“May I help you?” asked the perfectly bourgeois salaryman unsolicited, in perfectly standard English, while my friend and I puzzled over a map on the streets of Seoul. We were trying to find our way to the Leeum, the Samsung Museum of Art. Like the Leeum itself, the gentleman was eager to share the riches of his culture with the outside world, aiming for the right balance of openness and dignity.

 

Completed in 2004, the Leeum was born of a Cinderella moment. In the mid-nineties, after years of backbreaking effort, both South Korea and Samsung were ready for greater global recognition, and only a few years earlier, Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim had put that city on the map. It was time to shed the old skin to reveal a glamorous new one to the world.

 

Nonetheless, like country and corporation, the Leeum would have to straddle past, present and future. A site was chosen for the museum that was not in the traditional cultural centres around the Gyeongbokgung palace but in the arriviste Itaewon neighborhood near the US army garrison, an area favored by expatriates and Koreans returning from overseas. International architects Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas were tapped to design three distinct buildings that would comprise the museum: Museum 1 to house Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul’s traditional art collection; Museum 2 to house then chairman Lee Kun-hee’s contemporary art collection; and lastly, the Samsung Children’s Education & Culture Centre (CECC).

Botta’s Museum 1 resembles a brick fortress, a bulwark between Korea’s sacred patrimony and the forces of modernisation.

Here, the visitor will find a vast collection of Korea’s national treasures, carefully tended to by the senior Mr. Lee through decades of public indifference. Mario Botta has an uncommon sensitivity to the past, and for Museum 1, he reached back to the dawn of history, designing the structure in the primordial form of a circle. For Botta, a man standing in a circular space can easily envision the limits and centre of that space–he has no trouble orienting himself. Similarly, a man who knows his history will find it easier to orient himself in the modern world.

In contrast to the fortifications of Museum 1, Jean Nouvel designed Museum 2, a glass and steel structure, for maximum openness and flexibility.

Korean and non-Korean artists are grouped together in cross-border visual encounters (Doh Ho Suh meet Subodh Gupta), using modular arrangements within wide open spaces. Nouvel girds the sleekness with reminders of the recent past, placing gritty features like rusted stainless steel (a world first) and gabion walls in plain view.

Finally, past and present are linked together by the Koolhaas-designed CECC, a site for live performances that are the very antithesis of the mummified artefact, perhaps hinting at the future obsolescence of museums themselves, relics of an imperialistic past.