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Seoul National University Hospital Medical Mall

With no option to build up, GS&P architects and engineers crafted a design from the ground down

All the best elements of today's technical and sustainable ideas... integrated beautifully on a tough site.

A leader in the global academic community, Seoul National University has served as a trusted source for Korean public health information for more than 100 years. The design competition for additions to the Seoul National University Hospital Medical Mall required concepts for outpatient clinics, retail, and support spaces while honoring the historic hospital structure as a focal point. With an emphasis on flexibility, intuitive wayfinding, expandability, and connection to nature, the resulting underground design establishes a healthy, vibrant aesthetic.



Describe the initial need and the scope of the project.

Jeff Kuhnhenn: Seoul National University Hospital, a prestigious medical, research, and education institution in Korea, is built on a campus that is essentially built out. There’s very little to no remaining real estate to develop, yet the hospital has a tremendous need to add clinic space in the existing central hospital. Our concept included design ideas for three floors of outpatient clinics, retail and support spaces, and a three-level parking garage with a focus on flexibility, intuitive wayfinding, expandability and a connection to nature, most of which would likely reside below the surface level.

What considerations did you have to make regarding the future of the campus?

David Stewart: For this project, we designed multiple future phases not actually in the original program. In order to develop the initial project, we felt it was important to understand the end result because their site is so tight and congested.

Jeff: The client’s needs and complexity were probably the paramount issues with this project, and in order to design this piece of architecture, we had to almost back up to the point of master planning — or re-master planning — the entire campus. It was critical to understand where things are today and where they want to be five years from now, and beyond, in order to advance the design of this one particular building that happens to be the physical lynchpin between all of the facilities on the site.

Describe the existing building, the surrounding campus and the fundamental goal of your design concept.

Jeff: The hospital building is a historic structure in that it is the first real Western style hospital in Seoul. It is surrounded by some green space, parking, a few roadways, and extremely active pedestrian areas all shared by the various facilities. It’s a very crowded area with no real space available for a sizeable clinic. Our task was to sensibly fit a mostly below-grade facility into the core of this site, and stitch it in with the entire surrounding functional hospital, labs, research and education facilities while maintaining a picturesque setting for this historic building. Essentially, the assignment was to build a big building where there is no place to build it, and when it is done, it should be as though it is not there.

David: The site is unique in that there are multiple hospitals on the campus. In addition to the main hospital, there are cancer, dental and pediatric hospitals. The project’s concept would connect all those facilities underground, which meant it was very important to understand the relationships and circulation paths between the different buildings. Also, there are local restrictions on how much space can be developed above ground, so it wasn’t just that finding room was difficult, it wasn’t even an option.

With no extra above-ground real estate to work with, what was your overall plan and strategy to tie all of these buildings together?

Jeff: Starting out, we had to have a clear understanding of pedestrian and vehicular circulation. We knew we would have to reconfigure the underground parking area. Our first step was to overlay the pedestrian flow of patients as well as the public, staff and material paths with the site’s vehicular circulation, which was particularly dangerous and highly inefficient in heavy pedestrian areas. Obviously, we could not have cars drive through clinic space underground, so getting the cars into the below-grade clinic space was an interesting challenge. But, once we looked at all of the challenges by themselves, the site almost designed itself. Solving each of these issues basically created the parameters for the design concept and drove the overall design.

Since the space was clearly defined, what parameters dictated your design?

Jeff: The site was a very odd shape that came with challenges including preserving the historic significance. We also had to create a below-grade space that did not make people feel as though they were underground or in a cavern. To achieve this, we tried to create a somewhat natural environment by including a courtyard and natural lighting through skylights.

How does your design infuse elements of nature to create a tranquil environment below grade?

David: We tried to use natural materials, landscaping, water, light and air as much as we could to preserve the natural environment. Most Asian cultures place extreme value on natural air and ventilation. Because there is such limited natural environment, we looked for ways to bring in natural air and recirculate it throughout the space. Bringing in natural elements like trees and grass as well as materials such as pavers created a much more comfortable feeling than concrete. We also used water to create a calm, serene atmosphere in an otherwise stress-filled area.

Some of the aerial views of the site show the main public space, which is the building with all the glass that looks like it’s going underground. Natural light streams into the main lobby, clinic waiting areas, and retail space. Even though the space is below grade, it feels very natural with all the light and ventilation.

Working below grade always has inherent challenges. What were some of the specific issues that needed to be addressed?

Jeff: Dealing with the limited real estate and logistics of getting cars several levels below grade was a real challenge. As tight as the site was, you are obligated to take certain structural things into account when you’re forced to work below grade. When you dig a hole, you have to hold back the earth that’s not being removed, which further constrains the site because it has to accommodate the thickness of a retaining wall. Overcoming the structural difficulties to create an inviting, pleasant space, rather than a mundane, cold space, was a real challenge.

We relied on geometric, functional and spatial clarity to develop a certain order to the site through expectations and rhythms that accommodated the structural requirements. By focusing on key areas, we were able to take some liberties with the structure and open it up to the south light along a long arc off the major public spaces. We took a philosophical approach to create clarity and peacefulness out of an otherwise quirky and geometrically complicated site.

David: One of the biggest challenges was to create an efficient outpatient entrance that was separate from the main entrance. Our design redirects most of that patient flow to a brand new entrance. The geometric form really emphasizes the entrance sequence because it creates extremely intuitive wayfinding.

Jeff: Yes, despite the fact that you’re going underground, nothing is hidden from you. The organization of the building from a public perspective is immediately apparent upon entering.

How did your design improve circulation?

David: When you do an underground facility, patient flow is one of the biggest issues. Understanding how materials and supplies flow, not only to the clinics but also to the substantial retail space, is essential. You can’t just take a tractor-trailer three floors underground to supply a kitchen. We used the inpatient hospital dock to work out a travel path to the materials management areas and back to the clinic. It was also extremely important to understand vertical as well as horizontal paths since many of the destinations are below grade. Our design outlined a convenient travel path for materials, patients, and staff since there’s a lot of cross-over and also provided a space for the public, physicians, and staff to gather. We created many destination points for easy flow and included a corridor from the center of the site to the various clinics.

What was the most gratifying aspect of developing this conceptual design?

Jeff: The design concept itself is deceptively simple. It was almost a Zen-like experience to find the right note. With all the discordant rhythms from the other buildings and functions, plus the site limitations and structural constraints, we found the ultimate solution in the simple sweeping arc centered on the existing historic hospital. Seeing the success of that clarity was very gratifying to me.

David: Finding a simple solution to a complex problem is one of the biggest challenges that an architect faces. This ranks right up there with the most complex project that I’ve ever had to design. It was also definitely one of the most unique projects involving one of the most innovative solutions and a great experience to work with the team over there.


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Project Info

  • Client: Seoul National University Hospital Medical Mall
  • Location: Seoul, KOR
  • Market: Healthcare Design
  • Services: Architecture, Engineering, Planning, Master Planning
  • Team:
    • Kevin K. S. Kim, AIA Principal-in-Charge
    • David J. Stewart, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP Project Manager
    • Jeffrey W. Kuhnhenn, AIA, LEED AP Project Designer
    • David V. McMullin, P.E., LEED AP Project Professional
    • Frank Swaans, AIA, EDAC, LEED AP Healthcare Planner
    • Jevon Ritchey, AIA, LEED AP Project Coordinator
  • Awards:

    AIA/AAH National Healthcare Design Awards, Honor Award, Unbuilt Category

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