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27th Sep 2021

Architect Africa

Superground / Underground

Superground / Underground: Seoul New Groundscapes
Manuel Gausa, Young Joon Kim
Seoul Metropolitan Government/Actar Publishers, December 2020

Paperback | 8-1/4 x 10-1/4 inches | 388 pages | English/Korean | ISBN: 979-1161617312 | $39.99


The concept of n-ground or multi-ground (Superground and Underground) applied to Seoul recalls a new qualitative development which responds to the possibility to superimpose a new dense floor (container and articulator at the same time) in the old infrastructures.

Seoul new qualitative development does not intend to “continue” or “recreate” the traditional city. Nor impose or positionate, transforming it, built machines or objects (re-objectualizing the urban plot), but superimpose a new dense floor (container and articulator at the same time) in the old obsolete infrastructures; that becomes a new Re-Cyting Topos on, inside, in, where and through which develop new/old programs, uses and activities of life and relationship. A new floor able to maintain a programmatic thickness and also become a new type of relief, platform that reveals in length and height, horizontally and vertically at the same time: a new floor capable of merging landscapes, infrastructure and building in a new type of systems/devices variable and adaptable to the current urban and environmental conditions. Obviously the opportunity areas of the old infrastructures (some in operation, others obsolete or in disuse) are revealed as the ideal spaces to support these new floors, real and virtual at the same time.

Manuel Gausa PhD (2005 – ETSAB), by the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (European Mention). Since 2014, Full Professor of Architecture and Landscape Design, DSA- Faculty of Architecture (UNIGE-Università degli Studi) of Genova. Young Joon Kim studied architecture at Seoul National University. After working at Space Group, Iroje, OMA(Rotterdam), he has been running his own firm YO2 since 1998. 


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Three projects pop into my head when I see the phrase “groundscapes” alongside Seoul, the capital of South Korea. First is Cheonggyecheon River Park, which opened in October 2005 as a sunken linear space following a newly restored stream once capped by an elevated highway. Next is Dominique Perrault’s fissure-like campus center for Ewha Womans University, which was completed in 2008 and is a perfect expression of the French architect’s idea of Groundscapes, as his 2019 book happens to be titled. And last is MVRDV’s Skygarden, the High Line-esque transformation of an old highway viaduct near Seoul’s main station into a pedestrian park. These three projects are strongly related to the city’s groundscape: sitting beneath it, carving into it, and perched above it, respectively.

MVDRV and Dominique Perrault are among the 27 architects contributing design ideas for the same number of sites in Seoul: 18 of them aboveground — or “superground” — and 9 of them underground. The designs are all close to three years old now, having been produced for two exhibitions at the Seoul Hall of Urbanism & Architecture in 2018: Seoul Underground in May 2018 and Seoul Superground in October of that year. As explained by curators Young Joon Kim and Manuel Gausa in the book they also edited, the two-part exhibition was intended as “a double proposal able to express the new will of the city, oriented to formulate a new type of groundscapes.” But if my examples above are any indication, Seoul was already well on its way in creating a new type of groundscape.

Extending the comparison between the three completed Seoul projects and the 27 speculative ones in the book, the majority of the latter approach the scale of Cheonggyecheon River Park. A chart before the projects (Superground is presented first, then Underground) indicates that 16 of the 27 projects are either “L” or “XL.” The first project in the book, Charles Waldheim and Office for Urbanization’s Heliomorphic Seoul (second spread, below), is one of the XL projects: twelve 650-meter-tall towers astride a bridge over the Han River. It’s not clear what would actually be housed in the towers, if anything, but their forms and facades would enable the towers to generate enormous amounts of electricity and serve as habitats for creatures, both four-legged and winged.

Although the projects that follow don’t let up on the architectural ambition — they clearly prioritize idea over execution  — the majority of them are rooted closer to the ground, the plane where most social interactions take place. Much like Skygarden does, many of the projects reimagine old infrastructures, be they bridges, roads, railways, reservoirs, or subways. The editors contend that, even though the projects are all site-specific, they offer ideas applicable just about anywhere. As such, this collection of projects is a decent snapshot of urban design a couple decades into the 21st century and is best suited to students in urban design programs — in Korea and elsewhere.

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