THE METAL IS NOT OUT OF PLACE: IT IS THE COLOUR OF AUTUMN LEAVES WHICH KOREANS ADMIRE SO MUCH
Sami Rintala is a Finnish architect and artist who has gained a reputation for his installations at biennales and other international venues. In 1999, with his then collaborator Marco Casagrande, he came second in the Architectural Review's annual ar+d awards for emerging architects. Their prize-winning work consisted of three old hay barns mounted on 10m-high legs, taken on a slow journey from rural Finland to the city in a critical comment on the desertion of the countryside. Since then Rintala, who is a self-proclaimed romantic, has realised a number of small-scale schemes, which 'search for beauty'and show an appreciation of nature. He teaches at both the Bergen and Oslo schools of architecture in Norway, and is based in Oslo.
Drive 25km south, down the eight-lane highway that leads out of the gigantic urban sprawl of Seoul, and you will reach the dormitory town of Anyang, meaning - in a reference to Buddhist thought - 'perfect bliss'.
However, anyone expecting this settlement of 630,000 souls to offer any kind of escape from the stresses and strains of the world's third-largest urban conurbation will be disappointed.
There is no gentle, slow-paced rural life here. A bustling city in its own right, Anyang shares many of the capital's least-attractive architectural features - notably its seemingly endless columns of identical apartment blocks marching into the distance.
Fortunately, it also shares Seoul's most attractive topographical leitmotif - a backdrop of forested, granite-peaked mountains. It is to the mountains that Koreans routinely go to escape their largely faceless cities. And it was in a recreational park, set in a valley at the foot of a mountain on the outskirts of Anyang, that Finnish architect Sami Rintala was invited, in late 2005, to create a structure that would be, in the words of Anyang City Hall, 'a unique, conceptual piece of architecture that symbolises elements of nature'.
The setting for Rintala's design is Anyang Art Park, a part of the larger Anyang Resort. The resort is essentially a 1.5km-long river valley at the foot of the city's Mount Samsung (named after semi-legendary Buddhist monks - not the modern conglomerate).
The area's mountainside temples, pagodas and natural springs have been drawing pilgrims for centuries. In more recent times, its commercial outlets and artistic installations seem to attract two very distinct generations of Korean leisure seekers.
On the one hand are stream-side, open-air restaurants with oor seating, selling pindaetok (vegetable pancakes), boshintang (dog stew), makkoli (milky white rice beer) and soju (grain spirit).
Speakers blare jaunty foxtrot music. The patrons are largely 40and 50-somethings, attired in uniform designer hiking kits, who appeared on a recent Saturday afternoon to have imbibed deeply.
On the other hand are the funky modern restaurants, bars and terraced cafés, serving barbecued meats, designer coffees and branded lagers. Music is modern pop, while the crowd comprises fashionably attired 20- and 30-something Koreans whose culture, in the shape of movies like Cannes-winner Oldboy, and whose consumer products, in the form of hi-tech devices like Samsung cellphones, are sweeping Asia in a so-called 'Korean Wave'.
Set between, among and alongside these outlets are the installations of the Anyang Public Art Project 2005. The project is, the city says, 'a model of regeneration through creative ideas and considerate experiments from artists, architects and designers'.
A set of 52 works by 51 artists, both domestic and international, their range of styles and subject matter is impressive.
Here, among the trees, is Korean Lee Sun-taek's Dragon's Tail - a metallic framework set in the ground that looks like the skeletal back of a dragon or crocodile emerging, momentarily, above the surface of a pool. There, in the stream bed, is Belgian national Honore Do's Tears of Fish Rolling in the Water - a set of curved pipes placed on two boulders which periodically eject a spray of water over the children cavorting below.
Rintala chose a more secluded location for his structure - the Element House. 'I took the furthermost corner site in the forest, to mark the edge of articulated area and nature, which I felt this project was about, ' he says. 'Seoul's metropolitan area is so vast, dense, urban, traffic ridden and polluted, and then you suddenly have this forest as a clear contrast. Silent, soft and timeless.'
