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ZERAFA Architecture Studio | Seoul Performing Arts Center

Concept & Competition SOUTH ELEVATION

The design for the Seoul Performing Arts Center was generated through careful consideration of several important factors: its prominent island site in Seoul and the island’s history of flooding, its role in Korean and world cultures, its complex program, and its potential to act as an iconic symbol of Korea’s growing global influence.

Nodeul Island, located in the Hangang River, is suspended between the cultural realities of modern Seoul to the south and the old city to the north.  The island can be considered the geographical center of Seoul, the place where traditional Korean culture meets the modern aspirations of contemporary Korean culture.  Seoul is bisected by the flow of the Hangang River and encircled by an inner ring and an outer ring of granite mountains. These mountains provide a continuous backdrop for views from within the city.  The island’s history of flooding was viewed as an important indication of Nature’s great power, one that should be celebrated in the project as evidence of man’s eternal and sublime quest to live in harmony with the natural environment.

Early in the design process, the team considered the nature of the twenty-first century opera house.  Although the facility will be used for a variety of international music events, we determined that it was critical to get a better understanding of some the indigenous music likely to be performed within.  This led us to study the traditional Korean Pansori opera, of which only five of the original twelve survive.  As the etymology of the word Pansori is based on the terms pan, which means place of performance, and sori, which means sound, we felt that this was an appropriate point of departure for a large complex dedicated to the art of musical performance.

Unlike Western opera, Pansori is performed not by a large ensemble of musicians, but by a solo singer accompanied by a drummer.  In addition to providing drum beats, the drummer also provides chuimsae, or verbal sounds of encouragement.  The direct interaction between the singer (sorikkun) and drummer (gosu) suggested itself to be an analogy appropriate to a project with two major programmatic spaces, an Opera House and a Concert Hall.  Given the importance of the drum in Pansori, we used the drum form as a basis for our initial formal investigations and allowed the complex program to manipulate these forms into a project that we believe can serve as a potent symbol of Korea’s traditions and global aspirations.

Manipulation of Island Form

The existing varied surface of Nodeul Island varied surface is artificial.  We proposed to encapsulate the island within a new sculptural mound to create an ‘ideal’ landscape—derived from the existing island contours—that reveals itself from the surface of the river.  The high point of the curving surface of the mound is set halfway across the short section of the island, on axis with the existing roadway.   The surface of the mound gently curves down from the center and seamlessly transitions into the surrounding water, thus blurring the edge between island and river.  The variable water levels constantly redefine the limits and shape of the island and record a history of the river’s behavior on the surface of the mound.  The island mound emerges from the water gently and permits the unobstructed flow of the river as water levels rise and fall.  Its surface is covered in light grey local granite to provide a canvas for recording the action of the river over time.

Building Orientation / Site Plan

On axis with the existing roadway and Hangang Bridge, a circle is inscribed in the surface of the mound at the center of the island to define the public entry plaza.  From a high point in the center of the circle, the convex surface of the plaza gently slopes down toward the building entries.  The Opera House and Concert Hall buildings are positioned on an east-west axis tangent to the entry plaza circle.  The buildings gesture to one another at the plaza perimeter with an offset from the axis that allows the public entry lobbies of each building to look past each other to the city beyond.

The larger Opera House volume is positioned to look west across the river to the modern skyline of Seoul and surrounding mountains of Gangnam.  The smaller Concert Hall volume is positioned to look east across the river to Gangbuk and the surrounding mountains.

The circular space defined by the plaza is not contained by the adjacent buildings.  Rather, an S-shaped landscaped area folds around the outside of each building and overlays the plaza circle.  Within this landscaped zone are plantings that allow the zone to transform itself from season to season.  Local species such as Korea Forsythia, Azalea, and Mindulle are utilized to create zones of saturated color.   There is an implied fluidity of space on the island surface that extends from the central entry plaza, around the building edges, and into the river and city beyond.

The north and south sides of the circular plaza are defined by opposing floating glass canopies that emerge from the plaza surface to a high point in the center.  These undulating surfaces provide a protected circulation zone between the two major buildings within which access points from the drop-off below the plaza are located. Although a highly ordered plan has been layered over the island mound, the buildings appear more like found objects in a landscape.

Circulation & Access

The existing roadway defined by the two bridges connecting the island to the mainland has been incorporated into an overall plan to provide access to the complex without impacting the existing through traffic requirements.  The high point of the mound is set at an elevation 7.5m above the existing roadway to provide enough clearance for the roadway to pass through the island immediately under the plaza surface.  Vehicular through traffic is consequently permitted to bypass the island uninterrupted through a concrete tunnel that crosses the width of the island.  Vehicular access to the complex for visitors is made possible by a series of off-ramps that descend down below the road level into a continuous traffic loop that incorporates drop-off areas for each venue and access to below grade valet and self-parking levels.  The below grade drop-off areas open onto the entry plaza within the canopy area through a vertical space that acts as an acoustic vestibule to prevent the transmission of vehicular noise.

Visitors may also arrive to the complex from the mainland by dedicated ferry shuttle service to a dock at the south side of the site, adjacent to the tunnel opening.  This floating dock element connects to a sweeping stair carved into the surface of the mound that extends up to the central plaza.

Primary service access to the complex is located at the center of the tunnel with truck elevator access for both northbound and southbound traffic. Truck elevators descend down to a dedicated service hall with turntable distribution to the various loading and service areas.

Opera House

The proposed 1,500 seat Opera House auditorium is based on a traditional layout with orchestra, mezzanine and balcony seating, and a full 110-musician orchestra pit. The plan accommodates six computer controlled movable stages: one principal stage with fly loft and five adjacent annex stages for assembly and rehearsal. Backstage program areas for performers include rehearsal studios, private dressing rooms, lounge facilities and specialty storage spaces.
The proposed amenities program includes a significant music and theater educational component in the form of workshops, lecture rooms, studios and exhibit spaces accessible to the public.

Alternative Performance Theatre

Located in the upper section of the Opera House—behind the fly loft—is a 360-seat alternative performance theatre designed for intimately scaled performances such as Pansori opera.  This hall auditorium is designed as a theater in the round and is accessed via a dedicated lift tower.

Concert Hall

The proposed 1,500 seat Symphony Hall auditorium is designed as a flexible hybrid theater in the round with a center stage and movable seating that can be reconfigured for multiple end stage configurations as required.


Located behind the Opera House is a 500-seat amphitheatre with a movable band shell.  This component is cantilevered over the river and becomes an island—accessible by bridge—during high water periods.

Location: Nodeul Island, Seoul, Korea
Architect: ZERAFA Architecture Studio
Design Team: Jason M Zerafa, Scott Springer AIA, Hughy Dharmayoga,
Luis Carmona, Fritz Johnson AIA
Client: Seoul Metropolitan Government
Facility: Performing Arts Center with Opera House, Concert Hall, Alternative Theatre, Amphitheatre
Status: Competition Entry 2005
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