by Sunena V MajuJan 10, 2023
Do you prefer architecture that relates visually to its literal function – for instance, a clinical, straight-lined hospital – or a built space that ensnares senses without giving away its intent completely? The unusual Graphic noble bookstore taking residence on a gradually slopping Itaewon street in Seoul, South Korea is unusual, mysterious and emotive: its most distinguishing aspect is the fact that it does not look like a typical bookstore, with its windowless, tiered and textural façade resembling worn out, pallid pages of an old book, and its expansive, gallery-like interiors.
The bookstore's almost austere design abstains from the stereotypical typology of such forms, with book-lined walls and sit-down beverage cafés, in favour of an uncluttered and intriguing aesthetic, making it simultaneously co-exist and stand out against the heterogenous street it calls home.
The South Korean architectural and interior design offices that conceived the space, OONN Metaworks and U.LAB respectively (both helmed by Kim Jong-u), ensured natural light inside the comic book rental store (which also has a bar inside), by scooping out the tops of its subtly cascading ceilings, adding windows to the formed gaps instead of cutting apertures on the façade. The building's four levels resembling cylindrical quarters are stacked atop each other, narrowing out towards the top. The mandatory inclusion of daylight was heavily challenged by the creators' choice to not add windows on the facades; the solution in the form of slim skylights considers the ephemeral emotions, lasting knowledge and comfort relayed by books, paying homage to our first primal source of light, the sun.
South Korea as a nation is quite famous for turning graphic novels and webtoons into screenplays for film and tv adaptations, most notably Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer or Kim Sang-Hyeop’s True Beauty. So it comes as no doubt that the country has acclimatised itself to expressing stories based on visually appealing characters woven into well-organised story structures that enable imagination, curiosity and intrigue. OONN Metaverse and U.LAB targeted fans of such stories creating a space that brings them together within their design of the Graphic bookstore, a space intentionally cut off from the world, to immerse readers wholly in drawn universes.
Dedicated to over 5000 graphic novels, comic books, as well as books on art and design, the Graphic noble bookstore is conceived as a an expanse, a quiet haven for lovers of books, and not just as a customer-centred one. "The main character of the architecture and design is a book, so it takes a few steps back to create and indulge in a sense of space that is airy and not severely obvious. Although it is a bookstore, I did not want it to be seen or perceived literally as a bookstore, or make it so contrastingly different that it seemed too free-spirited, like a bar. I wanted it to come across as a tertiary play space, somewhere casual yet chic, sophisticated yet nerdy," reveals Kim.
Many stores and commercial activities on the street where the bookstore resides disappeared due to gentrification over the years and is now more of a quiet, residential block. Electric wires pass overhead houses and many dwellings with varying architectural styles gave way to its existing heterogeneous character. One of the factors that led to not adding perceivable, visible windows on the façade was to block off views to this (unappealing) street sight, and instead, focus on the changing skies overhead, bringing in light directly onto the reader’s zone.
"We intentionally did not open up the walls as the surrounding environment of the site did not possess pleasant vistas that could accompany the journey of the readers inside. Had windows been placed, the only scenery you would encounter would be of the brick villas next door or overlapping cables. So we focused on creating a space where I, and the intended audience of the bookstore, could concentrate wholeheartedly on books," informs Kim.
So how is adequate lighting ensured in the bookstore? "A strategised lighting plan was devised for optimal illuminance, in order for it to be adjusted step by step, and give it as much precision as possible without it being overwhelming. The plan was largely divided into sections for day and night, and the entire illumination was intended to mix the daylight received on the walls and the ceiling via the cut apertures on the forms' tiered tops with the artificial, designed one. In collaboration with Via Vijuno, the plan focused on the main movement line that was set up, and the location of the light source could be adjusted as needed in the space where the user tends to stay," explains Kim.
Kim reveals that the façade expressed in ceramic takes direct inspiration from an old tome that he inherited from his grandfather, with uneven pages on the side, frail and paling away due to exposure. This idea he then shared with Chinese ceramic artist Wen Ping, to achieve Graphic’s lined skin, with a sundry, hand-made texture akin to matière paintings. “The vertical texture formed gives various directions to the building's elevation, depending on the angles of daylight, the subsequent shadows formed and prevalent weather," says Kim. Ceramic was also chosen for its properties of resistance to temperature, light and pollution. “The reason for setting it vertically was so that it does not accumulate pollutants or dust, and gets a good cleaning when it rains,” he continues.
Apart from symbolising sacred light and knowledge, the channelling of daylight into the structure by means of the narrow skylights also ties up the structure, its architecture, design, and its intended user, as a cohesive entity. The bookstore design reveals itself dramatically – a transitionary space greets one upon entrance, illuminated dimly and cut off from the outside world, presenting itself as an appetiser before the main spatial meal. The long space is designed as a "complicated alley" that creates a moment for the guest to adjust and prepare themselves for the museum-like space ahead. "It's also a device that allows you to enjoy and appreciate the interiors better," explains Kim.
All manners and behaviours associated with reading and enjoying graphic novels were thoroughly taken into consideration – the expansive space sees a sleek and functional inclusion of seating and resting areas that form comfortable nooks, for sitting and resting your book on a table, kicking back barefoot and enjoying your read while lounging, sitting cross-legged on the floor, tables attached to walls for standing and glancing quickly through titles, or even spread-eagled on the floor.
"Personally, I prefer sitting on the floor and reading books half lying down, and I know many others who lie down with their comics or read standing on their commute. So the interior design features spaces where one can read books half lying down in the corner of the second floor, apart from simple couches and chairs with desks or without on all levels. The bed or chair are the most preferred and comfortable positions to read, and all combinations are added to ensure comfortable posture according to personal preference. We classified these reading positions into nine types, analysed the required height of furniture and other utilities required, and crystallised all that research into the space," confirms Kim.
The first floor was lifted through the upper beam to integrate a cinematic staircase, from where serene vantage points are created and varied pockets of the bookstore can be seen at every step. The finishing of the first level is also done in a natural, straw mat material called Saijal so that readers can pick up books and read while sitting on the floor or the steps. The inclusion of a bar with accompanying seating also hints at the space catering to its target audience of adults, while a simple material and colour palette exploring tones of brown and black cosy up the space.
The Graphic bookstore was worked upon during the pandemic, where its ceramic white exterior was sourced from a factory in China. A year and two months later, the textured building skin acquired dust and wear, causing the stark white to transition into a pale ivory shade, making it softer, and giving it more dimension, closer to the concept it was built upon, of crumpled, decaying paper. This followed the intent of the architects beautifully, who sought their work not to seem uptight but give off the natural look of worn pages of a book over time.
Every element of the bookstore, from its architecture, décor, lighting, spaces and assorted furniture, is designed for the user, conforming to human behaviour instead of just mindlessly chasing aesthetics.
The unlikely design strays away from the typical typology of bookstores to becoming an architectural bubble for lovers of graphic novels enjoying a backdrop of artsy tomes, pulling them into wonderfully created universes of magical stories.
Name: Graphic Noble (Bookstore)
Location: 33 Hoenamu-ro, 39gil Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Year of completion: 2021
Architect: OONN Metaworks
Interior Design: U.LAB
Architectural advisory and licensing: ECO Building
New material design: Wen Ping
Architecture construction : Jarchiv
Interior construction: The one design