Exhibition visit: Out of the Ordinary — Award-winning works by Young Korean Architects

LKL reports from the exhibition of young Korean architects at The CASS, which runs until 28 February.

Out of the Ordinary - installation view (photo: LKL)
Out of the Ordinary – installation view (photo: LKL)

In an informative essay in the Out of the Ordinary catalogue, associate curator Junghyun Park gives us a fascinating snippet of information. When Neo meets the Architect of The Matrix in the final scene of The Matrix Reloaded, the subtitles in the Korean version of the film use the loan word 아키텍트 rather than the Korean word 건축가. “That the person responsible for creating the whole world (The Matrix) could be called an ‘architect’ (건축가) as understood in Korean society, was inconceivable,” suggests Park. In the same essay, Park cites two recent Korean books, both of which argue from two different perspectives that there is no Architecture in Korea, at least as that word is used in the West.

If the architect in Korea does have a lowly status, perhaps this is a sort of a blessing: in a panel session of Korean and British experts in the architectural field held at The CASS as part of this exhibition, it was noted that in the UK if a building is defective in some way it is the architect that is sued first, while in Korea it is the builder.

Infographics on the windows of the exhibition do battle with coloured scaffolding poles in the street outside (photo: LKL)
Infographics on the windows of the exhibition do battle with coloured scaffolding poles in the street outside (photo: LKL)

Nevertheless, on the evidence of this exhibition, there is plenty of “Architecture” in Korea. Dare I suggest that this humility about the status of architecture and the architect in Korea is part of the rather familiar Korean trope of the underdog: despite all adversity, Korea succeeds in the end through their own hard work, and any international recognition is seen as a huge triumph. With the rise of design in Korea (Seoul was World Design Capital 2010) things are surely changing in respect of the priority given to the added-value end of industrial and construction processes.

Installation view of OUJAE Architects' Cheongsando Slow Island project with, right, one of Kyungsub Shin's Scrutable Landscapes (photo: LKL)
Installation view of OUJAE Architects’ Cheongsando Slow Island project with, right, one of Kyungsub Shin’s Scrutable Landscapes (photo: LKL)

The carefully-constructed show at The CASS, in debating these issues, has an interesting dual theme:

  1. Firstly, and most obviously, the showcasing of young Korean architects and some of the award-winning projects they have worked on;
  2. Two complementary endeavours that put their architecture in a broader context:
    • Firstly, a series of photographs by Kyungsub Shin entitled Scrutable Landscapes which capture individual works by the architects in their wider environment – and often it’s an extremely depressing environment: surroundings of characterless buildings and streetscapes plagued with a spider’s web of telegraph wires – a series of photographs which sadly tends to lend weight to the thesis that there is no “Architecture” in Korea.
    • Secondly, an interesting set of infographics which set out the demographic and economic circumstances which face the young artists of today: an ageing population, falling birthrates, and a sudden break in the rise of the apartment market, all of which point to a society in flux. The previous certainties which supported the Korean construction industry – rising GDP and population growth, centralised government support – are a thing of the past, and architects have to adjust to a new environment where projects must be more sustainable and on a more human scale.

And indeed constrained budgets and constrained spaces is a theme of many of the architectural projects on display:

  • OUJAE Architects’ small-scale buildings to support the tourist infrastructure of the “Slow Island” of Cheongsando, famed as a filming location for Seopyeonje:
OOUJAE Architects: Slow Food Workshop, Cheongsando, Jeollanamdo (2012) Photo: Jaeyun Kim
OUJAE Architects: Slow Food Workshop, Cheongsando, Jeollanamdo (2012) Photo: Jaeyun Kim
  • The low-cost housing projects of JYA_RCHITECTS where the budget rarely seems to exceed 40 million Won; or, in the project picture below, a project to fit two houses for two sisters and their families, together with parking for three cars, on a constricted plot of land:
JYA Architeects: Dongtan House (Photo: Hyochel Hwang)
JYA Architeects: Dongtan House (Photo: Hyochel Hwang)
  • The projects undertaken by lokaldesign which focus on bringing some human warmth to bleak public spaces such as the underpasses beside the Han River:
lokaldesign: Sungsan photo: Joomun Park
lokaldesign: Sungsan, from the Han River Underpass Project, Banpodong, Seoul (2011). photo: Joomun Park
  • IAEO Architecten’s “Archifurniture” for Happy Schools which make the most of interior spaces, ingeniously incorporating the wishes of the pupils impacted by the work:
IAEO Archtecten: Unsan Elementary School, Seosan, Chungcheongnamdo. 2013  (Photo: Jeonghoon Park)
IAEO Archtecten: Unsan Elementary School, Seosan, Chungcheongnamdo. 2013 (Photo: Jeonghoon Park)
  • And in a similar vein UTAA Company’s Neighbourhood Architecture projects which include domestic new-build and transformations of existing interior spaces with womb-like enveloping curves.
UTAA Company: University of Seoul Rest Hole, Jeonnongdong, Seoul, 2012 (Photo: Hyosook Chin)
UTAA Company: University of Seoul Rest Hole, Jeonnongdong, Seoul, 2012 (Photo: Hyosook Chin)

But there is still scope for the larger-scale project, and for designs which give the architect freer rein:

  • Chae-Pereira Architects was given the brief for the Chang Ucchin Art Museum in Yangju, and came up with a design of jagged angles and complex interior space:
Chae-Pereira Architects: Chan Ucchin Museum. Photo: Wansoon Park
Chae-Pereira Architects: Chan Ucchin Museum, Yangju (2010) Photo: Wansoon Park
  • D·LIM Archteicts came up with an interesting cubic design for the Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Park at the foot of Mt Namsan in Seoul:
D.LIM Architects: Ahn Junggeun Memorial Hall. Photo: Youngchae Park
D·LIM Architects: Ahn Junggeun Memorial Hall, Namsan Park, Seoul (2010). Photo: Youngchae Park
  • JOHO Architecture’s angular steel projects (including a car park which is quite out of the ordinary) and interesting use of brick:
JOHO Architecture: model for Endless Triangle, 2014, on display at The Cass (Photo: LKL)
JOHO Architecture: model for Endless Triangle, 2014, on display at The CASS. Created in collaboration with Sungwon Art Center and Dongkuk Steel (Photo: LKL)
  • And finally the brick theme is picked up by WISE Architecture’s unconventional use of brick in Mapo-gu’s Museum of War and Woman’s Human Rights, and the ABC Building in Gangnam, near Seolleung Royal Tomb:

To a Westerner, brick is perhaps not the building material that springs to mind when thinking of Korean architecture. But in an interesting presentation from WISE Architecture which compared the use of brick in London and Seoul (which followed on from a fascinating walking tour of Brick Lane, a stone’s throw from The CASS) it became apparent that brick was a lot more common than one might think. In particular, the famous Hwaseong fortress in Suwon is built of brick. More recently, brick was used extensively by Kim Swoo-geun (김수근) in his large-scale projects in Daehakro and elsewhere in the 1970s and 80s. But brick was only one of the many materials featured in the exhibition at The CASS, and the exhibition was refreshing in showing a side to Korean creativity that is not often revealed in Europe.

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