Han River café, Seoul. The design incorporates a coffee shop into the staircase/elevator that conveys pedestrians to and from the upper and lower levels of Hannam Bridge, which crosses the Han River in central Seoul. Photo: Park Young-chae

Well-heeled visitors to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics seeking the finest accommodation in the province need look no further than the Seamarq Hotel, which has recently welcomed such global A-listers as UN Secretary-General António Guterres. IOC President Thomas Bach and Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

Perched on a low, pine-forested hill overlooking the beachfront in the city of Gangneung the geometric white tower of the hotel, which opened in 2015 in the run-up to the Games, is perfectly sited to bask in the glow of the rising sun.

However, the most exclusive accommodation lies not in the hotel proper, but in an adjacent walled compound that many visitors will pass without even noticing: A discrete, wooded annex contains a cluster of five hanok, or traditional Korean cottages. This secluded bubble of neo-tradition and uber luxury, “where butterflies come to rest,” as the hotel brochure puts it, was created with Olympic VIPs in mind by one of South Korea’s leading architects.

“I was lucky enough to be invited to be part of the project, which was done overall by Richard Meier, the American architect,” Hwang Doo-jin, the 55-year-old head of Doojin Hwang Architects told the Asia Times. “First of all, the location is superb, and secondly you have a combination of this very contemporary main building and the hanok annex.”

Hwang Doo-jin at his home/office in central Seoul. The architect believes in mixed use buildings, and this extends to his residence/commercial space. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

In many ways, the Seamarq’s hanok complex typifies Hwang’s work. He specializes in small and medium, rather than colossal projects; his core interest is design, not size, and he is looking to his native past for design inspiration.

In today’s South Korea, Hwang is on the cutting edge of a new wave of architecture enlivening what used to be some of dreariest, most aesthetically challenged cities in Asia.

Ugly buildings, monotonous cityscapes

As a child, Hwang was “into making just about anything.” Expecting to be an engineer, he entered the School of Architecture and Engineering at the elite Seoul National University. There, he encountered architecture almost by chance.

“I still remember the moment I entered the architecture department and looked at models and drawings on the wall,” he recalls. “Our entire society in the early 1980s did not care for architecture, so I did not pay attention to buildings, but the moment I saw those models and drawings I knew something special was there.” Hwang decided immediately what his calling was. “You can call it an instant decision,” he said. “Instead of me going to architecture, it came to me all of a sudden. And it has stayed with me.”

Hwang at his labors. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Even so, architectural drawings were one thing – architectural academia was another. “The creative aspect of architecture education was obviously there, but was not heavily emphasized,” Hwang said of his coursework. “It was very strongly oriented toward engineering; very research-oriented in the hard sense of the word.”

Academic practice was reflected in national hardware. In a drive for economic efficiencies in the 1960s and 70s, industrializing Korea had bulldozed most of its attractive traditional rural architecture, while urban drift demanded cities that were functional.

“The cities and buildings we inherited from our ancestors were beautiful to look at, but from the contemporary urban point of view, their density was too low: You have to have height and a numbers of floors,” Hwang said, referencing the predominantly single-story traditional buildings of yore. “Cities could not function as contemporary cities, so little buildings were replaced by big buildings and we lost a lot of visual harmony: everything was built quickly and cheaply.”

As a result, 1980s Seoul was a heartless aesthetic desert of concrete coloration and square composition, dominated by endless and identical apartment blocks.

The failure to incorporate heritage or even aesthetics into architecture was depressing. “I started to realize something was missing,” Hwang said. “So, I decided to expose myself to a very demanding environment from the artistic and creative point of view, and decided to go abroad.” He enrolled in advanced architectural studies at Yale.

Hwang was not the only one. After overseas travel and study was liberalized following Korea’s democratization in 1987, hundreds of thousands of Korean were exposed to foreign cities, designs and ideas.

Less is more; mixed-use is in; tradition is to the fore

Fast forward to the 21st century and to a more prosperous and sophisticated Korea. In Seoul, an armada of flagship architectural projects has upgraded the capital’s optics. These include Zaha Hadid’s spaceship-like Dongdaemun Design Plaza (2011); iArc’s “cascading wave” annex to City Hall (2013); Kohn Pederson Fox’s stylish “Samsung Town” corporate HQ complex in Gangnam (2013); and KPF’s Mordor-esque Lotte World Tower (2017).

