PROJECT CANADIAN DIPLOMATIC COMPLEX IN SEOUL
ARCHITECT ZEIDLER PARTNERSHIP ARCHITECTS; VOGEL ARCHITECT (ASSOCIATED
ARCHITECTS); ART INTERNATIONAL LTD. (LOCAL ARCHITECT)
TEXT MARIE-JOSÉE THERRIEN
PHOTOS KIM YONG KWAN
A little more than a year ago, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) inaugurated its diplomatic complex in the historic district of Jeong-Dong in Seoul. The complex, which has not received the same attention that the Berlin Chancery attracted in the Canadian press, is the latest addition to the billion dollars worth of real estate owned by DFAIT around the world. At a cost of $25 million, this Category 2 of diplomatic buildings is a gem that not many of us will ever have a chance to visit. By comparison, the Berlin Chancery (see CA, February 2006) is a Category 1 that was built for $35 million in the early 2000s.
Since the creation of its first diplomatic building bureau in the late 1940s, the teams of experts at DFAIT have acquired an expertise that, even if at times had been challenged by political interference, allows them to manage with greater ease the highly complex processes of constructing diplomatic quarters. With at least two major clients to satisfy, the architectural firm might find itself in a situation in which it has no control over the project's direction. Diplomatic projects have been indefinitely postponed or cancelled for all sorts of reasons. In Seoul, as explained by Christal Becker, a senior project manager at DFAIT, the project was originally conceived as a design-build construction on a site purchased in 1994.1 The Foundation Company of Canada was hired for the first project, but due to the Asian financial crisis and changing local zoning by-laws, the design-build approach was judged unsuitable and the contract was terminated. Following governmental regulations, a second open and competitive process was organized. The project was awarded to the Zeidler Partnership, who had been the consultant architect hired by the construction contractor.
The scheme proposed by the Zeidler Partnership--with Tarek El-Khatib as the lead design architect, took its inspiration from images of the Canadian landscape. The two building blocks of the complex--the residential tower and the chancery, are supposedly reflective of Tom Thomson's Evening Canoe Lake and Lawren S. Harris's Mount Robinson. However, the metaphor is elusive, unless one sees these façades as super-sized pixellations of the aforementioned landscapes. That being said, the two distinct buildings do display an appropriate massing and height with varied surface treatments that harmonize with the urban fabric of the historic Jeong-Dong context.
The tripartite order of the diplomatic building, an oblong volume that sits on the corner like the prow of a ship, is cleverly designed in terms of function and aesthetics. At street level, the building base is clad with a screen of Canadian Western red cedar slats that wraps the spandrel glass of the curtain wall and allows for privacy while providing natural light to the diplomatic staff. Evoking Korean wooden screens and the undulating walls of the nearby Deoksoo Palace, this wood siding is mounted on hinges that can be opened in order to facilitate window cleaning. The dynamism of the main section of this tower is achieved through a contrapuntal arrangement of granite and aluminum panels alternating with the bands of windows. At the top of the building, the steel railing brings a final touch that unifies the base with the crown and enhances the verticality of the nine-storey tower. The residential block, slightly removed from the street, is cantilevered on top of the public sections of the chancery. The cladding of subtly toned brick and grey granite harmonizes with the natural hues of the stones and bricks of the surrounding context.
The plan at street level is one of the best examples of what Canadians are still free to do with their diplomatic architecture. Unlike certain other countries which are constrained by burdensome security concerns, no matter where they build, Canadians still have the opportunity to design chanceries that meet "the security requirements without sacrificing the welcoming atmosphere and feeling of openness and accessibility."2 Despite this relative freedom, a chancery does not come without its system of surveillance and guards. In Seoul however, the presence of these security measures do not prevent passersby from admiring a 520-year-old tree, a natural monument revered by Seoul citizens. The guarantee that this "scholar" tree would receive full attention and proper care during the construction was one of the conditions dictated by the Seoul authorities. The Canadian teams outlined a protection plan that minimized the impact of construction on the roots of the tree and proposed a long-term maintenance plan that had to be approved by Korean tree experts.