After leaving the car park of the (private) Seoul University Forestry Area, which marks the terminus of Anyang Art Park, you reach the Element House by taking a ight of wooden steps which are cut into a low ridge. The steps lead uphill and on to a dirt trail through the densely forested hillside, and so well-placed is the building in this sepulchral environment that the visitor is on it almost before he sees it.
Set alongside the trail, it is essentially a house-like structure of three storeys. The main body is composed of rusting steel plates (Cor-ten), bolted to the building's frame. The metal is not out of place: it is the colour of the autumn leaves which Koreans admire so much. The cabin-like adjuncts are composed of light-coloured wood and feature large glass windows, giving it a distinctly Scandinavian feel.
Its most striking feature, from the outside, is the attic-like, square, wooden cabin, set apparently precariously on the very top edge of the three-storey structure. There is a second wooden, cubic room on the first oor and a third, like an annex, attached to the main structure at ground level.
Upon entering through a tall, rectangular wooden door, cut into the metal sides, one is immediately struck by the play of light on the interior. As Element House is only part roofed, the strong sunshine creates sharp 45 and 90 angled shadows on the interior walls. Movement comes when a breeze rufes the leaves of the trees outside, which also cast their shadows on the interior walls. Colour and textural contrasts are provided by the intersection of the russet metal and yellow wood of the walls.
The oor is covered in white pebbles in the main structure, and yellow pebbles in the wooden annex. Bunker-like, a set of concrete steps leads down through the oor to a cubic, concrete space. But, once down there, the military allusion is alleviated: a large, square skylight at ground level oods it with light, creating a space more akin to a monastic cell than a gun emplacement.
Flights of utilitarian black metal steps lead to the upper storeys. Inside the wooden cabins, large glass windows frame views of the forest beyond. In the 'attic' - which is reached by climbing the stairs through the space where the roof would have been, had the installation been an actual house - a sign warns visitors that the room, set on the very edge of the 'roof', should not hold more than five persons. Indeed, when standing at the far end, next to the window, there is perceptible sway in the structure.
Perhaps the most impressive element of the design, from the inside, is the way in which it frames the sky - the eye is drawn upward by the stairs. For this reason the Korean name (Haneul Jarak Ddang or Land on the Edge of the Sky) is slightly more appropriate than the English name Element House.
Despite its Scandinavian DNA, the building speaks volumes to locals. 'It's a mysterious structure. People will think, fiWhat's inside? fl, ' says Shim Myeong-suk, an Anyang housewife visiting for the first time. 'There is an echo when you talk inside - it is very impressive. Every step you take, you feel you are reaching closer to the sky.'
Her analysis would please Rintala, who says: 'The project wishes to create an inner world where memories and even dreams may have their moment. It is for passers-by who wish to halt, rest and make their own understanding and use of a simple space made of matter and light.'
Even so, there is a drawback: the interior is empty, and has a somewhat unfinished feel. As Ms Shim notes, from the outside the structure promises mystery, but it does not altogether deliver that promise when the viewer steps inside.
Rintala's intention was that 'each small space should include a possible suggestion for use and the presence of one basic element (fire, water, air and earth)' - but this has not been realised completely. 'I would like to have worked further with the smaller spaces to be more precise with the use of the house, ' he admits.
'I travelled to the site with my own team to articulate these rooms, but we had to focus on the general structure instead, ' he adds.
Even so, its sponsors clearly think that Element House is a success. 'Visitors enjoy the oddness in the seemingly unbalanced structure of Element House, ' says Lee Yun-jong, a coordinator with the city's Anyang Art Project. 'It is used as a rest stop for hikers.
And the attic is especially popular, with its beautiful view through the glass.'
But, this is the Republic of Korea. It just leaves me wondering if such an art-led project could find so ready a home in the UK.