The reality of Paju Book City today is far from the architectural utopia promised by ARU’s Youlhwadang Book Hall nearly a decade ago
It is usually easy to reach a consensus on what makes a contemporary building successful, using familiar Renaissance principles of composition, materiality and structure. Yet in the case of the Youlhwadang Book Hall by Architectural Research Unit (ARU), headed by Florian Beigel and Philip Christou, such an evaluation system does not apply.
In the spirit of Marvin Trachtenberg’s book Building in Time, the Book Hall flirts with a ‘pre-Albertian’ design attitude. Trachtenberg compellingly illustrates how the concept of architecture shifted from a collective endeavour towards an individual act during the Renaissance. This shift occurred in parallel with a growing understanding of mortality that transcended notions of medieval existence. Essentially, the contemporary figure of the starchitect was born in the 15th century. Capitalism simply gave them wings.
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A key image in the work of ARU, and one especially relevant to the Book Hall project, is the 15th-century painting by Giovanni Mansueti, Miracle of the Relic of the Holy Cross in Campo San Lio. In this late medieval depiction of a Venetian campo, there is a Giotto-like strangeness of blurring scales. Oversized figures make the outdoor space feel like a large, public room adorned with windows from which more oversized characters emerge. The exaggerated scale of the spectators draws them from their interiors out into the external courtyard.
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For Beigel and Christou, this picture embodies their aspiration for ‘architecture as city’, in which notions of interior and exterior become relative. Despite the liveliness of the space, formal coherence is maintained through ornament, material and colour. Mansueti’s medieval campo epitomises the heyday of urban civility, an era in which there was no conflict between architecture and the city, only mutual interest.
The Book Hall embraces this continuity between outside and inside. The entire building feels like a cast building model, with both the outer and inner skins products of the same formwork. Moulding is reintroduced as a means of connecting the language of the interior with the facade and also as a way of relating structural elements to furniture.
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The ambition to design a building as a progression of figures and scales is extremely rare these days. A traditionally trained architect would consider such an approach natural, but in the current era this is no longer the case. Yet the Book Hall, part of the ongoing Paju Book City development, can be read as a sequence of squares from the street inwards. The front courtyard is very concerned about making a public figure, as is the main hall. The space features a loggia overlooking the reading space. Its lower parapet absorbs the staircase. From the loggia, a suspended balcony runs around the hall. Suspension and light fittings merge into a thin colonnade of hung lanterns.
Thresholds are another means to extend the experience of urbanity. Ask the four-legged doorkeeper that awaits you at the entrance of the Book Hall. This sturdy figure pretends to be a porte cochère, but in reality is a hovering teahouse.
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Ultimately, the affinity for medieval Italy becomes most legible in the front elevation of the Book Hall where, as in many Italian town halls, an intense stratification energises the composition. Intriguing facades, such as those of the Palazzo dei Capitani in Ascoli Piceno, have been altered for generations, until the elevations have become saturated with rhythms, incidents and trophies. This can be understood as the public counterpart of a living-room mantelpiece, displaying the memories and reminders of a rich family life.
Though many values are enshrined in ARU’s Paju Book Hall, unfortunately its neighbours do not share them. Wandering through Paju Book City, the differences in civic atmosphere in modern Korea compared with medieval Italy are strikingly apparent. The Book Hall forms part of ARU’s masterplan for the second phase of the project, a purpose-built cultural and commercial ‘city’ about an hour’s drive north of Seoul. Dedicated to creating, publishing and merchandising Korean books, Paju is home to more than 500 publishing companies, interspersed with printing plants, bookstores and cafés.
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ARU developed the masterplan, together with Korean colleagues Kim Jong Kyu, Kim Young Joon and Min Hyun Sik, in collaboration with the Paju Book City co-operative headed by Yi Ki Ung, the chairman of Youlhwadang Publishers. Paju was planned with the common urban aim of safeguarding the Han River as the ecological backbone of a precious wetland. Wedged between the river and Simhak Mountain, it was envisioned as a new type of city as suggested by a Paul Klee painting from 1928, A Leaf from the Book of Cities, which evocatively conjured the view from the mountain, across Paju Book City, to the Han River. It was agreed to offer every plot on the industrial estate a view either of the surrounding mountains or over the wetland. ARU’s masterplan provides a solid base for parcelling out the land and distributing it to different publishing agencies and printing companies.
