Behind the enigma of the father of Korean architecture was an edifice of a modern architect who practised what he preached
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Kim Swoo Geun collected watches as he collected people; some of his acquisitions would increase in value while others gathered dust, not out of neglect but from vying for the scattered attention of an architect who was as discerning as he was generous in his choice of company. Indeed, Kim did not squander an opportunity to hedge his bets on any recent acquaintance out of fear of overlooking an invaluable connection. If sustaining a motley crew of companions at work and play requires tact and, often, a leap of faith, this proved little trouble to the debonair architect who managed to cast his social net far and wide. Lasting impressions were made through his peculiar habit of buying a watch on his travels abroad, carefully selected and purchased as a gift for a longtime – or soon-to-be – friend back home.
During his lifetime, Kim accumulated more timepieces than he could possibly give away. What remains of the impressive collection now resides with his nephew, Park Kitai, in a house Kim designed for his elder sister and his brother-in-law, the late painter Park Ko-suk. Tucked away in the alleyways behind Seoul’s perennially hip neighbourhood Daehak-ro, its timber skin and red-brick facade conceals a basement level, accessible by a tight spiral staircase barely wide enough for one (small-framed) person. Conversation pieces by unmistakably Chinese contemporary artists hang casually in the corner, while others lie temporarily propped in the abyss-like space that is easily confused with tastefully organised storage. It is in this sunken chamber that Park regales his uncle’s network of colleagues and acolytes with anecdotes about Korea’s most publicised architect, whose reputation has not yet fully matured in the Anglophone world.
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Among his pupils – around 650 in total – Kim inculcated poetic sensibilities in the sceptics and practical sense in the romantics. At one end of the spectrum, Kim Won, who directed his Korean Pavilion at two expos in Montreal (1967) and Osaka (1970), chided architecture’s theoretical indulgences. By contrast, Kim Swoo Geun’s most celebrated protégé, Seung H-Sang, has become known for invoking an aesthetic sensibility to which he first ascribed the phrase ‘beauty of poverty’ at an exhibition in the 1990s. The phrase later became the title of a book and quickly became a household talking point, helping to recast modern architecture in the Korean imagination, which had viewed the discipline, at best, as a service industry peppered with a little flair. The task of democratising architecture’s philosophical pursuits had its proper beginning with Seung, to whom Kim’s intellectual genealogy is best traced.
Kim’s seemingly pedigreed life was as kaleidoscopic as the acquaintances he stockpiled throughout his career – some by happenstance, others through choice – from the French photographer Laurent Barberon who visited South Korea on a taekwondo training trip in the mid-1970s, to the founding president of Samsung, Lee Byung-chul. Kim’s penchant for amassing watches – with accompanying price tags as varied as their models – was consistent with the wide spectrum of people he mobilised and the geographies he traversed. In 1975, he spent nearly half the year, some 175 days, outside the country – a privileged sojourn for even the most affluent denizen of the Korean peninsula.
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Until the 1980s, passports were not freely issued in South Korea; international tourism was controlled and limited. Against the grain of post-war nationalism, when outside exposure was an opportunity reserved for the privileged few, openness to the world, its ideas, and people was paramount to Kim and his practice. From his frequent visits to Japan and the farther journeys to the Middle East, Kim was engulfed by a sense of wanderlust. He shared his curiosity for parts unknown by organising overseas tours for his firm’s publishing arm and the architects in his atelier. The Korean version of an architectural ‘Grand Tour’ was a dream reserved for select members of the Korean Institute of Architects, who began to travel internationally in 1970, the year the institute inaugurated the cover of its new journal, Contemporary Architecture, with an emblem of European classicism, the Parthenon. From his rejected competition entry for the Pompidou Centre to the Iranian housing project that was compromised in the wake of the global oil crisis, Kim proselytised Korean architecture’s globalising mission.
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By the time of his death in 1986, Kim had accrued a social cachet and cultural capital that far outweighed his financial assets. It did not entirely come as a surprise that his firm, which had survived his premature death, filed for bankruptcy in 2013 – Kim was known for dishing out more than he had in reserve. In the economically charged climate of the 1970s, when the artistic avant-garde was limited financially and controlled politically, Kim willingly ‘lent’ money (reportedly as much as US$1,000, without any expectation of it being repaid), to dancers, performers and muses who sought out an alternative to the national theatre and the types of patronage it stood for.
More than an ideologue emboldened by a cultural overhaul, Kim hustled to concretise his visions about Korean society writ large – all with architecture at the core. A few years after constructing his Seoul architecture office, Space Group, in 1971, he established a small theatre known as Konggan Sarang in its basement. A reference to the origins of the Korean term, sarangbang, the urban theatre paid homage to a room in a traditional Korean house reserved for its Confucian literati, his space of internal contemplation and erudition which was, on occasion, opened up to select guests. More than paying lip service to Korean customs, however, Kim’s version of the guest room spawned a new kind of modern hospitality – an alternative (and often only) venue made available for Korea’s growing yet dampened crew of avant-garde performers, including the pioneer of contemporary dance, Hong Shin-ja, who had trouble showcasing her work in mainstream circles. These subterranean performances in Kim’s atelier were photographed and cataloged in his eponymous magazine Space. Before anyone else in Korea, the cultural doyen clearly understood the role of media in promoting architecture.
