Adventures in architecture at Expo 2012

Story highlights

  • Expo 2012 in South Korea is site of cutting-edge experimental buildings
  • Korea pavilion is hi-tech and carbon-negative
  • Theme pavilion draws on concepts of biomimicry with ventilation 'gills'
  • Architects of theme pavilion were not sure it could be built

An unassuming town on the southern tip of South Korea is an unlikely place for one of the world's most advanced buildings.

Until August 12 the city of Yeosu is hosting Expo 2012 and among the new buildings containing educational displays on ocean conservation is the Korea pavilion. It stands out as one of the most technologically advanced, if aesthetically underwhelming, of them all.

Korean architecture firm Samoo Architects & Engineers designed it to resemble the Korean 'Taegeuk' -- the yin and yang symbol of balance -- but inside the structure that concept of harmony is taken even further.

At a cost of around $19.5 million it combines the latest in hydrogen fuel cell technology, photovoltaic solar panels and geo-thermal energy to provide power, cooling and heating, making it carbon negative --taking out more CO2 from the atmosphere than it produces.

Korean firm Hyundai provided the fuel cells that are key to the company's development of next generation hydrogen-fuelled cars, while architects from Samoo say that other engineering elements, like the seawater thermal pipes, are there to demonstrate their potential future use.

While Expos have long been associated with experimental and iconic architecture -- the World's Fair of 1889 gave Paris the Eiffel Tower -- not much of it has stood the test of time.

The Korea pavilion however will be one of the few structures that remains on the site once the Expo has ended. Another is the Theme Pavilion that tests architectural and engineering limits in a different way from its national namesake, by being as low-tech as possible.

The Austrian architects were not even sure that the structure could even be built.

"The biomimetic principles (of the building) had not been built before on that scale," said Kristina Schinegger of Soma Architects.

One vast side of the building is covered with reinforced fiberglass "gills" that can be opened and closed to either provide shade or ventilation.

"Really it's based on material performance; it's not a mechanism moving but the material itself, transforming," said Schinegger.

"It's an idea deduced from plants, how you can configure the geometry and how you can use certain characteristics (of the building) so you use less energy."

German renewable energy engineers Transsolar installed the solar panels on the roof and have designed a seawater heat exchange system that will provide additional cooling and lead to 80% of the building's energy originating from renewable sources.

As well as the importance of eco-friendly elements, Schinegger says that the spirit of adventure and experimentalism, in keeping with the history of Expos, was a key part of the design process.

"The architectural scene (at Expos) at least is something where you can really see things that are being tried out. The task is not to make an envelope for a function but to do something that is an experience in itself," she says.

"On the one hand the architect has to do less, but on the other side much more. It has to be extraordinary, which is why architects love Expos."