Korean cultural architecture firm Space and Form Laboratory seek to create spaces that are human-centred; unifying design, technology, and craftsmanship into one cohesive architectonic user journey. They recently completed the enigmatic Gongbech Untouchable Heart project on the coast of Jeju-do, a South Korean island famed for its many beach resorts and other-worldly volcanic landscape. Gongbech (a romanized version of the Korean word gongbaek, which translates to ‘a blank or empty space’) comprises two chic buildings housing a bakery/café alongside a pair of abandoned stone warehouses now functioning as galleries.
The site was originally home to two cold-storage warehouses constructed in the early 80s, now dilapidated and crumbling. The brief was to revitalize the site into a bakery/café concept as well as converting the warehouses into gallery and exhibition spaces. When the lead architect from SF Lab first visited the site he was struck by its’ desolation. Located on a rocky ocean shoreline with winds so strong the grasses and trees grow at an angle, the warehouses lay in ruins, abandoned and forgotten. This generated a strong emotional response which he wanted to retain - allowing the new architectural narrative to be co-created with the site itself and facilitating his re-experiencing the ruins as a new medium. In turn, this experience would inform the design process and structural narrative.
This approach complicated the question of what to take and what to leave – to determine what was essential in retaining the history of the site and building on that to articulate a new iteration. The team focused on the play between the oppressive spatiality of the large warehouse volumes and the orderly repetition of their rahmen structure which emphasized scale. They demolished half the internal walls whilst keeping the structural frames. This created a ‘blank slate’ along the low opening on the longitudinal side of the building which aligns with the horizon of the sea, while the high opening at the façade emphasizes the sky above.
The second warehouse revitalization continued this theme: the partition wall was kept and reframed as a sculptural element. Original roof trusses and a portion of slate roof riddled with holes were kept, as was a tree that had forced its way up through the concrete floor. Allowing rain and sunlight into the space reinforces the sense of ruin and desolation, inviting the user to step back in time and remain open and vulnerable to the elements at the same time as being protected within a material artifact.
The warehouses were intended to be gallery/exhibition spaces that could be adapted to changing cultural uses over time, so a built-in flexibility was needed. Minimalist design and intervention prioritized spatiality over modernity, the awe-inspiring size dominating the experience and reinforcing the experience of desolation.
The project had a built-in customer segment from the outset, due to being commissioned by the brother of a member of a popular Korean pop music group. This, combined with the large number of tourists visiting the island meant that the design centred around the tourist as user. Theorizing that most visitors would arrive in a rental car, the SF Lab team realized this inherently meant that users would need a predictable timeframe and route for their journey ahead of time, likely turning to social media and crowdsourced travel sites to plan their visit. The team conducted user research by analysing images related to Jeju travel shared on social media sites and distilling a series of keywords which they then used to inform their design process, predicting and planning for the ways in which future users would seek to capture and share their experience of the site through images.
The architects designed the user trajectory to follow a sequential format, the story of the site being told through an experiential, embodied journey. This story-via-structure approach is represented thematically as a process of self-discovery within a ruin. Of the two gallery spaces, one is nature themed, the other more abstract and modernist. The natural and material landscapes are represented symbolically, the abundant sea and sky elements inherent to the site mediated by the restriction of the unsettlingly oppressive spatiality of the warehouse frame. Piles of crumbled stones from the original buildings are strewn throughout the open gallery spaces, contrasted with modern art installations and metal building elements, and neat geometric staircases, walkways, and viewpoints. Rough-cut Basalt stone benches are placed amidst the ruins, functioning as hybrid objects embodying ancient form and modern functionality. Reflective glass is hidden throughout the two spaces, as are artificial lights of varying degrees of brightness, these interventions forcing the visitor to see themselves reflected against the changing backgrounds – one a forest, one a modern sculpture, one a seascape, and so on. Moving through the various sequences the visitor is continuously self-contextualizing.
The new buildings housing the café and bakery are thoroughly modern. Chic and compact, the volumes feature large windows with sweeping views out to the ocean and shoreline. Here, nature itself is the exhibition. Visitors purchase sandwiches, baked goods and coffee and tea drinks at the counter and then traverse to a communal seating area. There are no tables, just a long, almost serpentine bright red bench weaving throughout the space, itself resembling an abstract art installation. In the café and pastry shop, fishing nets hang from the ceiling, paying homage to Jeju’s thriving fishing industry.
The architects reject what they refer to as the ‘vulgar persuasion’ which characterizes a lot of commercial architectural design driven primary by metrics of commercial success that prioritize spectacle. At Gongbech, the spectacle lies in the contrast between old and new, between isolation and community. By anchoring the design in the tension between the human emotion of loneliness and the abstract indifference of the landscape, aesthetics are internalized into an emotional response that is at once collective and individual. The project is a capital enterprise, but it also provides a compelling emotional narrative and unique experiential journey for its visitors and enfolds them in the landscape to create a genuinely somatic experience rooted in place, space, and time.