Thursday, May 16, 2019

Switzerland v. Gyonam-dong Alps

Nevermind that dull tower rising over Pyeong-dong, down the hill; the new Swiss Embassy truly was the last missing piece in Gyonam-dong's jigsaw puzzle. How does it fit? Can it add some soul to a lobotomized neighborhood? First impressions after a visit organized on May 15, just days before its inauguration.

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In 1974, to build its Embassy, the Confederation purchased a land enjoying a spectacular view over the valley West of Sadaemun's fortress walls, all the way from Namsan to Inwangsan. Over the decades that followed, and particularly the past fifteen years, high rise buildings and apartment blocks have claimed big chunks of it, and 6 years ago the neighborhood was almost totally wiped out to make room for Gyonam / Donuimun New Town and its anonymous towers, destroying priceless wonders in the process (see "In memoriam Samdong Samgeori, Gyonam-dong" ).

The Swiss could have looked for another location, and maybe join such Embassy clusters as Seongbuk-dong or Itaewon / Hannam-dong, but they courageously decided to stay. Well they did move to Hannam-dong though, but only the time to avoid that apocalyptic mutation, and to replace their nondescript red brick lair with something new. Here it is, now facing Gyeonam-dong alps instead of Geumhwasan and Tongil-ro valley:

Photo Erae Architects - Swiss Embassy website

Halfway between Hong Lampa house in Hongpa-dong, and the sanitized* Donuimun Museum Village in Sinumunro 2-ga, the new landmark confirms this section of Songwol-gil as some kind of green and architecturally diverse oasis.

One roof, continuous wings, a central madang... the 2019 Swiss Embassy clearly honors the hanok style, but with a modern, deconstructed twist, and a broken version of the traditional 'ㅁ' or 'ㄷ' shapes:

The open spiral from above (mockup - Burckhardt Partner website)
Logo created for the Embassy inauguration
More an open keyring than a locked up Swiss bank vault, this Embassy wraps you up without cutting you from its environment, providing at the same time intimacy and transparency. The wide windowpanes facing the courtyard enable a dialog between the four wings (multipurpose, chancery, representation space, residence of Ambassador Linus von Castelmur), but the building is also open to its surrounding. Even the metal fence lets you see through. And if some semi-private spaces (cafeteria, living room) display some sort of ceramic moucharabieh, their lace is very wide. The biggest windows point to the sky or surrounding gardens, others direct your gaze to the greenest spots of the New Town, so that you never quite face its dead monoliths.

The outer concrete walls echo modern Swiss heritage, but wood is omnipresent, with epicea ceilings, staircases, slabs, and pilars. The lightness of the roof and structure, boosted by a gigantic sail cast over half the courtyard, could be achieved by the burial of most technical machinery in dedicated basement corridors. We also visited the nuclear shelter, compulsory for public structures of a certain size in Switzerland, but maybe not that irrelevant this side of the DMZ.



This environment-friendly building collects heat from the underground (30+ geothermal pumps), power from the sun, and water from the skies, sometimes in an artistic way, thanks to Lena Maria Thuring's 'Water connections' installation, where metal chains direct part of the flow from the rooftop to hanging stones and surface channels:


The visit was led by architects Nicolas Vaucher (Burckhardt Partner), and Lee In-ho (Erae Architects). Obviously, I followed the former:


Nicolas Vaucher in the madang, the staircase, the cafeteria, the nuclear shelter, the machinery, the residence's garden, the representation's dining room, the cultural section, the entrance.

Six years ago, I thought that all of Gyonam-dong's seven neighborhoods would disappear for good. They will never be brought back, but at least, somehow, part of Songwol-dong continues to exist under a new form.


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* see my lukewarm review in the "Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2017" focus

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