SPACE Magazine
SPACE Magazine
Dense Modernities: Kim Swoo Geun and the Architecture of Commitment

Density as Experience
Kim Swoo Geun is the most famous and the most influential twentieth century architect in Korea. Yet twenty-five years after his death, we still ask the question an editor at Time-Life posed in 1979: “would he ever become ‘internationally known?’ ” Dense Modernities: Kim Swoo Geun raises this question not simply to wonder about an architect’s fame but as an inquiry into knowledge: knowledge not only about the man and his milieu, but an understanding of what architecture was, is, and can be. Though Korea has a rich architectural tradition that spans two thousand years, the modern notion of architecture, initially imported through Japanese colonialism, began to take root only in the latter half of the twentieth century. It is not an exaggeration to say that the career of Kim Swoo Geun coincided not only with the formation of a Korean modern architecture but also with the very creation of a culture of the modern. He designed monuments to nationalism and the Cold War, planned cities for a rebuilding nation, set the stage for a Korean modernism, and created spaces and forms no one had ever seen before.

Kim Swoo Geun was not just an architect but an advocate, connoisseur, and patron of Korean culture. In 1966, he started an arts and architecture journal called Space , which was, at the time, effectively the only architectural magazine in Korea. Closing in on a halfcentury of continuous publication, Space continues to be the most important architectural journal in Korea. In 1977, he opened the Space Theater in the basement of his office building. This small space became a center for avant-garde dance, literary performances, and music. Through sheer devotion, he created watering holes of creativity in the midst of a barren cultural landscape. During the 25 years Kim Swoo Geun was active as an architect in Korea, its state-driven monopolistic economy grew at an average rate of 10%. His career began in a country that was one of the poorest in the world and ended amidst its preparations for the Olympics. It spanned a period of three different dictatorial regimes, and sadly, he never lived to see a Korean democracy take hold. As Korea emerges as an economic and political force in the changing global world, the deep cultural reservoir of this once insulated society comes into open view. Yet the speed and density that have made these waters such a rich and complex source of creativity conspire to make it opaque and unfathomable. So much happened, and with such speed, that thought has not caught up with all that has transpired. When something is “dense,” it is compact, thick, profound, intense, its parts crowded together; but it can also mean that it is dull, hard to penetrate, even stupid. Furthermore, while density can be represented in detached quantities - the number of persons and things within a given area - it is something to be felt; something that can be experienced only when one is in it. I would say that the multiple and contradictory connotations of this one word are exactly suited to describe Korean culture and society in the last half-century. Within this dense modernity, a forceful historical and architectural dynamic begs to be articulated with intellect, discipline, and passion. Dense Modernities: Kim Swoo Geun seeks to mine and unpack the presence of Kim Swoo Geun as a dense amalgam of authority, community, and freedom. In parsing this complex whole, we must be careful about how we dissect it into its pieces and elements. Can one distinguish the elements of this mixture without losing the sense of immersion that the experience of density requires? We must proceed with a keen sense of the observer’s paradox, the recognition that the very systematic tools of our analysis may dilute its intensity and perhaps even take away the experience itself.
Whole and Part
Kim Swoo Geun was born in 1931 in Cheongjin, a port town in the Northern province of Hamgyong-Bukdo. He entered the architecture department of Seoul National University, at the time, one of only two 4-year programs in Korea. Barely three months into his studies, the Korean War errupted. Just 20 years-old, Kim stowed away to Japan to continue his architectural studies. He received his undergraduate degree at the Tokyo Art College, where he came under the tutelage of Yoshimura Junjo, and then went on to receive a Masters degree at Tokyo University. In 1959, as a doctoral student at Tokyo University, Kim and a group of young Korean architects won the competition for the Korean Parliament. A few months later the corrupt Rhee Seung Man regime, which sponsored the Parliament project, was toppled by a people’s uprising. In May 1961, the new democratic government was cut short by a coup d’etat led by general Park Chung Hee. Though the Parliament project fell through, Kim Swoo Geun became a rising star in Park’s new military regime.
As CEO of the Korean Engineering and Consulting Cooperation (KECC), he headed major projects for the newly industrializing nation: urban plans to build a “Korean Manhattan,” a redevelopment project for the old center of Seoul, a master plan for a new international airport, etc. The major built works of this first period, designed in the sculptural style of béton brut, include Hill Top Bar (1961), Freedom Center and Tower Hotel (1963), Buyeo National Museum (1965), and KIST Main Building (1967). The Buyeo Museum became a major turning point in Kim Swoo Geun’s career. In the midst of anti-Japanese sentiment that followed Korea’s reparation settlement with its former colonizer, his design for the Buyeo National Museum was accused of being Japanese. His career survived when most would have been destroyed. Furthermore, Kim Swoo Geun was never comfortable with being the state architect of the rapidly developing nation. Disillusioned by his experience with the KECC and shaken by the Buyeo Museum controversy, Kim broke away from his earlier sculptural monumentalism, opening a new period of work that would define his identity as a modern Korean architect. Moving away from increasingly large state and commercial projects, he veered towards the values of a Korean aesthete. Brick became his main material and the control of scale, in terms of space and ornament, became paramount. Throughout these two decades, his architectural work was immersed in the problem of the whole and its intricate elements. Yoon Seung Jung, his right-hand man throughout the 1960s characterized Kim’s logic of design in the following way: “Architecture is dividing...Dividing means that there is no initial system or space, but that on a site, a form is given, which is divided to satisfy the system.” Kim was indeed a form-giver. His departure was always from what the whole thing looked like. At the same time, he was passionately involved with the way this whole was constructed by its parts. During the sixties, Kim’s elevations were typically formulated as a series of protruding columns or parallel piers. This implied a one-directional plan with an expressive elevation of protrusion and recession, shadow and light.

