Architect as social innovator

The 2022 Seoul Design International Forum has obtained written consent from the speaker to publish the summarized and edited content

Architects as Social Innovators 

Presentation by: Lee Kyo Suk 

(Associate Director, MVRDV)

This presentation focuses on the projects led by MVRDV, a self-declared social innovators group, to explore how architecture can function as a tool for social innovation. In cities we live in, there are many conflicting values such as natural elements versus artificial factors, the desire to concentrate intensely versus the desire to keep some distance, and physical architectural spaces versus people who use the spaces. MVRDV believes that we can move beyond the dichotomy of conflicts and leverage creative design to drive social innovation.  

Natural vs. Artificial

Architecture Embracing Nature

A closer look at ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, a famous Dutch painting by Hieronymus Bosch, reveals humans and animals forming one chunk of shape as well as plants turning into human forms. The painting effectively depicts how the Dutch viewed nature over the course of history. The Netherlands has artificially reclaimed the land below sea level for centuries to nourish the ecosystem and learned to coexist with the environment. In this sense, architects are serious about creating buildings that embrace nature. The Netherlands Pavilion at the 2000 World Expo in Hannover, a breakthrough for MVRDV, visualized the intensive land usage of the country by vertically stacking different sceneries. The project also holds significance in that it didn’t stop at simply stacking floors but created an independent ecosystem with heat and energy circulating between each layer. 


The Valley project in Amsterdam aimed to bring refreshing, invigorating nature to the very center of a dense urban area. The towers are designed for multiple purposes with commercial facilities on lower floors, business offices in the middle, and residential apartments at the top. There are more green spaces as you go up the building, resembling the shape of a mountain. The towers may seem like they’re arranged randomly but the layout is the result of optimized computer design taking into account various variables such as natural lighting, view, ventilation, privacy, and constructability. The sides of the building facing the city feature urban look and feel while the inward sides are more natural, giving a strong contrast. 


The towers offer urban spaces open to the public. Pedestrians can walk up to a common garden located on the fifth floor as if they’re climbing an actual mountain. The inside shopping arcade resembles a natural cave and the light-scattering pond on top of the ceiling skylight adds a dramatic touch. The multidimensional landscape is the key design element for the building. Working with horticulturists for The High Line NYC, wind-tolerant and low-maintenance plants are used for higher floors while some landscaping serves an important role of protecting the privacy of residents. 


Each apartment unit is designed to have a view over the old downtown area at a distance or a nearby soccer field so that residents can spend quality time outside with their friends as if they’re in a house with a big open yard in a suburb. Although located at the very center of a dense, artificial urban area, the nature-embracing design elements make the tower an ideal living space for many people. 


Design with Nature – Waterfront Spaces

There’s a shift in paradigm for waterfront space design. Many projects are moving away from the previous approach of distinguishing ecological spaces from urban spaces and instead focusing on ‘design with nature.’ Indeed, MVRDV took a crack at ecological reclamation when designing a new water city for Almere. Building embankments with retaining walls, which is a traditional method, leads to the destruction of the ecosystem as the waves intensify in speed after hitting the strong dikes and sweep out the surrounding natural system. That’s why we decided to take a different approach by using a pile of stones to create embankments and make them slightly sink in the water to slow down the waves, ensuring enough space for the ecosystem. And silt accumulated naturally behind the embankments helps the process of natural reclamation. After conducting multiple rounds of simulation on water quality, we were surprised to find out that our approach could solve the persistent contamination of neighboring waters. The project increased the size of the natural waterfront as much as possible and reserved space bigger than the urban area for the ecosystem. As a result, the water city more effectively embraced the ecosystem despite the fact that it was artificially reclaimed. 


The Tancheon River Waterfront Park designed for the city of Seoul shares the same philosophy. The project aims to enhance ecological values while creating a new flow in urban development connecting Coex, Global Business Center in Samsung-dong, and Olympic Stadium. Our strategy is to incorporate conflicting requirements such as natural quality, accessibility, and leisure into a single design.  

The first step involved getting rid of the existing concrete embankments to restore natural, meandering streams and adding islands and ponds to maximize the space for the ecosystem. Different ecological gardens were connected linearly to minimize the artificially created surfaces while ensuring more touchpoints between people and nature.  



