Three Starchitects for the Price of One at the Leeum

The rather poorly named Leeum Samsung Museum of Art (an unfortunate collision of “Lee”, surname of the Samsung family who founded the place, and the last half of “museum”) in Seoul, South Korea offers three contemporary architectural giants, and three distinct buildings, for just one low entry fee.  Rem Koolhaas, Mario Botta and Jean Nouvel each contributed a building to one of Seoul’s best museums, completed and opened to the public in 2004. 

Leeum HanKoo Lee
Architect 

The three buildings of the Leeum (designed by, from left, Rem Koolhaas, Mario Botta and Jean Nouvel) as glimpsed from between the legs of a Louise Bourgouise spider sculpture.

Leeum Museum, Museum 1, designed by Mario Botta
The curving bricks of Botta’s Museum 1 recall his signature style as well as his San Francisco Museum of Modern Art building as well as his BIS building in Basel, Switzerland.

Spiral staircase at Leeum museum #1 by Mario Botta
Botta’s best bit, though, is the circular staircase at the heart of his rounded building around which the museum’s collection of centuries-old Korean artifacts is displayed. The white walls and cutaways give the sense of winding further and further back in time as you progress through the exhibitions.

Jean Nouvel's Museum 2 at Leeum museum, exterior
Jean Nouvel’s Museum 2 is all dark metal and sharp angles here as his contribution houses the contemporary art from both Korea and abroad. Visible only through the galleries, as they are blocked off from intrepid visitors wishing to investigate the perimeter of the building, are small, secluded rock and fern gardens buffered by high gabion walls.

Rem Koolhas's Blackbox Museum exterior, Leeum Museum
Rem rounds out the trio with his entryway, Blackbox, and Samsung Child Education and Culture Center. The long banks of glass windows are by far the most inviting of the three buildings, though the rougher, more industrial interiors offer a nice break with the pristine gallery space.

Though none of these three buildings is entirely groundbreaking, not unlike the Leeum itself, each is a decent representation of each architect’s work and seeing them together presents simultaneously a nice contrast of styles within the broader framework of cutting edge architecture.  Call it the Traveling Wilburys of museum design.  Architecture tourists will want to check the Leeum off their lists, but remember that Seoul’s architecture scene offers much higher highs.

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