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February 2018 on Korea

Kim Swoo Geun | David Chipperfield Architects | CoRe Architects | STPMJ | Kim Jong Kyu | Mass Studies | Iroje | Byoungsoo Cho | Sewoon Sangga | Paju Book City | Typology: Bathhouse

The global gaze has been trained on the two Koreas in recent months with reports of strained political relationships, escalating tensions and American interventions. This is the latest instalment in a dramatic history stretching back hundreds of years, characterised by dynastic rule, Japanese colonisation, civil war, dictatorship and division. This month’s issue hopes to look beyond the headlines, uncovering the two countries’ architectural narratives and how they have evolved and responded to continuously shifting political and economic conditions.

In his keynote, Hyungmin Pai focuses on South Korea’s tumultuous history and how its architecture has been impacted by a state of perpetual crisis, introducing the Korean architects who have helped shape the country’s architectural landscape. Of these, the ‘father of Korean architecture’, Kim Swoo Geun, is featured in this month’s Reputations, and the recent renovation of his extraordinary Sewoon Sangga project re-establishes the megastructure as a vibrant ‘city within a city’.

Two stars of the next two generations of Korean architects, Iroje and Mass Studies, are both showcased at the campus of Daejeon University in central South Korea; while Paju Book City, just north of the capital, has become a surreal ‘book shelf’ of the work of contemporary Korean architects alongside Álvaro Siza and Florian Beigel. A long-time collaborator with both Siza and Beigel, Kim Jong Kyu’s tranquil Hansen Memorial Museum remembers a former leper refuge in an assemblage of contemplative courtyards and galleries.

The cover image, from a drawing by visionary architect Moon Hoon, depicts traditional vernacular Korean architecture as an island, adrift from the mainland of complex high-technology. South Korean architect Byoungsoo Cho describes how deliberate imperfection and poignant emptiness – or mak and bium – are inherent in traditional Korean architecture, and although they may still characterise the Korean way of life, these qualities have largely been lost in contemporary architecture. Korea has also historically been subject to foreign influence, and Alfred Hwangbo explores the pockets of Victorian England hidden in plain sight in Seoul, while David Chipperfield’s new headquarters for Amorepacific is a more recent example of Western imports in South Korea’s capital.

The relationship between North and South Korea is fragile and volatile, but in the north of Seoul, in North Korea’s firing line, an optimistic vision of peace is embodied in CoRe Architects’ conversion of a military bunker into an arts centre. In the Demilitarised Zone or DMZ – the buffer zone between the two – Oliver Wainwright compares the tasteless theatrics of the South Korean and American approach to the border, to the sombre, plaintive story told from the northern side, while in his double book review, Owen Hatherley looks beyond nuclear threat and dictatorship to find a deeper understanding of the urbanism and way of life of North Korea.

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