A Strenuous Affair / S-TRENUE – MASS STUDIES

Yeouido is often referred to as Korea’s Manhattan. This new section of the city had been formed artificially, characterized by massive blocks within a homogeneous city structure. It also projects Korea’s unique social/political background of 1970s and 1980s, the time of economic boom and anti-communist movements. Originally a sandy beach, the government built a levee around it at the end of the 1960s by blasting an island on Han River, to develop it as a solution to the serious housing problem that the city had. A 12-storey apartment block (Sibeom Apartment, the tallest during its time) was constructed on the site, followed by the National Assembly Building, the Stock Exchange Building and even the national broadcasting studios, soon establishing Yeouido as the political, financial and media hub of Seoul, and forming 3 main zones of residential, financial, and broadcasting districts. As a result, Yeouido seen from the riverbanks of Han River features rows of financially-optimized apartment towers growing incrementally and perfectly aligned to each other, displaying clearly the urbanity of Korea, focused on the optimization of mass production.

The towers of the financial district near the S-Trenue tower are lined up in similar heights and densities, like miniatures of renowned skyscrapers. Within this homogeneous and monotonous field of volumes, the S-Trenue tower is located in-between them as a tall, slender, diagonal volume. This was not achieved through any particular legal advantages or changes since the 1980s. This is because the surrounding buildings opted to build with the maximum footprint and thus foregoing the maximum allowable height, with only economic feasibility in mind. As a result, these ‘stocky towers’ represent the values behind Korea’s economy and its suppressed growth.

“S-Trenue tower started as an alternative proposal for the typical residential/work tower typology in Korea, built for the objective of commercial development.” The architect, Minsuk Cho (principal,  Mass Studies) said that he wanted to break Yeouido’s confined, suffocating environment composed of dull, homogeneous volumes. To developing the new tower, he first formed an L-shape to meet the conditions of the site facing the 100-meter-wide road by providing maximum volume for the tower’s podium and keeping the upper volume slim. The tower gained better visibility from the street, while distancing itself from the cluster of buildings behind it (typically spaced 1-2m from each other), creating a more favorable environment.

Along with the tower typology, Cho also searched for other possibilities for public spaces within the ‘officetel(office+hotel)’ typologies. In typical high-rises, the public space is limited to being a transitional space with minimal functions, due to the convention of measuring profitability by the areas of the individual units. By tuning the structure and the form of the building, Cho intended to re-establish the public space as an active space. The S-Trenue tower consists of 3 bundles of towers. On either side of the central core tower are two tube-structured towers, and as the three towers lean towards or away from each other, diagonal gaps are created in-between the vertical towers, and bridges are formed in-between the 31 gaps. “These bridges are important linking devices that maintain the structural integrity of the building, as well as becoming spaces that can potentially be used socially. We called them social bridges. There was a negotiation process while designing, to balance between the structural necessity and the functional adequacy. It was about finding the right compromise between structural boldness and budget, or in other words, commercial value.” Through this negotiation process, these interstitial spaces yielded in-between the core tower and the individual units allowed 3 sides of the units to be exposed to the exterior, as well as creating a bridge space that forms a small garden and a balcony on each floor.

Outside the ground floor facing the avenue, an 85m long park was created parallel to the S-Trenue tower, and an escalator on the street allows the people to directly connect to the shops/facilities of the lower levels.  

S-Trenue tower’s approach that shakes the existing vertical-horizontal domino system is a continuation of ‘Matrix Studies,’ which has been Cho’s subject of research over the past few years. Starting with Nature Poem in 2005, to Gwell tower in 2007, Boutique Monaco in 2008 and S-Trenue tower, he has been experimenting with the inherent heterogeneity of the vertical tower structures created within the specific conditions of Korea’s high density metropolis. It’s a method that departs from the simple domino system, to a system where the horizontal slabs are skipped, missing, eroded or transformed by being formed into bundles. It comes from the belief that a simple transformation of the grid can create niches/opportunities for new public/social possibilities within the dense, compressed urban environment. Also, because these projects have been development projects, Matrix Studies has repeatedly kept its distance from criticism, thus attempting to hit two birds with one stone. Ultimately, Matrix Studies is an architectural strategy as well as an optimistic search for other possibilities that exist between homogeneity and heterogeneity within the context of maximized commercial values, as an observation of Seoul and Korea by Mass Studies.

“The name “Mass Studies” was ultimately a decision that we made about our own position of ‘systematic heterogeneity’. Until now, there has been a need for the rapid, systematic production of architecture in Seoul, resulting in Spartan, Orwellian urban conditions, or for its urbanity to fade away. To resolve this problem, there has been an attempt made since the mid 1990s (more-or-less a passive, last resort), where the most renowned architects from all over the world were invited as an attempt at “heterogeneity.” Rather than it being about architecture however, it resembled more of a branding strategy of a packaged design. Placing ourselves in-between these two contexts, we wanted to maintain a critical attitude towards both sides while having our own definite direction.”

It hasn’t proven to be easy to link these two extremes, however. “Matrix Studies needs to be intimate with the merciless logic of the market while also distancing itself enough to discover new social possibilities. The most difficult aspect of it is how to maintain the autonomy. Of course, what are offered in the market as a final result are private spaces, and we believe that we’ve attempted to innovate within that limited boundary.”

Matrix Studies is the fruition of an elaborate yet witty strategy responding to both of the two values that seem absolutely incapable of co-existing: Systematic mass production and Heterogeneity.


Written by Jin-young Lim


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