In the never-ending race to construct the world's tallest building, Charles Wee -- an architect whose firm is involved in some of the largest mixed-use projects in California, Korea and China -- stands on the sidelines.
It's not that he's afraid to go big. Wee's firm GDS Architects is behind some of the tallest mixed-use projects in Korea and elsewhere. But when Wee and his partners entered Korea Land and Housing Corporation's design competition for a landmark tower, they decided to create a structure symbolizing Korea's rising position in the world that was unexpected, iconic and fun. They opted to create an anti-tower -- a structure designed to send a message to Korea that greatness starts with insignificance.
"We didn't want to do just another tower," says Wee, who was born in Seoul and immigrated to the United States when he was 12. "And trying to build the tallest tower or building is a bad race to be in."
Instead, Wee set out to design an observation tower that would be both dramatic and understated; a structure that would become a national icon without following the conventional rules of similar structures throughout the world. His solution -- achieved with the help of structural engineer King-Le Chang of KLC and Associates and optical engineer Bill Platt of Platt Design Group -- was to make the tower disappear.
The 1,476-foot building, dubbed Tower Infinity, won the competition and received a permit in August from the government. If built, it will be the world's first "invisible" tower, an illusion achieved through a high-tech LED and video processing system.
Cameras on the lower, middle and top of the tower will capture real-time shots of the surrounding landscape such as clouds, sky, trees and even buildings, process that information, then cut, rotate and stitch it together to make a panoramic image. That image is then projected by LEDs to the other side of the building making it fade into the background and disappear.
"We have a lot of magic behind the technology," says Platt, whose firm designed and built the Shamu Stadium at Sea World featuring hydraulic rotating LED screens. "It's not just building. It's really an art piece."
The building won't be truly invisible, of course. The illusion will be most noticeable to people up close to the tower and passersby on the Seoul bridge a little more than a mile away. The tower will be completely visible from above. For example, airline pilots will easily see it, Wee says.
"In Asia, every country is trying to do 'big things' and 'things bigger' such as building a taller tower," Chang adds. "We wanted to do this observation tower for South Korea that is physically big but is still small, humble and could sometimes be invisible.
"It's an interesting idea of integrating this Asian philosophy about greatness into the design," he adds. "It is this reserved or humble thinking -- opposite to the in-your-face huge Chanel mark on the wealthy woman's handbag -- that mentally supported this invisible idea."
The observation tower will be primarily used for entertainment and will contain bars, a 4-D theater, gardens and restaurants. An elevator will stop at heights that coincide with other landmarks around the world such as the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. At each level, visitors will be able to see a real-time view of those monuments and possibly even interact with folks at that location, Wee says.
The government is funding the observation tower for an undisclosed amount of money. However, the total project, which includes a massive complex at the base of the tower, is a public-private partnership, Wee said. The bottom portion is supposed to be funded by private developers, Wee says.
(Photo: GDS Architects)