Design Vanguard 2006

Sculptural projects in Korea by UnSangDong Architects sprout from conceptual ideas

UnSangDong Architects
Seoul, Korea

By Fred A. Bernstein

To the list of compelling, vertically stacked art venues—including Zaha Hadid’s Rosenthal Center in Cincinnati and Brad Cloepfils’s Museum of Arts and Design in New York City—add the Gallery Yeh in Seoul. All three buildings rely on dramatic facade treatments to announce their contemporary, not Modernist, intentions. The face of the Yeh is divided into five undulating opaque strips, which fold and buckle as they separate from the building core behind them. The tower is both a memorable urban sculpture and a rebuke to the horizontal banding of the cheaply made structures that surround it.

That a private gallery in Seoul would make such a strong statement is a sign of Korea’s affluence and rapid integration of contemporary international culture. The building’s designers, UnSangDong Architects, are Korean, part of a generation of architects still in their thirties who are completing major commissions in their home country. Among the firm’s built works are the Gwangju Design Center, which, at 170,000 square feet, would be a plum commission for even the most seasoned U.S. firm.

Click for complete slideshow of projects.

Pictured: Olympic Memorial, Paris; Image courtesy UnSangDong Architects

Principals Yoon Gyoo Jang and Chang Hoon Shin studied in Korea and apprenticed at established Korean firms, yet represent the globalization of the profession. Jang, who has been short-listed for competitions in Spain, Israel, and Italy, makes no claims to creating an architecture particular to his home country. “Korean conditions are unavoidable propositions,” he says, explaining that much of his work is instead based on research into timeless, placeless “phenomena, like floating.” Jung also runs a gallery in Seoul, called Jungmiso, where he shows conceptual art. The firm’s architecture, he asserts, is equally conceptual.

As is often the case, however, the trip from concept to construction can be fraught. In the case of the Gallery Yeh, elegant diagrams are meant to demonstrate that programmatic needs produced the bulges in the facade, but with little more than 1 meter (3.3 feet) “in play” in the finished building, the effect is primarily decorative. For the Gwangju Design Center, a school and resource center for product design in a booming industrial region, renderings show a variegated exterior corresponding to a variety of interior functions. As built, though, the main facade is a curtain wall that calls out for relief. Yet its interiors are indeed admirably light-filled and open, fulfilling the goal of local authorities to make design a key part of industrial development on Korea’s West Coast.

More successful on the architects’ conceptual terms is the Asian Culture Complex in Gwangju, a speculative project with an earthwork covering about 10 acres. Shaped like a hammock, this landscape element rises from a central “plain” into a pair of sloped surfaces. Small buildings housing galleries and theaters float in the hammock. Some rise above the surface like lanterns; others remain underground, evoking ruins. Another project, the Paris Olympic Memorial, is an intriguing assemblage of glass cells that impressively demonstrate how habitable structures can appear to float. And the firm’s headquarters for Evervill, a branch of Hyunjin Group (a real estate developer/builder), comprises a beehivelike tower punctured by circular openings. Jang describes his goal as helping to “brand” Evervill, and perhaps the building may do great things for a company that produces generic office and apartment towers across Asia.

Originally printed in the December 2006 issue of Architectural Record.
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Date founded: 2001

Design staff: 10

Principals: Yoon Gyoo Jang and Chang Hoon Shin

Education: Jang: Seoul National University, M.Arch., 1990, B.S., 1987; Shin: University of Seoul, M.Arch., 2006, Yeungnam University, B.Arch., 1996

Work history: Jang: Practice—KACI Architects, 2001–03; HERIM Architects & Engineers, 1997–2001; Artech Architects & Partners, 1995–96; Seoul Architecture Consultants, 1990–94; Academic—Kookmin University, professor, 2001–present; Shin: Architecture studio himma, 2003; M.A.R.U. Architects, 2001; BAUM Architects, 1999; Artech Architects & Partners, 1995

Key completed projects: Gallery Yeh, Seoul, 2005; restaurant at Asia Publication Culture & Information Center, Paju, Korea, 2005; University of Seoul College of Law lecture hall and sports complex, 2004; Evervill headquarters, Seongnam, Korea, 2004; Paris Olympic Memorial, 2004; Gwangju Design Center, Gwangju, Korea, 2004; KTNG Culture Complex, Yongsan, Korea, 2004

Key current projects: Design Center, Honglk University, DeaHak-Ro, Korea, 2006; Gallery of Housing Culture, Chungju, Korea, 2006; Eco Housing, PyungChang, Korea, 2006; Froebel headquarters, Paju Book City, Korea, 2006

Fred A. Bernstein is a writer based in New York City who regularly writes for RECORD.