Seoul is considered one of the most densely-populated and over-priced cities in the world, reaching a staggering $ 80,000 per square meter. The extreme conditions of the city have forced local architects to operate, design, and build framing the city's urban issues, traditions, and history. This approach by architects has created the theoretical basis of “The Condition of Seoul Architecture”, a publication by multidisciplinary practice TCA Think Tank which sees the point of view of 18 innovative South Korean architects. In this interview, Pier Alessio Rizzardi, founder of the practice, talked to Hwang Doo-jin of Doojin Hwang Architects, and discussed traditional Korean Architecture, universal space, and his traditional approach for an alternative contemporary architecture.
The “Universal Space” frees us from the burden of finding a solution for specific functions, making it possible to return to the original raison d’être of architecture. Buildings can be machines, but it’s more than that: by becoming free we can emancipate from the burden of functionality...We are looking to the future, but somehow it is linked to our old past. -- Hwang Doo-jin
- Missing Context
Hwang Doo-jin: [...] The last surviving residential buildings in Seoul were built in the late 19th century. What it means is that whatever was here before was all destroyed. That’s remarkable!
Pier Alessio Rizzardi: How do you design in such a context?
HD: We are trapped in between. Different from Europe, there is not much history left. It doesn’t seem that we have an anchor to start with but here is not like Arizona... so we don’t start completely from Tabula Rasa. We are not dealing with history per se, but you’re not handling with untouched nature either. It’s an awkward situation in between. So here we have to be careful if you want to do sensitive architecture. There is something you can completely ignore but there are other things you have to take into consideration. […]
- User Spatial Expectation
PAR: It is the exploration of space that creates an expectation for users. How do you create and give quality to space?
HD: I’m more inclined towards creating an experience rather than forms. Formal aspects of architectural design are always interesting, but I’m more interested in creating a situation in which a different experience can take place. For example, we have a reputation that no matter what buildings we design they all end up being party houses. [Laughs] […] Visual penetration is something we’d like to achieve. I’m a firm believer in the Piranesian space; I think it’s a wonderful thing. You can feel something larger than space you physically occupy, creating a sense of connectedness and the sense of contrast between different scales of space.... The concept of the Piranesian space is of course western. Piranesi was Italian, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that historically we don’t have the conception here. Indeed, we do and when I found that out, I felt it was interesting and compelling and then I fell in love with the idea of working with traditional Korean buildings.
[…] I don’t know how much you know but I have a reputation in Korea of being a typical contemporary architect who has continuously been engaged in designing new traditional Hanoks. One thing I’ve learned from the process of working on traditional Korean buildings is that the main point is not just about a physical building but the principle behind it. Hanok is a wonderful example of Asian Piranesian space. We have a lot of visual penetrations and also we have a great juxtaposition of many types of geometry. When we build the corner of the roof the rafters radiate like a fan and from the carpenter’s point of view, it is extremely difficult to make each piece. For whatever reason, our ancestors adopted the system and continue to use it even for ordinary houses.
- Old Hanoks, New Hanoks
PAR: It’s rare. Even other Asian architects I interviewed over the years never built a traditional house from scratch... At most, they added a few new things.
HD: [...] This idea is more like an experimental thing. I always wonder why we should cover the roof of Hanoks with clay tiles? Why couldn’t it be done with glass? What the structure can do is to give you a great sense of light and shadow. This is my response to Mies van der Rohe’s glass skyscraper in 1922. The building looks the best when there is just the skeleton but, when you start to clad it, it loses its beauty. Why do we do the same thing with our traditional architecture? This was an engineering nightmare because no one had done it before!
PAR: Did you receive any critics?
HD: A lot of critics! I usually answer with a kind of provocation... My Hanok practice should be divided into two different groups: one is the process which I call “creative restoration”, and the second one is when you create something completely new. Yet another possibility is to get inspiration from Hanok and apply the principles to contemporary buildings. Everybody in a certain way does that... not just in Korea but also in Japan, in Europe and America, the tradition sometimes plays a deep role. Mostly the provocation comes for the second group of work. My response is that in every civilized country traditional buildings do not die but they keep evolving. For some reason in this country that historical evolution took place for an incredibly short period of time. I think somebody has to do it, so it’s just a matter of responding to the demand of the society. People continue to live in those houses and you cannot just leave those people with whatever shitty buildings they own. So it’s imperative that we should upgrade the system of the building. It should be livable from the 21st-century lifestyle perspective. This is beyond discussion; it has to be done! Somebody has to do it and I’ve been doing it. With the third group, creating something different and new with the traditional system, I pushed the wooden framework further. In this way, I could create much slenderer and much lighter structures than the very typical Korean traditional roof. As a contemporary architect, I like the proportion of the very slender steel pieces and glass buildings but when I look at Hanoks everything looks extremely heavy. From the structural point of view, it’s over-designed. What I wanted to do is to come up with something lighter. This can be done for instance, by creating a sandwich beam with metal plates in the middle and wood pieces on both sides. At the same time, the wood pieces would work as a fire insulation. If you study the proportion, it’s something unheard-of. Some people might not be happy with things like that. But you know, we need to experiment.
- Beyond Program
PAR: It’s interesting to see how so far you haven’t explained your architecture through the program.
HD: Because function... as I practice architecture more, I realized I have become less and less dependent on this fixed concept of functions. I expect eventually architecture, I don’t know especially when, to become something like a chameleon. The function and the program of the building will keep changing as time passes by. A café in the morning can be a classroom in the afternoon and it can be home at night. All these wonderful technological advancements in the world and all the gadgets, utensils and the appliances we use, they are getting smaller and smaller and sometimes they are invisible. They occupy little space and they don’t have a formalistic impact on the building we design. It’s the demise of Modernism. Functionalism we have been doing for a long time is a fading thing because the formalistic aspect of the modern architecture was a direct response to the Machine Age. At the time all these machines were crude, so they required a specific formalistic approach to make them work.
[…] If Mies came back, he would find everything much more relevant now. I’m sure because in his time it was not possible to completely solve the problem of sound, thermal and waterproofing but we know it is possible now. Now we have unidirectional microphones and speakers and everything that instantly changes a place from the classroom into something else. In Mies’ time, the concept was there, it is amazing that he came up with the concept, but technically the society in the 1950s and 60s was not advanced enough...
PAR: How would you be designing the Mies’ “Universal Space”, with the present situation, technologies and taking into account 80 years’ critics?
HD: The “Universal Space”, actually it will free us from the burden of coming up with a solution for specific functions of the room and it makes it even possible for us to go back to the original raison d’être of a building. Why do we build? I guess we build because the building is the mediator between us, human beings, and nature. So buildings can be a machine, but it’s more than that. So, by becoming freer, and liberated from the burden of functionality, we can focus more on the space, the physicality of the architecture, the sensory aspect of space and structure. That pushes us back to where we were a long time ago, even in the prehistoric time. This is challenging and exciting. We are looking at the future but somehow the future is related to our old past.