A Public Face

Finding a particular destination in Seoul is tricky. While buildings on major roads have numbers, those on smaller streets are identified in relation to their well-known neighbors. For example, someone might direct you “three buildings down from city hall.” Or—as of last November—they might mention the 33-story SK Telecom (SKT) skyscraper that RAD (research architecture design) created.

The unorthodox SKT building has a fractured curtain wall, and its top appears to lean toward the street. Located on busy Euljiro-no by a major metro station, the immediately recognizable structure claims visual market share for SKT, one of South Korea’s largest telecommunications companies, in a town that is also home to industry giants such as Samsung, Hyundai, and LG Telecom. “We always try to make buildings that are dynamic,” says Aaron Tan of RAD, formerly OMA Asia, the Hong Kong-based outpost of Rem Koolhaas’s Rotterdam office.

The SKT building is not the first that has aimed to be the physical expression of the company that inhabits it—William Pereira’s Transamerica Insurance building (1972), in San Francisco; Hugh Stubbins’s Citicorp Center tower (1978), in New York; and Philip Johnson’s PPG Place building (1984), in Pittsburgh, are among its predecessors. However, SKT’s tower has as much impact on the employees who use it as it does on the skyline.

“We asked ourselves, ‘How can this project be more inspirational?’” Tan says. Because appealing to employees and users was the first consideration, RAD designed the building from the inside out, and its distinctive shape is derived from the program. The upper floors—identified almost exactly where the structure begins to lean forward—are executive suites, and the middle contains generic office plans. Generous public spaces occupying the bottom six floors are used to market new products, host press conferences, exhibit information, and as classrooms for schoolchildren. “In a sense we have designed three buildings,” Tan says.

The curtain wall features irregularly positioned glass modules in two sizes, each on a metal frame that angles the glass outward. When the windows are open, the facade becomes even more visually chaotic. The design suggests something of SKT’s corporate character, embracing diversity and progress. In the late 1990s, SKT led the market in technologies that allow people to customize their mobile services, and it has lately expanded its socially responsible initiatives such as public education.

Like any Asian metropolis, Seoul is an intensely modern place with strong traditions, as evidenced in the way its residents have engaged with the design of SKT’s new home. “People have said that the building seems humble,” Tans says, “because it looks like it is bowing down to the city.”

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