South Seoul, the Korean capital, with its 17 million inhabitants is set among hills and valleys, crossed by rivers, canals and roads linking neighbouring hills. The new Ewha Women’s University, inaugurated on 29th April 2008, is located in the south of the city. Founded in 1886, it is one Seoul’s 40 higher education establishments and the only one exclusively for women. It has 22,000 students and is considered one of the best in the world. Designed by French architect Dominique Perrault, who was adjudicated the competition on invitation in February 2004, the new project was completed in less than three years by construction contractors Samsung Corporation.
The best way to appreciate the architecture is from the air. More landscape than architecture, the new construction fits into the existing university campus, a landscaped area where university buildings, outdoor events and sports areas form a continuum with the surrounding metropolitan setting. The new Ewha site is huge with some 350,000 m3 of built space. It consists of an upper area or “Dessus” with outdoor green spaces, sports facilities and open-air theatre, and a lower part or “Dessous”, comprising the university structures, services, and shops, standing in the area formerly occupied by Ewha Square.
You reach the Dessus part of the university by crossing the Jung Mun pedestrian bridge over the high-speed train tracks and continuing down a long asphalt path, past outdoor sports facilities, set amidst a highly landscaped yet natural looking area with pear trees, ornamental plants, sleek lawns and natural rocks. The park aims to blend old and modern, built and natural landscapes, present and past. It also forms a green roof for the building underneath, providing addition natural insulation as well as more outdoor space.
The Dessous can be admired from the edge of the deep gully - a dazzling white trench dug deep into the earth in stark contrast to the asphalt paths and track, and surrounding greenery. The gentle slope on one side becomes a monumental stepped incline on the other, forming an open-air theatre. The hollow centre is a hybrid area hosting a series of activities. As well as an amphitheatre, it is also a large outdoor entrance hall giving access to the different departments, a place for encounter and exchange between classes. A corner café turns it into a community square. The natural landscape of the upper part gives way below to a different world of lecture rooms and libraries, theatre, fitness centre, offices, cinema, cafés, shops, circulation routes, and underground parking. Although below level, the areas are illuminated by natural light that pours in through the glazed walls lining the sunken strip. Inside, a light shaft - a truly optical instrument made of metal shards giving the perception of spaciousness, developed by Korean artist, Doho - conveys natural light from the great entrance hall right into the theatre.
Technically, a construction highlight is the series of flat, fin-like stainless steel elements forming part of the curtain wall structural frame. They are the result of long research that involved a pool of Korean, German and French engineers. In order to withstand the high winds generated by Korea’s famous typhoons, the small support columns of the two 17 metre high curtain walls were strengthened with a band of steel. Rather than place this behind the vertical aluminium sections as is usually done, it was decided to put the band on the outside. In addition, structural elements have been given a mirror finish, turning them into a visual feature, in the manner of a contemporary art installation. As a result, the extensive glass and stainless steel façades glisten and shimmer like a kaleidoscope. Even the lowest corners of the patio are bathed in natural reflected light.
Horizontal wind-braces have been placed perpendicular to the structural frame elements to provide added resistance to side winds along the trench. Columns and braces are connected to confer added rigidity to the whole using a cap-nut, bolt and threaded rod system. Insulation was ensured with the interposition of polyamide washers. Placed in random fashion so as to avoid the façade looking heavily symmetrical, the strengthening braces are hardly perceptible on the vast expanse of building façade whose general visual appearance is that of a brilliant, light-reflecting surface.
With the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Berlin Olympic Velodrome and Swimming Pool and Cultural Centre in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, Perrault has shown a marked preference for sunken architecture and below level structures. The Ewha site seems to epitomise everything he has ever done. In a recent interview on the Ewha University, Perrault talked of the “earth, mother and inspiring force”, hinting at a personal, female, interpretation of his architecture, mischievously citing works like Courbet’s “L’origine du monde” or “Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique” by Michel Tournier.