Amid hi-tech, globalised architecture, World Cup designer keeps a flavour of the past

29th September 2000 at 01:00
The setting for the opening ceremony of the World Cup in 2002 will be a masterpiece of modern sporting architecture, yet it will reflect 5,000 years of cultural history, claims the architect Choon Soo Ryu.

It's a lofty ambition. Unlike Prince Charles, who has championed attempts to retain traditional-style buildings in Britain, Ryu tries to solve the conflict between globalisation and local culture, not by preserving the past but by finding the Korean look of the future.

"Architecture is a double-bladed sword," he says. "It's universal and local. One blade is not enough. My job is how to combine Korean tradition and ultra-modern trends."

It's a surprisingly cosmopolitan outlook for a Buddhist born and brought up in a small mountain town with a strong Confucian tradition. Ryu, 54, spent his childhood in a traditional-style house and grew to love the Korean landscape and its four seasons. But he also liked liked painting, maths, physics and science. "The science came from the West. So from a kid I learned about the world," he says.

In his cramped Seoul office, Ryu is wearing a modern version of a traditional Korean jacket. He is constantly drawing shapes on a notepad as he talks.

He says the British architects Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Terry Farrell, Nicholas Grimshaw and Michael Hopkins are his inspiration - for their use of ultra-modern materials: teflon, steel and glass. "They are leading the world in my opinion. The buildings in Seoul are hi-tech compared with a century ago, when Korean buildings were made of brick, stone and wood. Now we have cement, concrete and new materials and Seoul is covered in them. It's a worldwide trend. Most architecture has no national characteristics, no local identity."

He says it the design that is the problem. "Twowriters might use the same basic material - words. But one might choose to write a poem and one might write a novel." A deep thinker, he draws inspiration from meditation and concentration - skills he learnt during two years he spent in remote Buddhist temples after graduation.

But Ryu is also very modern in his outlook. For him, form does not come above function. "In my world architecture is first about function, second technology, third beauty. Architects must balance all these things. They cannot control human activity, they have to understand it and cater for it based on scientific data." For the stadium he wanted to create a building that people would recognise was built by a Korean, not a Briton or European.

Still drawing circles and squares on the pad, he says he developed the stadium's structure and shape from the pattern of a traditional Korean kite, which itself echoes that of an ancient warrior's shield. He takes a kite from the shelf. It has a bamboo frame covered with Korean paper of the kind used to make the translucent walls to divide cubicles in traditional restaurants. In the 64,000 capacity stadium he has transformed the kite structure into a diaphanous, teflon-coated fibreglass roof with strong steel trusses that mimic the kite's bamboo strips; its wavy surface emulates the shape of a Korean fan.

Sitting above the crowds with the light shining through at night during the opening ceremony of the tournament, he hopes it will appear like a brilliant floating kite "The roof is strong. It is guaranteed for 30 years, but it will give off the same effect as light shining through Korean paper," he says. "The goal is to establish a new landmark in the history of sports architecture, a piece of architectural heritage for the country and the world."

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