Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig designs his first high-rise, for fashion importer Shinsegae International in Seoul, South Korea.
Interview by Katie Gerfen
How did you get this, your first tower commission?
Tom Kundig, FAIA: We had worked for these clients on a number of projects in Korea—some residential and art spaces. One of the members of the family—which develops stores for the fashion industry—was interested in building this tower and asked if would I would design it. I didn’t have a portfolio of tower projects. But the owner was willing to take a risk, and I’m indebted to them for inviting me to work on it.
What was the brief and how did you approach design?
The idea was to collect a number of disparate offices that the family had assembled in different buildings in this neighborhood in Seoul into a single building called Shinsegae International. As for the design, what really drives me is context. I always say that architecture is the exterior context pushing against the interior context. It’s the membrane between those two; the push and pull between the two different agendas.
Traditionally, this area has had five- and six-story buildings, because that was the limit of technology when they were built. But in an urban context, people only really take in the first six to seven stories of a building whether you’re driving fast in a car or if you’re walking. What was really clear is that for the client, the base of this building had to be interesting not only to the people in their cars, but also to the people inside the building. They understood the value of city-scaled architecture that would engage people whether they saw it once or every day over a career.
I think this building responds to the existing built environment at the base. And then in the body of the building, we were making a single place for these people that work together. The top is very much about the community of the building itself, because that’s where everybody gets together—in the rooftop garden.
Context and regionalism have always been key in your work? How did you approach that at this new scale?
Architects are professional voyeurs. We look at what is happening now in our cultural context, what happened in the past, and what might happen in the future—that’s the context. You spend time thinking about the forces pushing on this building and the reasons that the built environment around it exists as it does. But conceptually, aside from scale and some technology issues, in a way, there’s nothing different about approaching the design for a cabin in the high desert or a tower in one of the largest cities in the world.
You’re known for a thoughtful approach to materiality. How did you showcase the palette for this project?
We used an aluminum curtainwall system that has some steel elements in it. It builds strength for the windows but it’s also a brise-soleil because Seoul is a harsh climate and it affects the efficiency of solar gain and heat loss. And then there’s the base, where the materiality really makes itself felt front and center. There’s wood on the inside as you enter the building, so it’s very warm to the touch, and there’s tough steel on the exterior. It’s hard on the outside, soft on the inside, like a Tootsie Pop. And, of course, the base is where the gizmos are.
Let’s talk about these gizmos—the wheels and panels on the façade. What are they and what do they do?
The gizmos are motor-driven, and the wheels support the motors as they move these black-framed, black-mesh panels up and down along a steel track. It’s all computer-controlled so you can change the program—they can move slowly or quickly. They’re intended to move like fabric does—changing positions and proportions, and that’s important because they’re at the city level of visual engagement with the building. The clients can put things on each panel so that you could have a billboard that breaks up or comes together: It’s ready to have artists engage. But the gizmos are also in the client’s control, and I think it’s cool that it engages the building at a human level and gives people the ability to affect this building in a very personal way if they want to.
The aesthetic overall is a departure from the purely glazed towers that we see elsewhere. Was that a driving factor in the design?
It was intentional on my part to reconsider how these tall buildings in cities are articulated. With the smaller stuff that I work on, articulation and human touch are really important, and I always think it’s somewhat disappointing that taller buildings don’t have that. This is a very simple building, done to the envelope that was allowed. I thought the proportions were beautiful, and maybe the subtlety and nuance will be appreciated in the next 50 or 100 years, rather than if it was a one-liner in a crazy shape.
Now that you’ve got one in your portfolio, can we expect more towers from you? More larger projects?
I’m interested in the adventure of life, where you can go out and experience different places. That’s why I like small projects as much as large ones—they take you all over the world. The large projects are interesting from a community-design perspective, and we’re getting good as a firm at understanding what the larger community, and the owner, is looking for. It’s not about being big or small. It’s about: What’s the new adventure?
Project: Shinsegae International, Seoul, South Korea
Client: Shinsegae International
Design Architect: Olson Kundig, Seattle . Tom Kundig, FAIA (design principal); Dan Wilson, AIA (principal); Jason Roseler (project architect); Phil Turner (gizmo design); Nathan Boyd, Jerry Garcia, Evan Harlan, Debbie Kennedy, Angus MacGregor, Kevin Scott (project team)
Architect of Record: Junglim Architecture
Interior Designer: Dawon Design (café, meeting room, office floors); Kesson: (cafeteria, piazza)
Mechanical Engineer: WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff
Structural Engineer: Magnusson Klemencic Associates
General Contractor: Shinsegae Engineering & Construction
Landscape Architect: Allworth Design
Lighting Designer: TinoKwan Lighting Consultants
Curtainwall/Façade Constultants: Front (design development); CDC (schematic design)
Façade Access Consultant: Lerch Bates (schematic design)
Size: 168,390 square feet (15,644 square meters), total gross floor area