The ancestral tree inspired the sinuous layout of the plaza that frames this local icon. The undulating perimeter of the chancery site is paved with two-toned grey granite slate on which sits a curved dark granite bench, inviting pedestrians to stop and take a break. The sound emanating from a vertical water screen at the edge of this oasis of tranquility also contributes to the success of this small public space that has become a refuge for young lovers and the perfect location for pictorial mementos. Designed by A. D. Regehr in collaboration with the Zeidler Partnership, the site is the recipient of two awards: the 2007 Green Award from the Korea Forestry Service, the first award of this kind to have been given to a non-Korean-designed project; and a 2008 National Honour award from the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects.
The interior plan of a chancery is as complex as its exterior organization. Over the years, DFAIT had implemented strict design policies that have been influenced by external factors such as the proliferation of terrorism. It is remarkable that the Seoul Embassy, which was planned after September 11, 2001, could provide such abundant public and semi-public areas on its ground floor. Kudos here to DFAIT for not succumbing to the paranoia instilled by the prevalent fear of terrorism. Beyond a well-proportioned entrance lobby, the Zeidler team has designed a spacious multipurpose room that through its transparent curtain wall offers a visual expansion into a private walled garden. Consistent with the natural themes that DFAIT adopted many decades ago, we are told about this multi-purpose room where the "intricate floor pattern of granite recalls floating logs while the ceilings suggest ice fragments."3 This time, the metaphor is more convincing and proves that the right combination of materials and shapes can successfully evoke aspects of the Canadian landscape.
The immigration section of most chanceries tends to be relegated to a secondary location within the building. Accordingly, though welldesigned with high-quality materials, the immigration section in the Seoul Chancery is just a mere waiting room in the basement, accessible from a side door. The aggressively red maple leaf wall, a design embellishment rather than a work of art, is located behind rows of chairs that display a similar bright red hue. In its attempts to symbolize Canada abroad, DFAIT has used the image of the maple leaf in the decorative components of its premises, in custom-designed carpets and wall treatments. Unfortunately, this is a rather facile approach, and is one instance where more subtlety would have been preferable.
Despite this minor criticism, the Seoul Chancery is a significant contribution to our diplomatic assets. It is reassuring to know that DFAIT pays as much attention to the design of our smaller chanceries as they do to those which are located in major capitals such as Berlin or Washington.CA
CLIENT NAME CHRISTAL BECKER, SENIOR PROJECT MANAGER, DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS (DFAIT)
ARCHITECT TEAM ZEIDLER PARTNERSHIP ARCHITECTS: TAREK EL-KHATIB, ALAN MUNN, ANDREA RICHARDSON, RICHARD JOHNSON, MIKE SMITH, SIMONE FRANKE, TOSH SAKAMOTO. VOGEL ARCHITECT: BARBARA AND JACEK VOGEL. ART INTERNATIONAL LTD: S. L. KIM, J. J. SEO
Marie-Josée Therrien is an architectural historian who has written a book on the history of Canadian chanceries, Au-delà des frontières, l'architecture des ambassades canadiennes, 1930-2005.
LANDSCAPE A. D. REGEHR, JOUNG IL
INTERIORS ZEIDLER PARTNERSHIP ARCHITECTS, VOGEL ARCHITECT, ART INTERNATIONAL
STRUCTURAL HALCROW YOLLES, JOUNG IL
MECHANICAL H. H. ANGUS, SUNG SHIN
ELECTRICAL H. H. ANGUS, DAEWHA ENGINEERING
BUILDING ENVELOPE HALCROW YOLLES
CODE LARDEN MUNIAK
GEOTECH MCCLYMONT AND RAK ENGINEERS
ARBOURISTS PROFESSORS SANG YONG NAM AND KYEONG JUN LEE
AREA 8,394 M2
BUDGET $25 M
COMPLETION JULY 2007