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STPMJ: ‘In Korea, architecture was not seen as a profession that synthesises cultural, social and environmental aspects’

04.the masonry south at dusk song yousub

With one foot in South Korea and the other in New York, the work of Seung Teak Lee and Mi Jung Lim is a hybridisation of East and West

On the face of it, the prospect of two young Korean architects working in Seoul and New York ticks all the tediously clichéd boxes of ‘East meets West’. Yet impelled by geographical and cultural fluidity, such cross-fertilisations can be compelling. Born in Korea but educated in the US, STPMJ is the personal and professional partnership of Seung Teak Lee and Mi Jung Lim who met while studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The firm’s acronym is formed from the first initials of the two partners’ names connected by a ‘p’ for ‘plus’. It also stands for their five core values: speculative, trailblazing, playful, materialised and judicious.

01.shear house south west song yousub

01.shear house south west song yousub

Shear House, Yecheon, 2016. Photograph by Song Yousub

Describing their architecture as ‘provocative realism’, a methodology for ‘dramatically exploiting the limitations of reality’, Lee and Lim also mine, consciously, or more often unconsciously, a hybridisation of American and Korean cultures. Certain geometries and forms might be seen as allusions to Korean traditions, but are also more pragmatic responses to function and budget. For example, the deep eaves of their Shear House, which they cite as their favourite project, might be read as ‘Korean’, but also, more pertinently, arose from a consideration of the site’s environmental aspects. 

‘We like to keep our architecture simple’, says Lee. ‘And we are perpetually curious. Through experiment and research, we always try to make a single strong statement, be it a formal gesture, use of materials, environmental function, reinterpretation of context or economy. This gives our projects a certain boldness.’

06.chail in the house arumjigi

06.chail in the house arumjigi

Korean chail (sunshade) reinterpreted at the Chail Renaissance, Arumjigi Foundation, Seoul, 2017. Photograph courtesy of the Arumjigi Foundation

Shear House, a family home in Yecheon completed in 2016, rewards exploration. An apparently monolithic volume beautifully and precisely clad in timber (shades of laconic Swiss masters), it unfolds to reveal a beguiling complexity and sophistication. As you move through it, the internal geometry becomes progressively and intriguingly fragmented to frame views, define functions and admit light. 

In the way of many emerging practices, the domestic milieu is appropriated as a testing ground for ideas and experimentation. Stratum House (2017) features boldly striated concrete walls resembling geological layers formed over eons. The effect of irregular strata was produced by varying the ratio of water to cement, the types of aggregates, and the amount of pigment in each pour. Chail Renaissance (2017) reinterprets an old Korean sunshade, or chail, attached to a recently built traditional house that serves as an exhibition and conference space for a non-profit foundation. 

02.stratum house pocket terrace song yousub

02.stratum house pocket terrace song yousub

Stratum House, Icheon-si, 2017. Photograph by Song Yousub

As well as houses, the practice revels in pungent installations and art pieces spread across disparate locales. An early project for a warming hut in sub-zero Winnipeg was inventively composed of inflatable tubing, like an architectural Michelin Man, while on tropical Jeju Island, Lee and Lim erected a freestanding barrel vault made of rock-salt bricks. In the hot, humid climate, the rock salt slowly dissolved, leaving an arching framework of cement mortar as a kind of delicate modern ruin. 

Dividing their time between Seoul and Brooklyn has tested their resilience but also cultivated an awareness of how to operate in different arenas. ‘In Korea, for many years, architecture was not seen as a profession that synthesises cultural, social and environmental aspects’, says Lim. ‘Apart from a handful of nationally known figures, architects were just people who built buildings. However, recognition of architecture and the role of the architect has slowly changed. People have begun to understand that architects create space and the culture within it, and that has value and a resonance.’

07.dissolving arch another dialogue amorepacific

07.dissolving arch another dialogue amorepacific

Dissolving Arch for Amorepacific, Jeju Island. Photograph courtesy of the Amorepacific Museum of Art