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Forest of Light by Kyu Sung Woo Architects: ‘An artful provision of mixed-use space’

The Asia Cultral Centre in Gwangju recalls a sinister past while looking to a bright future

Gwangju is a small city – population around 1.5 million – in southern South Korea that was the scene, in May 1980, of an uprising against the repressions of the military government. The immediate cause was the dictatorial imposition of martial law, and protests erupted country-wide. In Gwangju, a quarter of a million people rebelled and, in the brutal repression that followed, at least 200 were killed (some estimates suggest the number may have been 10 times that). Kyu Sung Woo Architects’ park, plaza and cultural centre – designed with landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh – serves as both a memorial to the rebellion and a regenerative effort to provide a formal heart (if one the architect prefers to call a lung, à la Olmsted) for a city that has developed raggedly but retains a special aura among Koreans for its fight on behalf of democracy. The result is a dramatic conceptual leap for the Korean-US architect, best known for the 1988 Seoul Olympics’ Athletes’ Village and elegant buildings on college campuses, including Harvard and Brandeis.

‘The new centre has invigorated the city, hosting a range of activities with a contemporary inflection’

The project arose out of a national development plan, promulgated in 2002, that proposed – as the largest cultural undertaking ‘in the history of the nation’ – to transform Gwangju into a ‘Culture Hub City of Asia’. Whether this was yet another grasp at the vaunted Bilbao Effect – art as a driver to ‘reinvigorate the economy of Gwangju by attracting human resources and content businesses’ (‘tourists’, I assume) – or a more soulful enterprise remains to be seen but the impetus has now yielded impressive results. The new centre has invigorated the city, hosting a range of activities with a contemporary inflection – there’s a residency programme and a recent Children’s Day event attracted 50,000 visitors.

The complex sits on a 120,000m2 site formerly occupied by the provincial government, now decamped. These offices, however, were the scene of much of the mayhem of May 1980 and several ‘historic’ buildings have been retained and repurposed as part of the new design, traces of memory and continuity whose meaning is left ambiguous, rescued from their sinister past by a bright new use but a strongly present reminder of unforgotten events.

Woo’s project has had a long gestation (and he has shown Job-like patience with a very lengthy process), yet has retained – and enlarged – its strongest ideas. The most dramatic of these is the decision to give the large site a double grade. All of the new building in the complex – which includes art galleries, performance spaces, studio and production facilities, a children’s museum, offices, among other elements – sits on a depressed second grade, which ranges 10-18 metres below the surrounding ‘natural’ datum of the city and its streets. It’s a powerful and canny move, creating a space that’s surely urban in scale and quality but also a zone apart, an enclave with its own atmosphere and perspective. This removes it from the quotidian hurly-burly of the city and yields both continuity with, and distinction from, the haphazard, irregular, smaller-scaled order of its surroundings.

‘The project arose out of a national development plan that proposed the largest cultural undertaking in the history of the nation to transform Gwangju into a Culture Hub City of Asia’

While singular, the project evokes a number of more familiar, formal tropes. In effect, Woo has created a version of the ‘bathtub’ that was such a powerful feature of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, ringed (like the Gwangju Center) by its retaining slurry wall. There was a compelling moment in its clearance and reconstruction when the WTC site was essentially ‘restored’ to the condition of the huge excavation that had been dug for its original construction. In the course of its transformation into the current grouping of office buildings, train stations, shopping mall, museum and memorial, this huge void was largely filled in, returning the primary grade to street level. Indeed, the renewed site has recovered a relationship to the sloping ground that had been erased by the podium on which the original Twin Towers sat and was continuous with the surrounding terrain only along its long eastern edge. To create the two huge pits of the 9/11 memorial, new voids had to be elaborately constructed within the larger void of the bathtub and, in the end, the primacy of ‘ground’ level was elaborately established as the ‘natural’ grade. 

The Asia Cultural Center takes a more ambitious approach and thrives on the ambiguity it produces about where its own primary datum is situated. The continuity of green elements between the terrain of the street and co-planar rooftops that surmount buildings with their ‘ground’ floors several levels below the street permits what is effectively a doubling, in which both buildings and parks occupy the same space without detriment or sacrifice of area: the use of this double grade enables 110,000m2 of public outdoor space on a site that’s not much larger. Landscaped roofs accessed directly from surrounding pavements form a variegated perimeter park space that provides a buffering green edge to both the complex and the surrounding urban fabric that foregrounds the project.