Freedom Center, undoubtedly inspired by Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, is a prime example of this principle. Although the exterior is similar to Chandigarh’s National Assembly, we should note that Freedom Center is a very shallow building, that its interior space does not extend into the direction of the parallel piers. Unlike Le Corbusier’s Assembly, where the deep interior becomes independent of its facade, the whole space of Freedom Center is structured by the vertical pattern of the piers. The volume of this kind of building is extended and articulated by adding units and smaller parallel partitions. The controversial Buyeo Museum was also a design based on this system. Though the direction of entry runs perpendicular to the large pier structures, the museum’s sculptural expressiveness was in fact secured through the parallel repetition of its sculpted vertical elements.

During the 1970s, despite his move away from his earlier monumentalism, Kim continued to employ the parallel wall system. It was multiplied to profusion in his entry to the Plateau Beaubourg competition and realized in the smallest and most sophisticated manner in the Space Group Building. In the Space Group Building, widely considered Kim Swoo Geun’s masterpiece, the flat textured brick wall came to dominate. In the Cheongju Museum, long walls were placed parallel to each other along a sloping site, bringing order to both the interior and exterior and creating a picturesque landscape. In the context of Kim’s search for authentic Koreanness, the independence of the wall as a textural plane, the possibilities of its repetition and transfiguration, continued to provide opportunities for expression and articulation.

