Expressing innovation and sustainability
Kolon Industries is a chaebol, one of the family-led conglomerates that turned post-war South Korea into an economic power house, and is now one of that nation’s dominant players. It began by making synthetic fibers (Kolon is an abreviation for KOrean nyLON) but has branched out into clothing, chemical research, and much else. Its chairman, Lee Woong-Yeul, wanted a prominent symbol of his vibrant company (headquartered in a provincial city) and commissioned Morphosis to design a new research facility in Seoul. The 75,000 sq. m building is located in Magok, a new R&D park beside the Han River on the north-west edge of the city. Formerly the site of the city airport, it is now a forest of cranes, as other corporations crowd into this prestigious complex. Kolon was one of the first, and occupies a prime site beside the waterfront park. Two nine-story blocks of laboratories and offices extend back from what Morphosis call a “thickened façade” and a low concrete podium, oriented west towards the park. Lee wanted to demonstrate Kolon’s commitment to sustainability (it sponsors the Korean mountaineering team) and the entry façade was inspired by the multiple layers of its signature cold-weather jacket. As project architect Yi Eui-Sung recalls, “We made more than 50 studies before settling on this second skin of interlocked fiber-reinforced polymer modules, folded to shade the upper half. It employs materials that Kolon manufactures and showcases their innovative culture”. Traditionally, such a brise-soleil is supported on a massive steel frame that is visible from behind. Architects and client wanted the view out to be as clean and uncluttered as it appears from outside. That required a self-supporting monocoque shell, in which the three arms of each module are joined to its neighbors with stainless steel clips. Aramid, a Kolon product that is similar to carbon fiber, reinforces the sleeves of each arm, and the skin evokes the company’s woven fabrics. The structure underwent stress and wind tunnel tests to ensure it would withstand the force of typhoon winds and rain, and yet, from the front, it appears to float. Yi credits local engineers and fabricators for pioneering a system that is new to the world of architecture. All organizations now encourage social interaction among their staff, to foster team spirit and the spontaneous exchange of ideas, and that goal shapes the architecture. Lee was especially keen to create an ideal working environment and draw scientists out of their laboratories. Fifteen percent of the building is devoted to shared activities and social spaces, and the meeting rooms are stacked in the narrow front section behind the folded façade. An atrium slices through this section like a fissure in a mountain and a massive staircase rises to the upper stories and doubles as a gathering place. Glass bridges span the void at different levels, linking shared spaces to the labs and offices behind. The parti resembles that of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Vagelos Education Center in upper Manhattan (THE PLAN 093) where generic laboratories and classrooms stacked up on the north side opening onto social spaces that cascade down the south side an overlook the city. Morphosis are skilled in combining a plasticity of form with a high level of performance, and that is evident here. The concrete podium, which contains a facility to instruct visiting school groups on the importance of sustainability, a multi-purpose hall, gymnasium, and other staff amenities, is partly raised on pilotis. Its dynamic profile plays off the repetitive grid of the façade, solid off permeable surfaces, low contrasting with high. The main entrance is placed in the view corridor between the two blocks and the sculptured linear reception desk emerges from the stone floor pavers as though from a single block. And the floor morphs into glass-reinforced concrete wall panels. Diamond shaped panels of Kolon-made fabrics layer the atrium, absorb sound, and may, at some future date, advertise the wide selection of colors and panels. Morphosis principal Thom Mayne preferred that they be consistently monochromatic to focus attention on the spatial drama of the atrium, and the dappled patterns of light penetrating the façade. Beyond the façade and atrium lie two stacks of orthogonal work areas with two levels of underground parking, glass curtain walls, and bubble floor decks. The concrete floor slabs are filled with plastic balls to make them lighter and thinner - a new practice in Korea. Courtyards increase access to natural light and fresh air, and other sustainable features include green roofs, photovoltaics, and geothermal energy generation. The buildings occupy most of the two-hectare site, with a generous setback on the west side to provide green spaces the public can share. The sole puzzlement is the name chosen for its building: Kolon One & Only Tower. Singular it is, but by no stretch of the imagination could it be described as a tower.