form of a bright yellow steel pavilion on a yellow-brick roundabout in the middle of a series of concentric yellow circles — or “gold,” I am corrected, as it is at the crossing of Gold Street. Based on a traditional Korean nugak (a house with a raised floor), this lurid pagoda has proved a popular home for impromptu music gigs in this busy part of Gwangju’s old town.
Designed to an incorrect survey drawing, it turned out Perrault’s angled mesh wings would block the path of emergency vehicles. Perrault refused to alter his design, so the problem was solved by enterprising local architect Ahn Jong-Hwan, who took inspiration from his car boot and fitted the flaps with hydraulic pistons, to be lowered in case of emergency.
Other unforeseen problems have been encountered with another, more subtle, roundabout structure down the street. Designed by the venerable Joh Sung-yong, whose previous work displays a marked sensitivity to context and historic re-use — all too rare in contemporary Korean architecture — the Threshold for Intimate Recollections is a mysterious mound in the middle of Callbox crossing. Described by Joh as an “anti-monument for personal memories”, it maps out the old city in delicate brass fins, inlaid into coarse, high-density concrete, and ground into a smooth hump. Abstracted streets and rivers zigzag out of the centre in textured granite paving.
It is the subtlest of the follies — and obviously too subtle for Gwangju’s drivers, who have proceeded to charge straight over it, carving up the brass inlay. Underground services also got in the way, so the central location of the roundabout — obviously crucial, even to the untrained road engineer — has been shifted from the middle of the crossing slightly to the edge. It is now marked with bollards, awaiting a more permanent solution.
Where the word folly was perhaps taken the most literally was at Chungjiangro, on the site of the former west gate, where Peter Eisenman has again proved that his arcane world of abstracted grids has a tricky relationship with the practical realities of everyday life.
“We present to the people of Gwangju a gift of a ‘House of 100 kan’,” he writes in the catalogue. Kan is not an invented Eisenman unit, but a medieval Korean measure of houses: until the fall of the Joseon dynasty, it was illegal for anyone outside the royal family to build a house larger than 99 kan. Thus the magnanimous Eisenman — who served in Korea in the US military — has presented the locals with a vast, white steel frame, spanning between two subway entrances and rising to the height of the neighbouring buildings. Within this frame, a secondary wave-like mesh form was to be installed, although initial sections of it have been removed after protestations from local shopkeepers. “It feels like being in jail, behind bars,” they have complained — and, most importantly, the frame blocks views to their shops.
Joh’s folly is too subtle for the city’s drivers, who charge over it, carving up the brass inlay
Elsewhere, Nader Tehrani, Professor of Architecture at MIT, has installed a swirling bundle of steel rods, floating in the trees above a street corner, that now adds to the cacophony of electricity boxes, newspaper stands, litter bins, lampposts and telegraph poles. Francisco Sanin, Professor at Syracuse University, has built a framed concrete staircase on the pavement next to the Asia Culture Complex building site. Designed as a “public theatre window,” it will hopefully be in a less barren context when the adjacent site hoardings are removed in 2014.
The other side of the 13ha hole, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto of Atelier Bow Wow has installed one of the most fun folly ideas: a 25m periscope rising out of a planted pergola, designed to point towards Mudeung mountain. Again though, underground powerlines got in the way, so it now faces on to a blank facade on one side, the building site on the other.
As if to placate local architects’ opposition to the grand scheme of importing big-name foreigners, the final folly was open to competition among young Korean practices. The result is reminiscent of many council-sponsored public art works in Asia, comprising a pixelated lattice pergola, with coloured light fittings that emit classical music. Unfortunately it adds little ammunition to justified local cries that more of the pavilions should have been done by Korean architects.
Unfortunate because, as visiting the offices of a host of young practices in Seoul proved to me, there is a very talented new generation of Korean architects, whose engagement with place and context has been stirred by an angry reaction to the tidal wave of second-rate foreign trophy projects — from Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Busan Cinema Centre, to Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Daniel Libeskind’s Yongsan masterplan in Seoul.
