In a departure from our usual subject matter, this issue’s international project focuses on a design that will never be built. We take a look at Landscape designers Marcus Barnett’s submission for an international competition to create a horse based theme park and racetrack in South Korea based on the idea of a ‘Unplugged Horse Utopia’. LEWIS CATCHPOLE sat down with Marcus Barnett’s lead designer Maciej Dwojak to discuss their design.
What was the brief for the project?
The competition, launched by the Korea Racing Authority (KRA), was aimed at reinventing the culture surrounding horse racing to primarily appeal to a wider spectrum of people, as well as drawing together the ancillary activities offered by a horse-themed park situated within the foothills of a forest overlooking a beautiful lake.
The principle problem that the KRA had was that horse racing is perceived as a sort of low-grade betting sport in South Korea, it is looked down upon as gambling, so they wanted to elevate its reputation and add some prominence to it by introducing it to a wider spectre of audience.
The site itself was almost 1.5m square metres of beautifully located space overlooking a lake and valley in the foothills of the mountains. What interested us in the project was the stunning location and the large opportunity that the space provided.
How did you respond to the brief?
The mountain peak on the site acts as a focal point with multiple purposes – not only is it a typographical divider within the landscape but also a grandstand offering an array of cultural activities with a stunning view from a large green roof. From here you get a real sense of the vast open plains which overlook the lake. The viewing platform draws together the open landscape, where the horses can run freely, and on the other side of the mountain is the Horse Rehabilitation Centre, a centre for horse-assisted therapy, which creates a fascinating juxtaposition with the excitement and high energy of the race itself.
The main challenge was exploring the relationship between man and horse and how to elevate the sport of horse racing. To answer this we had to fully understand what that relationship entails. What we found was that it is about excitement, speed which is rather obvious but then we asked the question: what more can be found? We came across a whole series of cultural aspects between horse and rider. We were inspired by some fantastic lectures by a woman called Temple Grandin, and movies that were made focusing on horse and man. All this led to a framework that on the one hand there is excitement and connection between the dynamic relationship of racing, but also a calmer and softer side of understanding the animal and its needs.
Having this duality established in our conceptual framework we then started to look how this can be overlaid to the site. We have two elements that balance themselves out and we framed them through South Korean culture. The site was very big and the characteristic feature that divided it into halves was a large mountain peak; this division created two realms so to speak.
The first realm on one side of the mountain was an open plain overlooking the lake which was an ideal landscape for the horse racing track. So that is where we placed the actual racecourse and inside that loop of the racecourse we proposed that the horses could run free and unrestrained to enjoy their freedom when they are not racing – that was the culmination of the excitement element.
Then on the other side of the mountain we had a more hidden realm as it was closed off from the valley nested between the mountains. So this naturally developed into the perfect place to inspire the calm and soft interpretation of the duality behind our idea. This is where we proposed the horse assisted therapy centre. We used the mountain as the divider between the two spaces. We also explored further the idea of the mountain as while it could be used to divide the spaces it could also be used to bind them.
On the mountain itself we have placed a control centre with a glass pole spire which became a vantage point that allowed for a panoramic view of both sides of the mountain. That is where the idea of binding together the two perspectives comes from, so you don’t only see the excitement of the racecourse but the caring side of the therapy centre. This in our view satisfies the brief of elevating the sport.
What is the most unique aspect?
We thought it was quite important that there is this other element, the race course is quite obvious it was present in all applications for the competition. So the unique aspect was the spire in the centre and the other side of the mountain where the horses are allowed to move freely and to regain their strength after racing.
The other feature is the Grand Stand which I have yet to mention. This was covered by a large green roof which was designed to seamlessly integrate the structure with the landscape. Because the grandstand was a mandatory part of the design we wanted to introduce this other element in the form of this statement large spire which granted the full perspective of the landscape and binds the two parts together as the mountain was a given as it was such a prominent topographic feature.
Also quite an intricate aspect is that the race track itself sits on top of a parking garage so we wanted to minimise the impact on the natural landscape, we did a lot of studies to find out how to position the building to make the site as sustainable as possible. We really wanted to avoid destroying the natural character of the site.
What was the main challenge you faced?
Well I don’t think it was the landscape of Yeongcheon, the landscape was more of an opportunity than a challenge, I think the challenge was to actually explore and find that other side and that hidden gem which allows you to really satisfy the brief. It is obvious that horse racing is an exciting thing but it is very prone to the argument that the horses are being treated like machines and then discarded following that.
What we were trying to convey is that they are not cars you can take to a scrapheap but living creatures. That gives the opportunity for visitors to craft that relationship and connection with the horses, and comes with a certain degree of responsibly as well for people to take care of the horses after their racing career ends. I believe our design encourages that.
I noticed that there were cable cars in the design to transport people – how else did you consider public transportation in your design?
Essentially this was supposed to be another dynamic component, the main way you can move through the site is by horseback – that is why we created such scenic routes weaving throughout the entire landscape, but also the introduction of these cable cars allows visitors to return back to the Grandstand. This returns us to the control centre element that binds the site as all the cable cars come from different parts of the site but come together at the top of the mountain. It presents this idea of connectivity and unity between the site which is also another element of horsemanship.
How big was the team for your design?
It was the entire studio at the time which was around five people – I would like to add we have grown since. The team’s input came from many different aspects; research, consultations, we had weekly workshops to review our work and to review the progress. The team did a lot of sketches and diagrams as once we came up with our idea with the theme of duality we wanted to map it clearly onto the site so it was a lot of technical work from the team.
Did you take the climate conditions of the area into consideration in your design?
Yes, we looked into the climate of South Korea which is only slightly different to that of the climate of the United Kingdom, this meant that we were quite comfortable when proposing a planting palette. There were beautiful pine forests surrounding the site so there was quite a lot of precedence for us to draw inspiration from.
So were its surroundings influential in terms of how you decided the type of plants you were going to use?
Yes to some extent we have filtered some of that pine forest into the landscape but we obviously wanted to make it special and to feel like a prominent feature. We allowed for some more deciduous trees and different types of grasses in the middle area of the park as it adds a lot of dynamism and excitement when you see the grass move in the wind amongst the horses. With the number of horses it was just reasonable to introduce such a wide variety as well. We also tried to vary the planting throughout the site, we introduced a specific area in order to create a feature landscape that you could explore on horseback.
So how was your design received?
We received a honourable mention, which for our practice which is quite small was a very good result considering the number of applicants in the competition.