By Edwin Heathcote
Published: August 21 2009 22:38 | Last updated: August 21 2009 22:38
The idea of a city of books evokes a fantastical vision: towers of tottering volumes, narrow alleys formed by canyons and stacks of dusty hardbacks, formal avenues between loaded shelves. Like something imagined by Calvino or Borges, it conjures up a city of wisdom and surprise, of endless narratives, meaning, knowledge and languages. What it does not evoke is an industrial estate bounded by a motorway and the heavily guarded edge of a demilitarised zone. Yet somehow, South Korea’s Paju Book City begins to reconcile these two extremes into one of the most unexpected and remarkable architectural endeavours.
Built on marshland, former flood plains and paddyfields 30km north-west of Seoul, Paju Book City is an attempt to create an ambitious new town based exclusively around publishing. We may be reading obituaries of the book and the printed word almost daily, but the news has not reached Paju. Plans for the Book City were first proposed in 1989, as the country was emerging from a period of political repression. Publishing had gathered momentum and status after years of underground activity and censorship, and it re-emerged after the liberalisation of the regime in 1987 in an explosion of small, often family-run publishers. Their beautifully crafted books attempted to re-engage the nation with the history and culture that had been distorted, manipulated and lost over a period which included colonial rule from Japan, brutal civil war and military dictatorship. The project was also, at least in part, a reaction to the rapacious redevelopment of Seoul, the loss of the city’s historic fabric and its rapid embrace of the culture of bigness and congestion. That it was christened a “City to Recover Lost Humanity” tells us much about its creators’ intentions.
The city plan follows the contours and lines of the landscape, one main road snaking through it like a river and a series of tighter roads creating a denser network of small publishing houses, printers, distributers and so on. There are some extraordinarily ambitious buildings here. Just finishing construction is the Mimesis Museum, one of the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza’s most arresting recent structures – its sheer concrete walls curve like the pages of a book in the wind, wrapping around a sculptural courtyard at its heart. SANAA, the Japanese architects of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion in London, have designed a stripped-down box, a publisher’s building of stark, striking elegance. London-based Foreign Office Architects have built a wonderfully theatrical publishing house which appears on the street as a modernist sliver, a delicately folded façade of glass which reveals sides with an almost nautical quality, clad in timber where they face a garden. There are exotically ambitious buildings under construction by Yung Ho Chang, Xaveer de Geyter, Stan Allen and some structures by Korean architects which would astound in any capital, let alone on a suburban Seoul industrial complex – notably those of Moogyu Choi and a bravado piece of concrete expressionism from Kim Jun-sung and Hallim Suh.
The finest buildings on the site, though, are by the ARU themselves (together with local partner Choi Jong Hoon). The first was for Yi Ki-Ung’s own Youl Hwa Dang publishing house, an enigmatic U-shaped building around a small courtyard. It looks like a bold pictogram, with a dark street façade, but to the courtyard there are “walls of light”, translucent membranes that recall the paper walls of traditional houses. An extension which contains a bookshop and café presents an intriguing contrast to the original buildings, retaining the subtlest memories of classical European urban architecture in moulding details, a portico and so on. This conservatism was conceived as a gentle provocation to the radical modernism all around and it works, with a startling clarity.
The ARU’s other structure, equally compelling, is for the Positive Thinking Publishing House. Designed as offices on a domestic scale and split into two units that create an intimate public plaza between them, they are built of traditional dark grey Korean brick set into a steel frame. The result is a hybrid of deeply embedded oriental and European archetypes. There is something here of Wittgenstein’s house, something of Beijing’s courtyard houses, a kind of Eurasian architectonic language which also, amazingly, manages to be conservative and deeply in thrall to the radical modernism of Mies van der Rohe. Inside, the surprises continue. The ceilings become an inverted urban landscape as a series of blocky paper lanterns break up the space from above. The domestic scale is wonderful: these feel like publishing offices, no plate glass, no open plan, rather a series of humane rooms, terraces and natural light.
If there is a problem at Paju it is that, as in all new cities, there is a kind of stillness, a lack of real density. This is compounded by zoning issues: as this is designated an industrial zone, the building of dwellings is difficult, and without places for people actually to live an area can never become a real city. Nevertheless, housing is slowly being built, and there are stirrings of the urban and commercial activity that constitute the beginnings of a real place.
It is not hyperbole to claim that this is one of the most extraordinary and most unsung cultural and architectural developments in the world. The idea that a city, right now, be dedicated solely to print and that an industrial estate could be a place of architectural pilgrimage could not be more heartening, more encouraging to anyone who delights in those very old information technologies – books and buildings.