Started in 1999, the first phase was completed in 2007, the second is nearly finished, and a third is in the pipeline, developing the idea of a ‘holistic media city’. Within a grid of allotted sites, Korean architects old and young, from both small and large practices, as well as a few foreign names, including Álvaro Siza, have been commissioned to design individual buildings. However, the outcome is rather like a cocktail party of overdressed guests, each scrupulously avoiding eye contact.
Considered as an industrial estate or campus, Paju Book City looks surprisingly urban. Yet it is anything but a city. Housing was left out of the zoning plan, yet housing is the primary building block of any city. From time to time, commercial and cultural programmes lure people onto the streets. But from a European perspective, the whole planning effort feels odd and hard to comprehend. During its economic boom, Asia developed a tradition of artificial developments and Paju cannot escape that association. Visually, ecological infrastructure prevails; in reality, cars rule.
Streetscapes are handled with care, yet many buildings don’t seem at ease in them. There is plenty of ‘architecture’ on offer, but like so many contemporary developments, it is beyond the point of saturation. Not surprisingly, Siza’s Mimesis building opts to pull back from the street behind a hedge. Gio Ponti once noted that a harmonious environment is not a matter of formal resemblance, but of shared values.
Yet ultimately, the disparity between the thoughtfulness of the Book Hall and the riotousness of Paju Book City illustrates the challenge of ‘architecture as a city’. Nowadays, planners and clients manage to agree on matters of sustainability, mobility and efficiency. But the ability to agree on matters of formal consistency has been wrecked by the urge for individual expression. Despite a set of comprehensive architectural guidelines applied to each new building – prescribing material qualities, the three acceptable building types (‘wall’, ‘podium’ or ‘gazelle’) and massing options – architecture is effectively traduced and diminished by the lure of branding.
True civility implies a powerful body of shared values. At present, only a very strong planning apparatus can discipline architecture into a consistent urban set-up. The Paju masterplan did not produce a particularly robust armature, neither formally nor legally. As a result, ARU’s building remains an elusive fragment of a compromised whole and a tantalising suggestion of what might have been.
Mimesis Museum by Álvaro Siza with Carlos Castanheira and Jun Sung Kim, 2009
‘I didn’t have as much context as I would have liked with which to create a dialogue, I only had a site plan, so I had to concentrate on creating an atmosphere for the building’, said Siza. Inspired by a quick generative sketch, this private art museum is a sinuous concrete form penetrated by a courtyard. Blank walls form a mute container that turns its back on its surroundings, while toplit spaces form a neutral backdrop for display.
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Myung Films building by Iroje, 2015
Conceived as a city in miniature, with associated qualities of flexibility and mutability, this headquarters for a film company is divided into two volumes enclosing a plaza. A bridge and deck connect the two parts which explore dualities of materials (concrete/glass) and experiences (opacity/transparency). Like a film, it creates its own reality as a response to its placeless setting, an armature populated and brought to life by workers/actors.
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Rainbow Publishing House and Headquarters by Daewha Kang Design, 2017
This publishing house produces small print-run biographies of ordinary people who played a part in the history of modern Korea. The building’s focus is the ‘hundred-year stair’, which wraps around a bookcase with one shelf for each year of the 20th century. Biographies are placed in the year of their subject’s birth. Layers of volcanic hyeonmu-am stone form a rich textured facade, evoking the passage of time and the accumulation of history.
Rainbow publishing house by daewha kang design plan
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Studio M by Society of Architecture, 2017
Typical of the new media companies attracted to the second phase of Paju Book City, Studio M comprises a studio, office and dormitory for a creator of video special effects. In response to its tricky triangular plot, the building adopts a semicircular form. Walls of dark brick are precisely incised with horizontal bands of glazing, and floor plate sizes increase as the building rises, creating an expressive and imposing volume that holds its own on a constrained site.
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This piece is featured in the AR’s February 2018 issue on Korea – click here to purchase a copy