Ewha Campus Complex, Seoul

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The building is half buried in the landscape and cut open by a 250m long ramp

Ewha Campus Complex, Seoul, by Dominique Perrault
words Bert de Muynck
photography Christian Richters

“Is it a hill, is it a mountain or is it a building?” Dominique Perrault has asked of his campus complex for Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea.

Throughout his career, the French architect has merged architecture and landscape, blending buildings into the earth so that terms like “ground floor” begin to lose their meaning. At Perrault’s National Library in Paris, you enter the building by climbing a flight of steps, passing over a raised plaza, then descending into a sunken garden. His 1999 Velodrome and Olympic Swimming pool in Berlin are embedded in the ground. At the Ewha Campus Complex (ECC), designed with Korean partners Baum Architects, he has pushed things even further. You can’t call it a mountain, or a hill, or a building – maybe we should call it a “hillding”.

Ewha Womans University is a private university in the middle of Seoul, founded in 1886 by the American Christian missionary Mary F Scranton. It’s the world’s largest female educational institute, and its spacious campus sports a collection of architectural styles from 19th-century gothic to brutalist. Before entering the campus, on the left-hand side, you notice a tower decorated with a skin of tilted metal sheets that resembles an early Frank Gehry design. Jurassic Tower, it says, and from the rooftop of this architectural dinosaur you have the best view of the ECC, Perrault’s first building in Asia.

The vast new structure – intended for 20,000 students and including facilities for teaching, sports, leisure and business – is a vegetation-covered hill, split by a deep, wide cleft that cuts into the ground like a geological fault. In any large building, the question of how people are to move around it is paramount. Beyond a certain scale, a building holds the potential to become more than a shell, to be a landscape for fluid movement with sites for spontaneous activities. The chasm at the centre of the ECC is immediately obvious as its main circulation space. Lee So-Young, an engineer working on the ECC with Samsung Engineering & Construction, told me that students compare the building to Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. Perrault himself describes it as a way of achieving a “spatial balance” between landscape and architecture. “The space is very impressive and emotional,” he says. “Normally people tend to get nervous when they enter underground space, but not in this building – it is not a closed and heavy space. To me this is a paradox because in the ECC there is a certain smoothness of the architecture, and at the same time you create a building that is both landscape and architecture. As a large building it fits well in its environment.”

The entrance to the ECC is at a slightly different angle to the main entrance of the campus, and after walking through the surrounding shopping environment I felt an urge to climb the sloped landscape, relax and lounge in the natural greenery.

“When I won the competition,” Perrault says, “the university expected a French landscape style. But I tried to convince them that a normal piece of nature fitted much better in the existing campus. After two years, they accepted the idea and we developed this landscape together with the gardeners of the university – the garden as a facade.” Strangely, the designers did not include benches, maybe because only a month has passed since the opening and nobody has yet complained about the lack of furniture.

When moving towards the planted roof, a glass facade fills the view directing you towards the void. I couldn’t help thinking (was it the weather, the students or the building?) that I was walking into Gustave Courbet’s famous 1866 painting The Origin of the World, a close-up of a woman’s genitalia. The chasm, 25m by 250m, is a long ramp sloping down in the opposite direction to the topography of the roof and is lined on either side by walls of glass. At the northern end, the ramp turns into large stone steps, which can be used as an outdoor amphitheatre. Along these, ten entrances to the complex are positioned on different levels.

The architect calls the project “The Hidden Valley of Ewha”. “For me the strongest design decision of this void was the relation between the colour of the stone and the vertical structure of the stainless metal,” he says. “The coherence comes out of this relation between the vertical and ground facade.”

The curtain walls allow daylight – and natural ventilation to some extent – to pour deep into the building. These walls gain depth and rhythm through the use of mirrored steel fins designed to resist high wind stress, a technological element that required a collaborative experiment with Samsung. Supporting the massive glass panes, these steel props protrude through the building’s skin. “We transform those structural elements into a visual experience and offer to the building and users an installation similar to a contemporary artwork,” says Perrault. But once inside the building, these mirrors give a visually disturbing experience, blurring and narrowing the view outwards.

The real art, though, is what you see from the inside – the juxtaposition of the old and new campus architecture: the sight of a 19th-century gothic brick building half buried in the complex’s roofscape is almost surreal. Another attempt to mix art with architecture is the sculpture garden, to be found next to the only elevator connecting the building with the roof. It looks like a rather too nicely decorated well of oblivion for lazy Ewhaians.

The interior is organised in a linear, pragmatic and functional way. Just behind the curtain wall, a system of staircases and parallel corridors that run the full length of the building connects the different floors, leading to a library and conference rooms, a fitness centre, a movie theatre and a performance art centre. Along the corridors are in-between spaces for reading and coffee. Where possible, the walls on both sides of the rooms are made of glass, allowing light to penetrate even deeper into the building. Materials and colours are sober, almost absent, and the furniture is of the “learning through lounging” type. At both ends of the building, under the slopes, space is made for public activities and auditoria.

Despite Perrault’s insistence on creating a perfect balance between landscape and architecture, there is one important aspect of this “hillding” that fails to weave these aspects together. In spite of the light streaming into the underground space, with no entrances to the building on the roofscape – except for the elevator – there is little correspondence between exterior and interior. The slanted roof and the warped mirror effect of the steel fins distort the interior perspective, limiting the visual link with the landscape. And the remarkable spatial quality of the void can only really be experienced from the outside.

However, the building brings a dynamic balance to its site. “The most important aspect of the ECC is the introduction of urban activities in this university setting,” says Perrault. “Normally students follow courses and then they leave for the city to do other things. ECC maintains the status of the city on the campus through the introduction of facilities like fitness, cafes and workshops.” Sitting on the boundary of campus and city, perhaps the essential feature of the ECC is its location. And it has shaped that boundary with grace.

top image The building is half buried in the landscape and cut open by a 250m long ramp

The ramp leads down between the two halves of the building
The ramp leads down between the two halves of the building

Stainless steel fins punctuate the large glass curtain walls
Stainless steel fins punctuate the large glass curtain walls

Parallel corridors and staircases run the full length of the building
Parallel corridors and staircases run the full length of the building

Mirrored stainless steel fins reflect light into the lower floors
Mirrored stainless steel fins reflect light into the lower floors

Perrault’s complex interweaves with the existing campus buildings
Perrault’s complex interweaves with the existing campus buildings

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