A Mimesis for a City of Books

architects Álvaro Siza, Carlos Castanheira, Jun Sung Kim
project Mimesis Museum, Paju Book City, South Korea
written by Tadej Glažar

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In 1980, some influential South Korean publishers joined forces to found a large publishing community with the intention to build Paju Bookcity, about 40 kilometres north of Seoul. Public interest was one of the major objectives in the planning of this city of books, designed by Seunh Hchioh Sang, Florian Beigel, Kim Jong Kyu, Kom Young Joon and Min Hyun Sik in 1999. The idea of the new city took into account the significant presence of high-quality authorial architecture and also of numerous European architects. The concepts of architecture and urban planning were based on an ecological approach, which balanced the publishing industry with the cultural role that books and their paraphernalia have in our lives. The city had to be designed to preserve the character of the river wetland landscape of 1.5 million square metres. The forceful grid of the urban fabric is intertwined with nature, which is represented by continuous strips of parks with the primal nature of the original wetland landscape, primarily in the area close to the river. The structure provided for three points with more intense urban contents, which would generate meeting places. These points were to be a shopping centre, a centre for events and large conferences, and a smaller cultural centre embodied by the art museum called Mimesis. From the aspect of urban planning, it is particularly interesting that the museum was placed at the bend of the main avenue of the city, so that the museum’s volume is constantly visible when one moves towards the western part of the city. However, the vista defies expectations as it does not end with the main front of the gallery. Instead, we are faced with a strictly rectangular light gray concrete wall with no openings. The absence of openings and the large volume make the gallery stand out in the chaotic series of richly designed office buildings and immediately arouse intense interest and curiosity in the viewer.


When we start circling the volume along the pure orthogonal walls, a side street opens into a green garden that leads to the gallery. It is from this point that the geometry of the constructed volume changes dramatically. As a contrast to the orthogonal northern part of the volume, the southern part opens with an organic structure, a projection that we walk under to reach the narrowest part and the entrance to the building. The interior provides cleverly designed natural lighting and a continuous series of exhibition rooms and public rooms. The permanent art collection will be placed on the first floor, where the conditions are ideal for the exhibits because of the dispersed light and the sequenced spatial experience. The ground floor is designed for temporary exhibitions and presentations, which will also be held in the spacious café where large glass surfaces connect it with the park outside. The skilful design of volumes using the contrast between the geometric strictness and organic softness is one of the features of the extensive oeuvre of Álvaro Siza, seen in his design of galleries and museums such as Serralves or Iberê Camargo.


The realization of the museum was undertaken by The Open Books Co., managed by Hong Ji Woong, who represents one of the most successful and culturally prominent publishers in South Korea. His interest in and commitment to the best European classical and modern literature was a considerable influence on the decision to order the design of the Mimesis Museum either from the Japanese architect Tadao Ando or from the Portuguese Álvaro Siza. According to him, the decision was taken in the mystical space of Siza’s Santa Maria church in Marco de Canavezes, a town in Portugal, where the high-quality architecture inspired him to order the project from Siza. Despite the great distance of the location, Siza agreed to make his second work in South Korea, with the help of his long-term collaborator Carlos Costanhiera and the Korean architect Kim Jun-Sung. To avoid exhausting trips, they used large-scale models in the scale of 1:20, which allowed them to almost physically feel the emerging spaces and see the effects of the light, making it easier to make the right final decisions. The construction and implementation took place in traditional South Korean conditions, which must have been difficult to control. Therefore, considering Siza’s refined and pedantic perseverance in creating perfectly rendered details which are part and parcel of the whole idea of the architectural work, it is quite understandable that his last visit before the opening of the museum was spent drawing temperamental sketches and giving instructions to repair and improve even the smallest details.


Various texts about the Mimesis Museum in professional publications have often pointed out a causal relationship between the ground plan and Siza’s numerous drawings of local cats, made with his usual skill and passion. This connection, however, was already pointed out by Siza’s best friend Eduardo Souto de Moura before the Korean museum was designed. Still, I believe that the concepts of his projects primarily reveal an extremely rich and rational world of built and empty spaces, where Álvaro Siza is an undisputed master.



MIMESIS: the imitative representation of nature or human behaviour