The urban folly initiative is a laudable scheme and, given the constraints of budget and time - a two month build with 50 days of rain, which shows in much of the detailing — most architects have done a decent job. But, given the 10-year plan, it is crucial that lessons are learned for the mayor’s next wave of trinkets. As Seung comments, before dashing off to sign autographs for an assembled gaggle of student fans: “This year was a quick test, to find out what people think of the folly idea. Public reaction will inform what happens next year.”
Given a little more time and thought, the follies could serve an important role, testing different programmes on sites earmarked for future development, providing snapshots of alternative possibilities, useful places with a real client in mind. Although all this might be straying a little too far from the original definition of a folly: “Eyecatcher, usually a building in a contrived landscape, otherwise useless.”
Florian Beigel and ARU- Seowonmoon Lantern
Florian Beigel and ARU have built a “little stage house”, and a double-portal gateway , both cast on site in concrete, stained a deep, chocolatey brown, separated by a 30m-long granite “memory pavement”. The stepped pavilion structure provides a new home for the memorial to the May 18 Democratic Uprising of 1980 in its hollowed-out base, and a raised seating platform above.
Dominique Perrault- The Opened Box
Sited at the central crossing of Gold Street, Perrault’s folly is based on the form of tradition Korean “nugak” buildings, little houses with raised floors. Bright yellow steel columns rise to a suspended metal-mesh floor, with mesh flaps echoing the angled form of pagoda roof structures. A series of concentric yellow rings leads into a yellow cobbled floor beneath the pavilion.
Juan Herreros- Communication Hut
A sinuous snake of perforated metal hangs in the trees like a distorted halo above a rugged ground of coarse terrazzo, laid in parallel strata, from which vast chunks have been lifted up to form a landscape of benches and tables.
Peter Eisenman- 99 KAN
Eisenman’s white steel gateway refers to the ancient Korean measure of houses, “Kan”. Until the fall of the Joseon dynasty, it was illegal for anyone outside the royal family to build any structure larger than 99 Kan. Drawing on Gwangju’s history as the cradle of democracy, the structure represents “a house of 100 Kan”, spanning the distance between the stairwells to an underground shopping centre.
Alejandro Zaera-Polo- Flow Control
This folly joins two existing subway entrances with an undulating timber “worm”, which swells and contracts along its length, enclosing a jumble of electrical and phone boxes and forming little niches and benches, with spaces for existing trees to poke through. A series of steps that overlook an outdoor performance space forms a new edge to the pavement.
SH Jung and SJ Kim- The Opened Wall
This folly was the result of an open competition for young Korean architects. Representing a section of the old city wall, lifted and flipped 90 degrees, its metal lattice pergola is formed of coloured oblong forms — some of which are light fittings and some of which emit classical music. It hovers above a series of granite block seats, providing a calming place to rest next to a bus stop.
Francisco Sanin- Public Room
A continuous loop of concrete, this folly rises and folds over to provide a series of public steps next to the future site of the Asia Culture Complex. It is designed to be freely transformed into a small public theatre space with a projector and USB connection.
Nader Tehrani- Gwangju Swarms
Making use of a method of “reverse casting”, Tehrani’s folly is defined by geometrically precise formwork that is then filled by randomly intersecting steel rods, swirling in a cloud around the trees. The rods move with a dynamic energy from the vertical linearity of the three columns to the horizontal mass of the floating cloud above.
Yoshiharu Tsukamoto- Periscope Pergola
Tsukamoto has erected a 40m-high viewing periscope on the site of an existing pergola. He originally considered placing another structure as a viewing deck on the roof of the existing pergola, but writes that “instead of lifting the body up, we decided to lift the eyes up into the sky”, to catch views of the adjacent Mudeung mountain and Asia Culture Complex development.
Joh Sung-Yong- Threshold for Intimate Recollections
This folly is described by its architect as an “anti-monument for personal memories”. It maps out the old city form in delicate brass fins, inlaid into coarse, high-density concrete, and ground into a smooth hump in the middle of the historic Call Box crossing. An abstracted pattern of streets and rivers zigzags out of the centre in textured granite paving.