‘The Asia Cultural Center takes a more ambitious approach and thrives on the ambiguity it produces about where its own primary datum is situated’

The lower grade of the site is centred on a more formal plaza, roughly square, which is surrounded by both the new structures in the complex and by the ‘historic’ buildings of the departed government centre that are underpinned and, in effect, hoisted up onto a podium, their original ground floors marking a ‘land level’ line. This grand space of public assembly is meant to be fairly explicitly evocative, in proportion and character, of the courtyard of the Changdeok Palace in Seoul, built in the early years of the 15th century. The palace, like the cultural centre, sits within a park, incorporates a large space of assembly, includes numerous ancillary buildings and pavilions, is laid out with considerable informality, and makes the most of its rolling topography and appropriated views of peaks beyond.

Although Woo’s initiating sketch singles out Changdeok’s regular relations between palace and courtyard, the real affinity is with the irregular disposition and dimensions of built elements and with their inscription in a highly complex, three-dimensional, set of public parks and outdoor spaces. Indeed, both create effective realms apart, urban sanctuaries that can only be grasped territorially, their iconicity distributed rather than focused. There’s something especially cinematic about this. The collusiuon of architectural and landscape incidents that comprise this place is best understood ad seriatim, by the many potential perambulations it invites and by the multiplicity of passages that can be traced in and around the site in both plan and section. More, the spatial variety on offer, ranging from lawns to hardscapes to playing fields, to bosques and groves, to allées, make this a place of both durability and magic with an articulation that can’t be grasped as a single image. As an urbanism, it is at once continuous with and apart from the variegated, irregular and largely small-scale texture of the city around it, which will itself surely be revalued and scaled up by the power of the new activity and intensity.

Forest of light axonometric

Forest of light axonometric

Axonometric of Forest of Light

Woo has shown a special skill in working the seam between in and out, and manages this with a crisply modern and directly detailed set of forms. He’s chosen to call the ensemble a ‘forest of light’ and he pursues the metaphor with invention and finesse. Skylights poke through bermed earth, surmounting light chimneys that plunge deep into the buildings below, illuminating and ventilating as well as adding to the rich electric landscape that emerges after dark, when artificial light reverses the direction of the flow of photons. Two levels deep in the structure is a great move: a subterranean internal avenue of bamboo, top-lit by a continuous skylight and visible from the glazed use-spaces that flank it. The work is filled with many such moments of uncanny delight in which one looks up through windows, clerestories and skylights to see through the surmounting earth to trees and planting that are growing above. These glimpses of the doubling of the ground are the primal scenes of the centre’s conceptual and architectural originality.

‘The project is removed from the quotidian hurly-burly of the city and yields both continuity with, and distinction from, the haphazard, irregular, smaller-scaled order of its surroundings’

This same use of the section to edit views also works at the larger scale. From many points at the base plane there’s a cropped view of the mountains beyond the site, glimpsed at an angle that excises the city fabric. The whole embodies a kind of visionary privacy, the idea that the constitution of a public can be advanced by the creation of a supportive and particular space. Indeed, much of the subtlety of this project comes from the way the variety of such spaces suggest the public is not a uniformity but a multiplicity. So, the artful provision of places that supports many different activities as well as the gamut of in-between-ness and the unspecified, offers a vision of a polity that is not simply suggestive of possibility but that stands in clear opposition to the anti-democratic events that gave this place its import and impetus.

Section AA

Section AA

Section AA

Section BB

Section BB

Section BB

On one side of the main plaza there’s an enormous metal framework, an incipient media wall. Although this is a somewhat old-fashioned signifier of flexibility and free speech, successful, non-commercial instances of the literal graphic operation of such installations are sparse. But this lattice represents something more than signal potential: it’s a conceptual armature, a gesture of possibility, a platform for the undescribed. In this sense, the big steel grid continues the larger project of the complex, the provision of a variety of spaces, instruments and opportunities for a very wide range of creative endeavours and for a very wide range of gatherings. 

The Asia Cultural Center goes about as far as possible in a strictly architectural sense towards achieving its goals and its actual capacity to induce creative production and social interaction depends now on the staffs and publics that activate it, bring it to life. It’s off to a roaring start.

Architect: Kyu Sung Woo Architects

Architects of record: Samoo Architects & Engineers, Heerim Architects & Planners

Structural engineer: Guy Nordenson & Associates

Landscape architects: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Seo-Ahn Total Landscape

Photographs: Timothy Hursley

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