When we use the word "substance" in relation to a thought
or idea, we suggest that the thought begins to gain physical
properties through its significance. Metaphorically speaking,
ideas can be weighty, have gravitas and become solid. In these
linguistic formulations, thoughts can become things. Likewise,
physical stuff is often an idea as much as it is a thing. The
substances we create exist because of the imagination that
precedes them. As we impose concepts onto the found condition
of the world we alchemise base stuff into a specific material
condition. Ideas, then, can be as real as things and stuff can be
an imaginary state.
The idea, or rather the problem, of solidity seems a central concern to SO – IL's approach to architecture. SO – IL is an office born in the week of the Lehman Brothers collapse. For its founders Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu this may have appeared catastrophic timing yet, they now acknowledge that that moment is somehow encoded into their project.
SO – IL formed at the moment when the relationship between matter and meaning was revealed to have shifted, born into a world where substance, architecture even, had been transformed into imaginary financial instruments. Traditional divisions between the physical substance of architecture and its abstract conceptual shadows of value had cut loose.
Just as Marx had suggested in The Communist Manifesto, hypercapital transformed matter: "All that is solid melts into air." Perhaps it is these kinds of contemporary concerns of immaterial materiality, of something being there and also not, that we see in SO – IL's office for the production company Logan in New York.
The typical SoHo loft space is full of period window frames, heating pipes, cast-iron structure, of all the materiality of a building made out of stuff, of the worldly effects of time and use. A series of interventions layer another experience on top of this found condition. Two apparently thick walls slice the space into a strict rectilinear plan. Despite their massive width these are made from the slightest of materials, a seamless Gaussian fabric stretched so tight as to seem solid. This creates two almost identical spaces, each with a single immensely long table running its length. These spatial doubles sit alongside one another, yet because we can also see through the gauzewalls, they also appear to be reflections of each other. These are like apparitions of walls, swallowing cast-iron columns into their foggy depth, whose sheer translucency cuts views across the space into planes of diminishing visibility like a misty landscape whiting-out towards the horizon.
Around the perimeter, a single Gaussian skin provides a sheer
layer through which the typical features of an external wall
remain half visible, half erased. Sunlight projects the window
panes onto the skin as bright abstract rectangles. We read
the ad hoc history of the architecture, the gunk, bodges and
practicalities of stuff through this sharp skin like an X-ray view.
There is a hallucinogenic effect. The interior landscape of the space is transformed into a visual field, as though a real-life, real-time Photoshop filter were being applied. Changes in natural and artificial light shift the depth of field, altering our perception of size, distance, connection. As they move through the space, people blur into silhouettes, become sharper or fade to grey. The sensation is ghostly, as though one kind of architecture were haunting another, as though you were in two places at the same time, as though the sensation of architecture were something that exists like an apparition around the hard code of programme.
This feels like exactly the right kind of spatial effect for a company like Logan, a hyper-digital company, producing trailers for video games that combine the real and the virtual into spectacular affairs. SO – IL's architecture, too, exists in this semi-transparent world, where hard and soft intersect. We can read it as a speculation on the architectural possibilities of 21st-century experiences where we are bathed in electromagnetic glows of communication, augmented realities and hazy fields of signal and noise, where experiences of "being" and "there" are not always in concert, where multiple versions of identity overlap simultaneously.
This notion of architecture as a multidimensional entity strikes
us at the Kukje Gallery in Seoul where SO – IL were tasked with
designing K3, the third space for a leading Korean contemporary
art gallery. It is a complex site where vernacular shanty and
traditional urban grain rub up against the Royal Palace,
adjacent to the burgeoning Seoul arts quarter, and sitting at the
foot of a mountain where a wall marks the border with North
In part we can understand the building through the dual roles it performs. First, internally as gallery, the ne pas ultra of internalised contemporary space. Second, externally, as a means to make sense of the piecemeal site and to help generate a more coherent campus-like relationship between Kukje's collection of buildings. The project seems formed through negotiating these disparate ambitions.
The gallery is organised as a hyper-logical diagram. The highceilinged white cube gallery space sits at the centre as if it were an art-market platonic form. Circulation and utilities are pushed out into lumps and protrusions: an entrance, an external staircase to the roof, a curved stair to the basement theatre, a cylindrical lift shaft and an A/C unit. Below ground are a cinema and meeting rooms. This form is rendered in blank, brutal concrete, and it is derived with visible bluntness from the programme of a commercial gallery.
Internally, the white cube space is beautiful in its top-lit,
exquisite shadow-gapped precision. Through its pitch-perfect
rendition of the contemporary gallery interior, it is a kind
of found condition, a ready-made appropriated from any
other global high-end art space. Here we feel pragmatism
underwritten with an ironic acceptance of the gallery typology.
Its status as a specific type of environment is heightened by pushing everything else out, so that doors, stairs and so on are like facilities plugged in to sustain it. The formal status of the gallery verses the informal, or as-necessary arrangement of its services elevates its significance.
Externally, this concrete logic—in both the material and conceptual sense—is wrapped in a seamless chain-mail coat formed by steel rings welded to loop each other. Produced in sections by, apparently, an entire village in China and then seamed on site, it drapes from the roofline down to the ground, bulging and stretching around the building's lumps and protrusions. The chain mail has the quality of security fencing made by jewellers, both tough and delicate at the same time. It forms a visual haze around the building, diffusing the building's solid literally into something indeterminate. Its boundary becomes harder to discern and develops a strange simultaneous quality of form and formlessness. Viewed head-on, the chain mail becomes more transparent; viewed laterally, it becomes a surface. Light plays both across its surface and through it to form filigree shadows cast across the concrete behind.
As we walk around, we begin to see how K3's strange form responds to its context. To one corner, the chain mail is pulled tight to from a rectilinear corner to the building. It bulges as it attaches to a glazed entrance door and to a curved staircase that peels away from the central volume leading down to the cinema and forming a semicircular courtyard. Here, where the building faces a small street, it forms a more regular public face. Its setback helps create what might be a public square, currently occupied by two giant Paul McCarthy statues. Viewed from the opposite direction, from within the Kukje compound, a glazed entrance pops out of the gallery and snakes towards us as though to scoop us up. And on another side, the open staircase that leads to the roof terrace is pushed out at an angle to advertise its presence deeper into the site, helping to form new routes through the campus. The building's form, though at once alien, is also a way of close-knitting the volume of the gallery into the rickety vernacular that surrounds it, a way of making sense of the found condition of leftover spaces, jumps in scale and routes through the site.
In a larger sense, too, its form embeds itself into the landscape of Seoul. The architects point to a historic traditional Korean painting of the site that one of their team unearthed during the design process, where the peaks of mountains and the roofscape of the palace are swathed in mists that push foreground and background into the same space.
These two SO – IL projects are in some ways inversions of each other, one an interior wrapping of an external architecture, the other an external wrapping of an internal architecture. In different ways these projects are highly formal, but in ways that are far from sculptural. They remain open and loose, allowing them to be used, experienced and read in ways that are simultaneously abstract, metaphorical, symbolic and narrative. They are full of productive paradoxes between form and formless, strength and lightness, logic and illusion, solid and void, thickness and thinness, visibility and invisibility, between idea and thing. In both we feel a sketching-out of what the sensations of space and substance might feel like in a half virtual world.