In the shadow of these colossi, architects like Hwang – who established his own firm in 2000, in an office suite overlooking Gyeongbokgung, the medieval palace around which Seoul rose in 1392 – are reanimating the cityscape at the human level.

“What I am looking at is not the big corporations or private citizens but groups of clients in the middle, with medium-sized capital,” he said. A key factor is size. “I like to design buildings that cater to the very specific scale of an area,” he said. “Scale is probably the first factor I look at.” As a result, Hwang’s projects make less extreme impacts. “To build something you don’t need to eradicate a block, your projects permeate the city fabric.”

Most Asian metropolises are dominated by steel-skeletoned, glass-sheathed towers, lit with blazing neon. Hwang ‘s approach is contrarian. “Seoul is a loud, cacophonous city, so the best way to represent your building is to stay relatively silent,” Hwang said. “Most of my buildings are rather simple from the outside and that is the intention; that, ironically, draws more attention.”

Moreover, Hwang champions buildings that incorporate multiple purposes and that combine private ownership with public spaces.

“I want my buildings to be a community of different spaces within: It may look simple from outside, but as you go in, you have fun exploring it, like a little village,” he said – referencing the building this interview took place. That building is owned by Kim Sang-hun, a former digital CEO who now incubates startups, and was renovated extensively by Hwang. It now incorporates a book club and wine cellar in the basement; a coffee shop on the ground level; Kim’s wife’s legal offices; and the couple’s living quarters up top. “I call it ‘rainbow-cake architecture,’” Hwang said. “Each layer has different colors.”

Hwang – who considers architecture “the highest form of making” – relishes the challenge of complexity. “You not only have to make a good physical object, it has social, aesthetic and sometimes even historical dimensions to it,” he said. “That is why architecture is different to machinery. It is a very complex thing!”

He sees mixed-used buildings and renovation, rather than new structures, the key upcoming trends in urban design. But when it comes to inspiration, Hwang, despite his overseas training, is looking back to the future – and to his own cultural DNA – for inspiration.

“In the old days Koreans had very well defined aesthetics: Low rise, mostly one-story; natural materials; a relation between interior and exterior; and harmony between buildings and nature,” he said. “Nature used to be very dominant in this country – buildings were not really large, so they never competed with nature, now they dominate, they completely block views.”

He is not alone in his thinking. In addition to the focus on design which barely existed in the 1980s, there is currently a soaring national interest in native motifs. “I think we are in the process of redefining and reinvigorating Korean aesthetics,” the architect said.

European restoration versus Asian rebuilding

While this redefined Korean aesthetic is impacting fields from haberdashery to cuisine to interior design, in the architectural space, the heart of the drive is the “neo-hanok” movement.

Since the turn of the millennium, traditional Korean cottages – widely considered old-fashioned, poorly constructed and inconvenient to live in – have made a comeback. Many wealthy individuals now seek hanok as homes or show homes, while entrepreneurs convert hanok into restaurants, bars, cafes and galleries.

However, the movement has drawn criticism – notably from foreign activists who cite European preservation and renovation processes as benchmarks – for failing to renovate old hanok. Instead, the overwhelming preference is to destroy traditional hanok and raise neo-hanok in their place.

This was the process Hwang – one of the central players in the neo-hanok movement nationwide – undertook with the Seamarq’s annex. Even so, he has some sympathy with the critics.

“I respect what people say in terms of showing great respect to what was already there,” he said – but believes critics are comparing European apples to Asian oranges. “If you look at the history of Asian architecture, it was wooden, it was a constant process of rebuilding, and this was part of our tradition,” he said. “We can’t expect wooden buildings to last forever, like Rome.”

Moreover, antique hanok are inappropriate for 21st century Koreans, Hwang opines. “Many of them were not maintained properly, and if you look inside, they leak and the wood is rotten, so what we usually do is we measure the entire house and produce drawings and make slight changes – for example, we jack up the height as Koreans have grown taller.”

The “preserve-and-renovate” versus “destroy-and-rebuild” debate is increasingly Asia-wide. However, Asia’s building materials and processes mean that the region’s structures cannot be “dead,” Hwang insists.

“This process of rebuilding is very familiar to us as Asians; it is part of the Asian way of building in wood,” he said. “We have a tendency to treat our architecture as if it is a living animal: It grows and changes over the course of time.”

Growth and change suggest that traditional Asian architecture has relevance even in the world’s most futuristic, forward-focused region. “During the Olympics, I hope the hanok annex can be used in a very global context, to show the world the way our traditional architecture can be used in the 21st century,” Hwang said.

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