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Mimesis Museum by Álvaro Siza, Carlos Castanheira and Jun Saung Kim, Paju Book City, South Korea

The silhouettes of the Mimesis Museum are defined by the at times uncomfortable collision of orthogonal and rounded forms. Photography by Duccio Malagamba

‘To work with Álvaro Siza always involves a surprise,’ says long-term collaborator and fellow Portuguese architect Carlos Castanheira. ‘I have worked with him for a long time and know him well, and while he typically follows the same design process, Siza always takes time to find the shape that fits the problem of any given project.’ 

Siza visits Castanheira’s office most weeks to discuss their numerous collaborations. It was at one of these meetings that Siza produced the surprise, with a sketch for the Mimesis museum in Korea. As Castanheira recalls: ‘With that sketch, the idea for this building was there, drawn in one movement, one gesture.’ Castanheira describes the tale of the emperor’s cat, in which an artist keeps the emperor waiting seven years to perfect a sketch of a cat that he eventually produces with one brush stroke. ‘Because Siza has made a lot of buildings and has a lot of experience, he has the skill of an artist who has trained for many years.’ 

When describing the Iberê Camargo Foundation headquarters in Porto Alegre, Brazil (AR September 2008), Siza explained how such sketches encapsulate his ‘deep emotional response’ to a project. Not necessarily bearing a strong resemblance to the final form, such sketches – a component of every design process for Siza – encapsulate just enough of the building’s character to proceed.

When asked if there was any specific relationship between the Korean and Brazilian projects, Castanheira insists that no two projects are the same. Yet Siza’s work has become increasingly expressive, and the silhouettes of both buildings are defined by the forceful and at times uncomfortable collision of orthogonal and rounded forms. Castanheira finally concedes that ‘Yes, perhaps [in Korea] Siza’s experience from Brazil was still present.’ 

With both projects anchored to their sites by L-shaped wings that provide armatures for more expressive displays of virtuosity, Siza’s skill is most apparent in spaces that gain character from the tension between opposing geometries. In Brazil the spectacle was the circulation, with visitors launched through tunnels and across ramps. In Korea the inverse is the case: the principal area is more flamboyant, with a series of curvaceous display spaces that billow out from a skinny L-shaped wing that houses stairs, lifts, WCs and a kitchen. As a result the plan here is much tighter, not only with less void space, but also through the proximity of contrasting forms.

As point of entry, the courtyard introduces this sense of tension, diminishing in width as visitors approach. With a low-level cut-out creating a covered route to one side, visitors are forced to veer away from the pinch point where the internal sweep turns in to meet its tightest radius. Unreachable until you finally enter, this turn becomes the fulcrum of the plan, creating a punctuation point between spaces and levels and providing orientation for visitors. On the ground floor the radius is glazed to reveal the neatly clipped courtyard, a view previously denied by the lobby’s freestanding screen wall. Above this it rises as a solid convex face, pressing tightly against the orthogonal balustrade of the mezzanine lobby, before finally achieving more liberty as a prominent form within the first-floor gallery.

On this level the architects originally hoped to reconnect the large temporary exhibition space with the generous foyer below, using a balcony that would peel away from the central wall. Unfortunately fire regulations wouldn’t permit it, so Siza and Castanheira devised the exhibition platform into which they set a single glazed lay light. ‘There are a lot of stories like this in Siza’s work – a balcony that becomes a podium that becomes a light well,’ says Castanheira, quickly adding: ‘but of course, there is never really anything accidental in his work.’ 

Architect Álvaro Siza (Oporto, Portugal), Carlos Castanheira (Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal) and Jun Saung Kim (South Korea)
Project Coordinator Dalila Gomes
Construction Coordinator Young-il Park
Collaborators Chungheon Han, João Figueiredo
Structure Gayoon ENC, Jungang Constructural Engineering Consultant

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