The new building for the Swiss Embassy in Seoul offers a great opportunity to harness architecture to the service of friendship and collaboration between Switzerland and South Korea. The Embassy is the site for conducting business between the two nations, while propitiating cultural interaction, and it constitutes in reality no less than the “House of Switzerland” in Seoul.
But what does it mean to be Swiss? When abroad, we tend to psychologically compensate for our displaced environment. The characteristic aspects of our way of being are sometimes exaggerated or even caricaturized. How could the Swiss Embassy in Seoul, the “House of Switzerland,” project an authentic image of “Swiss-ness” onto the rich and vibrant urban environment of Seoul?
In his famous novel I’m Not Stiller, Max Frisch explores the ironic and intricate ambiguities of identity. His Swiss hero Stiller (or Jim White) is “consumed by a morbid impulse to convince” everyone that he is not who they think he is. How can we achieve “authenticity of being”? Can a building embody a pitch-perfect Swiss-ness displaced to Seoul? Is this even desirable?
The proposed functional provisions of the project reveal its split nature, on the one hand, the representational spaces of the Chancellery are conveniently disposed for business interaction and cultural exchange, while the more private spaces that form the Residence are in themselves split between the private quarters of the Ambassador and family and the semi-public spaces for entertaining guests and holding different functions. We intuit this duality as revealing and essential to the success of the project. The project as a whole, to succeed as the SWISSHAUS of Seoul, must necessarily convince with the authenticity of its identity: it need be the place where Switzerland “resides” in Seoul.
Our project proposes the Residence of the Ambassador’s family as the source of Swiss authenticity. In actuality the home of a “real” Swiss family in Seoul, the Residence becomes the locus of all things Swiss in Korea, and from it projects the Chancellery building, outward towards the street, like a welcoming handshake, to offer a facade of Swiss composure. Calm and orderly, this wall appears as a face bearing a serene smile of friendship that will complement and stand out in the bustling and exciting environment of Seoul.
The main entry to the Embassy is located on the northeast corner of the site. This corner allows access to those visiting the Consular Area or the cultural areas of the Chancellery. Access to the parking garage and the employee entry are also in this corner area of the site. Turning south at the entry gate, a garden path leads to the Ambassador’s Residence and its private garden. On its ascent towards the south, the path borders on a reflecting pool that separates the main facade of the Chancellery from the street. The pool includes a modest waterfall to offer white noise acoustic shield and protection from the sounds of the city.
In plan, most business spaces are organized along the main elevation facing east, while the more public cultural spaces face south towards the garden. The top floor is occupied by the offices of the Ambassador and his/her support staff.
The main facade of the Chancellery will be built in polished cast-in-place concrete. Its reflective qualities will reproduce fleeting images of the city and sky around it, giving it both a semblance of solidity and lightness. To contrast with this smooth and polished face of the Embassy, all other exterior walls of the building will be constructed in special-color-mix concrete masonry units, their relative roughness and solidity contributing to the feeling of built authenticity proposed by the architecture. In the interior, walls will be plaster. To achieve maximum luminosity, the main elevation wall will be polished concrete on the interior inside face. The floors are proposed as polished cementitious terrazzo in public areas and Korean oak in private spaces.
Although the required parking garage for 15 cars occupies a substantial portion of the site, it will be built deep below the garden in order to allow a meter of soil for planting above it. A temporary ramp will be built to the south of the site for temporary access to the parking until the second phase is completed. During the first phase, before the new Chancellery is built, the Residence will sit surrounded by gardens, its arms extending in plan to the light and the greenery.
The Ambassador’s Residence
The Residence is reached by walking amongst trees on a path that borders the garden. The entire ground floor of the Residence is devoted to the ceremonial areas where the Ambassador can receive and entertain official guests. The service support areas for the Residence are located immediately below on the basement level with direct access from the parking garage to allow delivery and vehicular entry.
For spacious comfort and appropriate appointment, the restrooms for ground floor use are separated by gender and located on this lower level. This level and all levels of the Residence are connected by stairs and elevator, with separation between general and service circulation provided through the inclusion of a service stair. From the main entry stair, a small porthole gives the occupants of the Residence a view of the activities taking place in the Chancellery Multipurpose Room, establishing a visual connection between the two parts of the building.