The idealized space of the museum and gallery has presented a challenge for the architects of the current generation. Responding to theorists who claimed that the traditional exhibition space falsely proposes a contextless space, the 'white cube' that represents both the apotheosis of early modernist architecture and the showroom of modern art.
With completion nearing for the Kukje Art Center in Seoul, part of a master plan they developed for the Sogyeok-dong area of Seoul, the principals Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu of SO – IL have devised a provocative response to this 'problem' of the white cube that simultaneously avails itself to the unadulterated art-space volume and exaggerates the effects of this indulgence. The Kukje project centers around a cubic volume that epitomizes the classic clear-span art space. This ground floor space is intended for large installations, performances and other functions, while two floors below grade house a sales room, a lecture space and storage. To accomplish the cube that would serve as the hub, all of the building's circulation and service function—five components in all—have been pushed to the periphery, creating a composite structure whose exterior strangeness belies the purity of the central exhibition space.
The result is a spatial agglomeration with function-formed volumes attached to the central cube. This 'weird object,' as Idenburg calls it, provoked an additional conceptual response to the façade that drove Idenburg and Liu on an international hunt for the mass-manufacture of an ancient material better known for the cladding of warriors than of buildings: chainmail.
Approaching the composite geometry of the art center with the notion of diffusing the hardness of the modernist box, SO – IL wanted to wrap the entire building in a membrane that would blur its edges. They sought a durable, pliable, yet semitranslucent material that would produce a layer of visual dispersal around the building mass. The additional challenge of wrapping the irregular form of the center required a medium that could accommodate double curvatures, both convex and concave, which continuous sheet materials cannot. The only surface that can do this is a mesh, but the tensile necessity would require a stainless steel mesh, which has never used on the architectural scale.
Together with engineer Michael Ra of Front Inc., SO – IL developed, engineered and fabricated the façade from scratch. Based on a 1-1/4" link, they developed a metal wire model that served as the basis of the entire system. Front wrote custom scripts to model how the rings would deploy across the surface, ultimately determining that the project would require 510,000 ring units. 'An industrialized system for this component doesn't exist, so we needed to produce it with a manufacturer from the start. We solicited bids on [Chinese b2b site] alibaba.com, and found one site with one English-speaker in An Ping, about five hours from Beijing.' This manufacturer was able to provide prototypes the old-fashioned way: hand-welding. 'Architects usually describe and specify, here we had to develop and deliver the component ourselves,' says Idenburg.
After determining the spec for mass-manufacture of the rings, the next hurdle was how to hang it. The notion of a seamless nebula enveloping the center had to contend with the crude geometries SO – IL devised and the minute tolerances of the chainmail. 'We knew the mesh would have elasticity, but to what tolerance? How much pressure could we put on every point before developing dimples or other inconsistencies? It was easy to figure out how much it would weigh, but not as easy to understand how it would perform. The challenge was in finding a system that would calibrate the mesh so that we could control the tension and appearance.' says Idenburg.
A full-scale mock-up was developed to simulate the western façade of the Kukje Center at an assembly site in Zhangmutou, where the Korean contractors and staff from Front went to learn about the behavior of the mesh. This testing concluded that an entirely welded, literally seamless envelope could be attached to a curb hidden in gravel under the ground plane and above the parapet for maximum effect. To achieve this, the mesh will arrive on site in 15 swatches, then be loosely draped over the building. There they will be hand-seamed together ring by ring, ground, and tensioned.
Final decisions regarding finishes had to be made to coordinate the appearances of the inner concrete façade and the chainmail envelope. 'It was our ambition to make the finish of the concrete match or emulate the finish of the mesh, relating them so you cannot always discern which layer you are looking at, emphasizing idea of the blurred edge,' says Idenburg. The links were bead-blasted, a process similar to sand-blasting but using tiny steel particles, to produce a coarse finish and diffuse light much more than regular steel finishes. The resulting light hue would serve as a guide to the pigmenting of the exposed concrete underneath. With the building now completely enclosed and the application of the veil to be completed by year's end, it will soon be possible to see how the multidirectional reflections among the mesh and concrete surfaces project the kind of diffuse moiré that may prove to subvert the legacy of the gallery box.
The Kukje Art Center gallery building won an AIANY Design Award in May 2011 and will open to the public in spring 2012.
Kukje Art Center, Seoul
Client: Kukje Gallery
Location: Seoul, South Korea
Program: Art gallery, lecture hall
Area: 1.500 sq m / 11.000 sq f
Team: Florian Idenburg, Jing Liu, Iannis Kandyliaris, Cheon-Kang Park, Sooran Kim.
Front, Inc. (façade): Mike Ra, Ben Bradly, Jeffrey Kock; Dong Yang Structural Engineering (structure); J.K. Technology (MEP); Jeyho (contractor).