His projects of the late 1970s, most prominently the Yangduk Cathedral and the Kyung Dong Church, are also dominated by the use of textured brick, but on a more monumental scale, and often within irregular spatial patterns. Even in these seemingly irregular forms, the flat parallel walls remain the basic components of the composition. Early sketches of the Yangduk Cathedral show that its irregular shapes and patterns were part of an approach that evolved from the early seventies. In these projects, the parallel walls were bent, slanted, and shifted to control form and space.
↑ Entry to the Plateau Beaubourg competition
Discordance and Commitment
For Kim Swoo Geun, the 1980s became a period of an incomplete search. His sketches show that he was very conscious of post-modernism and the axioms of high-tech architecture. In his many sketches of large monolithic high-rise masses, we sense that Kim is uncomfortable when he does not have the pieces in hand to compose the whole. Upper case throughout his career, Kim struggled to define and correlate the whole and its parts. In tandem with this specific discipline, the most significant entity in his holistic search was the idea of architecture itself. By definition, this is a struggle for identity. It was what simultaneously mired him in controversies over Japonism and what motivated him to seek an authentic Korean architecture. Kim Swoo Geun’s holism was also evident to outside observers. One foreign journalist went so far as to say that “no matter what he does or doesn’t do, he simply cannot escape from being what he amounts to: a microcosm of an exceedingly dynamic people in the throes of their altogether understandable drive forward – and upward.” Even as we agree with this assessment, and despite his fame, we must understand that he was someone who was in constant discordance with his time, place, and community. He was a highly disciplined and refined architect in a society that viewed architecture mostly as a technical attachment to construction. He had seen the world in a time when travel abroad was restricted by authoritarian government.

↑ Kyung Dong Church / Urban plan for Yeouido(left) and Tower Hotel(right)
Furthermore, there was discordance with his international contemporaries. While Kim was very much attuned to international trends, he was working in a totally different set of conditions from Europe, America, and neighboring Japan, which were, by-and-large entering a post-Baby boom era defined by the critique of modernism. Thus, while Kim Swoo Geun was the exact contemporary of Isozaki Arata, the former’s trajectory was more akin to the latter’s mentor Tange Kenzo. Kim was himself very selfconscious of this relative time lag. As he told Isozaki, “in the age of nation building, to be an architect in Korea meant that the state and the people came before the individual.” Kim openly expressed his envy of his Japanese friend, who was “free” to do what he wanted. “Freedom,” Kim stressed, “is the most important thing for man.” As this quote succinctly shows, Kim’s alternative was between the imperative of the people and the freedom of the individual; that is, between two holistic entities.
During the past 25 years, the conditions of Korean architecture have changed. If we no longer accept the notion of Korean authenticity or the free artistic subject as a transcendent given, what does the whole and part of Kim’s architecture mean? Again, to pose this query as an architectural question, if we understand that it is less the figurative whole and more the particular conditions of the project that commits an architectural work to a certain Korean identity, does Kim’s architecture sustain relevance to our contemporary situation? Does losing the identity of the people and the individual mean that we are no longer committed to its parts – parts that are now more fragments? Like the word dense, the notion of being committed contains contradictory denotations. On the one hand, it means being forced into confinement; on the other hand, being committed means a voluntary, ethical engagement. If the authoritarian demands of the former notion of commitment no longer have swaying force, does the latter meaning also dissipate? Though this is not the place to fully discuss the legacy of Kim Swoo Geun, I believe it is in the persistence of commitment that the best architects of Korea continue to work in the legacy of Kim Swoo Geun. It is a commitment, not to a transcendent whole, but to discordant parts that the parsing of Korea’s dense modernity reveals.
↑ The display of 10 original sketches owned by the family
Modernity is an ongoing process. As we witness all over the world, the idea is still very much alive in ways that its earlier Eurocentric versions were unable to imagine. To say that we are now groundless in our creative production is once again to follow a much too narrow idea of history. Kim Swoo Geun’s late and latent modernity, the sense of speed and intensity in his work constitute an open legacy that asks us to reconstruct new relations with the specific elements of present reality. In an age when data mining is the epistemological trend, when algorithms seemingly negate the need for creative and social commitment, the notion of density raises the issue of how the pieces of a compact and complex whole is parsed to create a new kind of reality. Kim Swoo Geun’s dense modernity involves a shifting of time in which local and foreign, known and unknown are intertwined and their divisions de-stabilized. To be in it, yet to be able to think about it, requires a commitment to an evolving community that is vigorously open to the world.
Written by Pai Hyung-min Professor, University of Seoul
no.524 (2011.July) 
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