The ecological park between the river and the waterside will turn into a waterfront space resembling an urban oasis, enabling people and bicycles to move along the path again. The walkway bridging both sides of Tancheon River will connect the upper and lower watersides and become a visually appealing, physical monument of the park. In addition, various elements that are linked to one another represent urban programs in different ways to restore the previously disconnected urban flow. 


By creating a space tied together like a knot, The Tancheon River Waterfront Park can serve as a square for people to come together or a multidimensional playground for children. The walkway can also become an observatory to enjoy the glow of the setting sun or extend out to the river for a tree-shaped marina complex. The design will give the city of Seoul what it needs in this era – a place that stands for the coexistence of urban and natural qualities. 


Concentration vs Dispersion

A picture shows how the city network in the Netherlands was created. The urban areas in the picture are heavily packed with buildings but the size is somewhat moderate. And the waterway is connecting all these elements together. This network is still maintained to this day. The difference is obvious when compared to big neighboring cities such as London or Paris. 

Randstad, a large metropolitan area in the Netherlands, is not exactly a giant urban city. Instead, it’s a network of small cities with a ring-shaped structure. Despite the small size of the area, it stands out for its high density and ability to leverage the intercity network to resolve common urban problems such as traffic congestion or pollution. It has also remained a nature-friendly, compact city where people can walk around. This type of concept has been the key in the Netherlands’ national land planning for the past 30 or 40 years.

Creative Typology for Mixed-Use

Mixed-use buildings that are essential in creating a compact city reduce travel distance and vitalize urban areas. Instead of just combining different usages, MVRDV focuses on designing creative architectures that facilitate synergy across different purposes. 


One great example is the Rotterdam Market Hall. The city’s initial goal was to turn parts of its existing traditional marketplace into indoor spaces to make it more competitive and also build apartments to vitalize the neighborhood. By taking a slightly different approach to the city’s design guidelines and typical architectural solutions, we designed the building so that the outdoor market is penetrating through the indoor. Our design included commercial facilities from the first basement level to the second floor as well as 10 floors of residential apartments looking over the market at the center. As the Market Hall was located in the urban area, a number of cultural assets were discovered during the underground excavation. But the assessment showed that the artifacts were not significant enough to donate to museums. Since it would be most meaningful to keep them where they were found, we designed a small museum along the pathway from the underground parking lot to the market showing the history of the place in a chronological timeline. 


The main focus of the design was to continue the outdoor market into the indoor space. We incorporated large-sized glasses that were as light and transparent as possible for the walls. We also took the idea from a tennis racket that uses the elasticity of weaving to push the ball out and built the structure so that metal cables connected to the glass walls can use elasticity and maintain the balance well against strong winds. This allowed us to create transparent, lightweight glass walls without supporting structures and connect the outdoor and indoor areas seamlessly. About 200 residential units surrounding the Market Hall enjoy the view over the indoor space while natural light and privacy are guaranteed due to the building’s overall size. 


Resembling a bridge over the marketplace, the double-story penthouses have curved structures and residents can go up and down the stairs to enjoy the view over the market. The curved roof for safety and natural lighting makes sure that there is ample space for height and a large terrace. The indoor area along the walls and the roof is twice the size of a soccer field. The curved ceiling is covered with the largest ceiling painting in the world with a theme of Rotterdam, nature, and food. The bumps along the ceiling painting serve dual purposes of absorbing sound and directing attention away from the apartment windows to protect the privacy of residents. The indoor market was developed as a commercial facility with high density but also incorporated publicness by embracing the context of the city. The market and residential housing are merged together and create synergy. 

Meanwhile, we employed a different strategy for another mixed-use building that opened in New York last week. The building with blocks stacked on top of each other does not overwhelm the neighborhood yet ties well into the context of the city. At the same time, a terrace with an exceptional view was included in the design that serves multiple purposes. Another complex apartment building being built in the United Arab Emirates looks as if pixels are pouring down. Commercial facilities with distinctive characters and energy are designed for lower floors. And upper floors are for efficient residential housing to ensure two different spaces mesh well together in the same building.


