When installation art came of age in the '60s, traditional museums ran into problems trying to show such big, often performance-based, pieces. The conundrum inspired the popularity of column-free (or "clear span") galleries and museums that could fit, say, a dance performance or a car-sized sculpture.
New York architects SO-IL have designed radical gallery spaces all over the world: a fan-like white tent for the Frieze Art Fair last month, for example, or this blobby magenta art pavilion in Beijing last year. But for their latest gallery project, partners Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu hearken back to hey day of clear span architecture, designing a wide-span concrete box for a gallery in Korea.
The Kukje Gallery sits in a low-rise neighborhood in northern Seoul, where SO-IL is planning a large art campus. Sogyeok-dong is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that hasn’t been completely razed—the scale is small, and the the urban fabric is dense. Hoping to minimize the impact of a 11,000-square-foot gallery in the neighborhood, the architects drilled down, putting two of the gallery’s three floors underground. A single white cube holds the ground-level gallery, offset slightly to accommodate an entrance and stairway.
SO-IL seems to have had fun manipulating the cube’s four walls: A cylinder of concrete bulges out of one side, while an HVAC unit hangs off the upper lip of the roof. The open-air staircase juts off at an oblique angle, the entrance fanning out at the opposite angle. These little deviations are a bit like exclamation points and parentheses, wedged into the austere grammar of the gallery.
But still, the strict geometry seemed odd next to Sogyeok-dong’s historical buildings. The cube was "too rigid," write the architects, who enlisted legendary facade consultants Front Inc. to design a building envelope that would—uh—mesh with its surroundings. They came up with a sort of architectural chain mail: Thousands of tiny steel rings knit into a stretchy fabric that deforms to the sharp angles of the building and withstands the elements. They fabricated the mesh in southern China and transported the final facade to Seoul early this year. The mesh envelopes the gallery in "a permanent nebula—a pliable chain-mail veil," writes SO-IL. "The stainless steel mesh produces a layer of diffusion in front of the building mass." It’s a delicate, ephemeral effect, producing moiré patterns and optical illusions as you walk around the building.
Front Inc. worked with SANAA to design a similarly elegant steel facade for the New Museum in 2008. Both buildings wear their facades like garments, treating steel more as a textile than a metal. Kukje Gallery opened April 5th in Seoul.