Fred A. Bernstein

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UnSangDong Architects

A Korean firm is part of Record's Design Vanguard

Published in Architectural Record, December 16, 2006

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 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 work sare the Gwangju Design Center, which, at 170,000 square feet, would be a plum commission for even the most seasoned U.S. firm.
Principals Yoon Gyoo Jang and Chang Hoon Shin studied in Korea and apprenticed at established Korean firms, yet they 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 nonetheless 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, 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 "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 set in 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 would do great things for a company that produces generic office and apartment towers across Asia.