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In a period when artistic disciplines were confronted with making the English word ‘design’ relevant to a Korean audience and couched its corresponding practices in ambiguous overtones, Kim embraced its eclectic definitions, if only to fine-tune its architectural relevance. Coinciding with the inception of Space, he introduced his design for an ‘A’ Lamp in the magazine’s earliest 1966 issue. Advertised under his ‘A’ Production Company, the modern and functional item seemed perfectly suited for an architect’s drawing table. At a time when such a high-grade industrial task lamp could not be manufactured in Korea, he incorporated commercial enterprises into his oeuvre, flaunting the architectural possibility of substituting foreign imports.
Contributions aside, Kim’s own reputation was not without controversy. His design of Buyeo National Museum made national headlines in the mid-1960s. For his accusers, who ranged from fellow architects to reporters, Kim’s design harboured a colonial reference in form, an explicit nod to a Japanese Shinto shrine. Architecture had made its first full-scale public appearance in post-war Korea for all the wrong reasons.
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If Kim was not liberated from colonial resentment in his work, he was free to be pro-Japanese in his choice of women – he was married to Michiko Do-Ja Kim (née Yajima), a fellow student whom he met while studying at Tokyo University of the Arts. He explained and complicated the burden of the anti-colonial sentiment in his correspondence with the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. Kim opined that nationalism and internationalism were viable in the Korean mind, but an Asian consciousness was problematic so long as Japan’s militarism lurked in the shadows. His rejoinder to his Japanese contemporary was a reminder to be vigilant of one’s friends and foes in closest proximity.
It is not surprising that Kim maintained an uneasy relationship with Korean aesthetics and ideas about tradition. He sought out a confluence of patrimony and progress, searching for a national aesthetic without a traditional blueprint. His refrain, ‘the better the street the narrower the better, the worse the street the wider the better’, best summed up this conundrum, becoming the title of his compilation of writings published in 1989. The somewhat tautological turn of phrase harkened to the narrow and windy alleyways characteristic of Korean neighbourhoods. Kim’s nostalgia for the pre-technological and pre-automobile days observed urban conditions rather than prescribing wholesale solutions. Reflection first, design later. Architecture could strive to resolve the nation’s problems (and be its potential victim) but could never be its full panacea.
Yet he seemed to have fallen victim to his own criticism with his infamous urban project, Sewoon Sangga, Korea’s first mixed-use housing and commercial complex. Stretching 1km over the city of Seoul, the concrete labyrinth was completed in the years when the term ‘megastructure’ was in vogue – a few years after Fumihiko Maki’s reference in his 1964 volume, Investigations in Collective Form, and almost a decade prior to Reyner Banham’s appropriation for his namesake publication. Since its construction in 1967, the Korean rendition has lapsed into an urban ruin, an image of decay aided further by its unsavoury commercial activities (sales of porn videos and pirated goods were rampant). Kim’s monolith had endured the sad imprint of a mega vision coming face to face with reality. Of a smaller scale yet equally civic in ambition, Korea’s first major scientific institute, the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, opened its doors for research as Sewoon Sangga began operation, this time with Jenga-like modules of concrete and glass housing, connoting a more palatable kind of innovation.
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By the early 1980s, Kim altered course from the cruder language of exposed concrete that marked his civic and institutional projects. His focus turned to a more subdued and layered articulation of space, a move commensurate with the new arrangement of materials that elevated the ordinary into a profound visual and tactile experience. The charcoal-coloured brick that mimicked jeondol – fired clay blocks of ancient origins known almost exclusively for palatial uses and ritualistic applications – formed his raised braille-like facades, which are reserved yet wholly intricate to command ornamental status.
Particularly telling of this later phase are his trio of concrete churches, one Presbyterian and two Catholic. Splintered surfaces fold into pleated volumes in these ecclesiastical examples, each engulfing a cavernous interior in which the depth of its acoustics would seem to reach as far as the spirit of its congregation. He cloaked the sacred masses in finer units of brick, a masonry shell that became emblematic of his domestic-scale works. Whether the object of worship was scientific knowledge or religious conviction, Kim demonstrated an extraordinary talent for evoking the visceral from the rational and the sacred from the secular.
If post-war Korean architecture lacked an avant-garde architect gilded with a utopian vision or manifesto worthy enough for international translation, Kim was the closest one could vouch for. His tenure in Korea had begun with a political commission, his 1960 winning competition entry for South Korea’s first National Assembly Building planned for Namsan Hill. A year later, what launched his career and prompted his return from Tokyo fell sideways in the aftermath of the 16 May coup that propelled President Park Chung-hee into power.
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The assignment that closely followed was a bar atop Walker Hill, an inverted pyramid structure in exposed concrete, forged into the letter ‘W’ after General Walton Walker. As if the architectural billboard was insufficient, the buildings in the entertainment vicinity were to be named after MacArthur, Ridgway, Taylor and other illustrious generals – a bittersweet tribute to the yesteryear of American intervention in the Korean War. Understandably so: for the recently repatriated architect, it was difficult to see architecture for what it was – removed from the political heavy-handedness that seemed to choreograph its every move.
Neither entirely technical nor dogmatically corporate, Kim saw it was necessary that architecture become transactional, precisely to withstand the flows and forces of capital and the politics driving it. When North American architectural discourse was engrossed with architecture’s critical calling, the American critics might have found an ally across the Pacific. As Kim often recited, an architect was not a specialist but a generalist who should endlessly curate his circle of clients and followers with acumen. Behind Kim’s enigma was an edifice of a modern architect who practised what he preached, both on and off paper. As video artist Nam June Paik, featured in a 1986 issue of Space, once explained, if a typical person failed to complete one man’s share of work in his seven decades of life, Kim Swoo Geun compensated by completing the task of four during his 50-odd years.
This piece is featured in the AR’s February 2018 issue on Korea – click here to purchase a copy