Between matter and meaning

In SO – IL's projects for Kukje Gallery's K3 building in Seoul and the Logan offices in New York, one finds a multidimensional architecture in step with the ambiguous spatiality of the digital era.

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.
Top: The K3 building for Kujke Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. The architects were
appointed to work on the
project when excavations had
already begun. They were
asked to divide the gallery
into two parts: a number of
underground spaces in which
to house a small auditorium,
storage rooms, offices and
service rooms, and, on the
ground floor, a large double height
gallery. Above: The New York head offices
of Logan, a production
company specialised in
commercials, video games
and films, occupies a loft in
the heart of SoHo.
The space is characterised
by two elongated rooms,
each with a 20-m-long table.
The longitudinal spaces
feature a framework clad
with a taut fabric. This choice
enabled the architects to
create a room within a room,
while concealing the existing
structure
Top: The K3 building for Kujke Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. The architects were appointed to work on the project when excavations had already begun. They were asked to divide the gallery into two parts: a number of underground spaces in which to house a small auditorium, storage rooms, offices and service rooms, and, on the ground floor, a large double height gallery. Above: The New York head offices of Logan, a production company specialised in commercials, video games and films, occupies a loft in the heart of SoHo. The space is characterised by two elongated rooms, each with a 20-m-long table. The longitudinal spaces feature a framework clad with a taut fabric. This choice enabled the architects to create a room within a room, while concealing the existing structure
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.
The K3 building for Kujke Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. 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 K3 building for Kujke Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. 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
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.
These two SO – IL projects are full of productive paradoxes between form and formless, strength and lightness
The Logan offices in SoHo, New York. The long table is a physical
transposition of the office’s
workflows, acting as a focal
point for the development of
the design, production and
conference phases
The Logan offices in SoHo, New York. The long table is a physical transposition of the office’s workflows, acting as a focal point for the development of the design, production and conference phases
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.
The Logan offices in SoHo, New York. The false ceiling in PVC
reflects natural light without
casting shadows. The end
section of the continuous
table is separated from the
rest of the room by a glazed
wall to create an acoustically
insulated space
The Logan offices in SoHo, New York. The false ceiling in PVC reflects natural light without casting shadows. The end section of the continuous table is separated from the rest of the room by a glazed wall to create an acoustically insulated space
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 Korea.

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 K3 building for Kujke Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. 
Surrounded by a dense
urban fabric composed of
hanok (traditional one-storey
dwellings with courtyards),
Kukje is the leading private
contemporary art gallery
in Korea. The clients are
expanding their business
by upgrading their existing
facilities and inserting a new
complex into the district
The K3 building for Kujke Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. Surrounded by a dense urban fabric composed of hanok (traditional one-storey dwellings with courtyards), Kukje is the leading private contemporary art gallery in Korea. The clients are expanding their business by upgrading their existing facilities and inserting a new complex into the district
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.
The K3 building for Kujke Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. A mesh formed by 510,000
steel rings envelops the
volume containing the
third exhibition space of
the Kukje Gallery in Seoul
The K3 building for Kujke Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. A mesh formed by 510,000 steel rings envelops the volume containing the third exhibition space of the Kukje Gallery in Seoul
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.
The Logan offices in SoHo, New York. The interior landscape of the
space is transformed into a visual field, as though a real-life,
real-time Photoshop filter were being applied
The Logan offices in SoHo, New York. The interior landscape of the space is transformed into a visual field, as though a real-life, real-time Photoshop filter were being applied
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.
The Logan offices in SoHo, New York. 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 Logan offices in SoHo, New York. 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
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.
The K3 building for Kujke Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. 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
The K3 building for Kujke Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. 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
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.
The chain mail was 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
The chain mail was 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
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.

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