Rooftop as a Tool of Urban Regeneration

For us, the rooftop is a hidden gem tucked away under layers of a city. It’s an important element in revitalizing and greening a city with limited external spaces. An abandoned rooftop can turn into a floating, independent housing with an excellent view. With a wide staircase connected to the rooftop garden of the existing building, more people than expected will show up to enjoy the space. Indeed, a party with an event podium on a museum rooftop had more guests than anticipated. And people spent more time on a terrace turned into a commercial space on top of a department store. In highly dense cities, it’s particularly crucial to leverage the potential of abandoned spaces and connect them to the urban context. We believe that this is one of the social innovations that lead to creative design.  



Architecture vs People

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a maestro in the 16th century, views urban landscape through a very interesting lens. The main focus is not so much on physical, tangible buildings in cities. Instead, people are at the center of the continuous social landscape created by many as opposed to one person. This perspective is well portrayed by the place branding strategy of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. New York City’s ‘I Love New York’ slogan emphasizes the physical aspect of the city as the most prosperous ‘object of envy’. In contrast, Amsterdam’s ‘I Am Amsterdam’ regards the city and the people in the same light. It symbolizes the pride and sense of community people share in creating a free, progressive city. In other words, a city is the very definition of its creative and innovative citizens. 

Public Architecture for Citizen

At MVRDV, our focus has been moving beyond the formalism and authoritarianism of public design and enabling citizens to create public spaces. The Book Mountain, a public library, clearly showcases its identity as a place to house books with bookshelves and interior walls covered with transparent glasses. The flow of movement inside the building is designed as a spiral leading to the top floor so that the movement of people becomes the building itself. Citizens come to the library and feel like they’re in an urban outdoor space. They also engage in various leisure activities using books as a medium. Meanwhile, a public library in Tianjin, China, took the visual inspiration from a reading ‘eye’. Inside the library resembles a cave made with books. Tiered bookshelves can be used as a stage or turned into public spaces for various activities other than reading. Books are a medium, but citizens are at the very heart of the design.


Depot, a warehouse museum in Rotterdam, faced some social problems. At that time, many people were concerned with the possibility of a new museum taking up much of the industrial space. That’s why we kept the required floor area and changed the building form from flat to circular. It mitigated the impact the new design may have on the existing park. The bowl-shaped design secured more floor space as you go up the building and made it possible to create a rooftop garden that is bigger than the ground area taken up by the museum. Our focus for the project was to reduce public concern and convince people by presenting a three-dimensional design that incorporated the park into the overall landscape. We also made sure that people can enjoy artwork from different angles other than eye level. Multidimensional flow throughout the building enables visitors to become part of the art. Our team leveraged materials made with mirrors to maintain constant temperature and humidity. In addition, plants on the rooftop that serves as an observatory gave us an opportunity to reconsider the role of sustainable public architecture as well as the role of art. As shown by this project, public architecture can become a part of the surrounding landscape rather than standing out alone and act as an effective background putting spotlight on users.



Open Design Process by User Participation

It’s been some time since MVRDV started experimenting with encouraging future users to participate in the design process. The last project featured in the presentation, despite the small scale and budget, holds significance as a design experiment based on citizen participation. The Folly Project in Gwangju has been inviting well-known global architects to create urban installations for the past 10 years. Our team wanted to use the project budget to improve the aged urban environment and worked with residents near Seoseok Elementary School in Central Gwangju. It was a collaborative effort to keep the pedestrian passage and create space for children. The first step was to listen to what people wanted and convince the government to revise its vehicle traffic plan. We also held a contest so that students of Seoseok Elementary School who are actual users of the space can suggest their own design ideas. The submitted designs were turned into the sand playground, water fountain, and trampoline. Also, to expose students to different colors and textures, a combination of wooden, grass, gravel, soft trampoline, and sand floors were built. The entire process was a delightful experience in which citizens of the present and future came together to design for children.


Throughout the presentation, we focused on creating space that embraces the ecosystem and nature, infusing creativity into a heavily dense urban area, and facilitating open design based on citizen participation. These topics are universal across the globe and have been explored by the city of Seoul as important urban agenda in recent years. I hope that today’s presentation is helpful in transforming Seoul into a Future Emotional City.

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