written by:
photos by:
May 25, 2010
Originally published in Megacities

When Seoul architect Byoung-soo Cho set out to design his urban dream house, he turned to the city’s architectural history for inspiration. The result—–four overlapping boxes arranged around a courtyard—–is a peaceful enclave in the midst of the nonstop metropolis.

Four Box House perches on a rugged mountain-side in northern Seoul’s Pyeongchandong district, making for spectacular views.
Four Box House perches on a rugged mountain-side in northern Seoul’s Pyeongchandong district, making for spectacular views.
Photo by 
1 / 13
Architect Byoung-soo Cho and his wife, Eunsil Kim, value the privacy, and style, that a concrete wall and recycled Indonesian teak facade provide.
Architect Byoung-soo Cho and his wife, Eunsil Kim, value the privacy, and style, that a concrete wall and recycled Indonesian teak facade provide.
Photo by 
2 / 13
Light from windows on all four sides spills over the dining room’s custom-made teak table.
Light from windows on all four sides spills over the dining room’s custom-made teak table.
Photo by 
3 / 13
The courtyard offers a glimpse of nature from nearly every angle, including up.
The courtyard offers a glimpse of nature from nearly every angle, including up.
Photo by 
4 / 13
The central courtyard helps cool the house.
The central courtyard helps cool the house.
Photo by 
5 / 13
A view of the dining room from the courtyard.
A view of the dining room from the courtyard.
Photo by 
6 / 13
A single crepe myrtle, which sports red blossoms in summer, defines the courtyard.
A single crepe myrtle, which sports red blossoms in summer, defines the courtyard.
Photo by 
7 / 13
Cho relaxes in the first-floor living room, where paintings by up-and-coming Germany-based Chinese artist Ruo Bing Chen play off a sofa and coffee table designed by the architect himself.
Cho relaxes in the first-floor living room, where paintings by up-and-coming Germany-based Chinese artist Ruo Bing Chen play off a sofa and coffee table designed by the architect himself.
Photo by 
8 / 13
Arco’s Jolly Jubilee chairs, designed by Ineke Hans, give the downstairs living room a shot of color.
Arco’s Jolly Jubilee chairs, designed by Ineke Hans, give the downstairs living room a shot of color.
Photo by 
9 / 13
Textured concrete walls are a signature of Cho’s work.
Textured concrete walls are a signature of Cho’s work.
Photo by 
10 / 13
Strategically placed wooden windows like this one is an expression of Cho's style.
Strategically placed wooden windows like this one is an expression of Cho's style.
Photo by 
11 / 13
Light is a key element of the home’s design. Photography lights from a local manufacturer keep the basement studio bright.
Light is a key element of the home’s design. Photography lights from a local manufacturer keep the basement studio bright.
Photo by 
12 / 13
Paper-covered walls in the tea room on the second floor soak up a softer incarnation of the sun’s rays.
Paper-covered walls in the tea room on the second floor soak up a softer incarnation of the sun’s rays.
Photo by 
13 / 13
Four Box House perches on a rugged mountain-side in northern Seoul’s Pyeongchandong district, making for spectacular views.
Four Box House perches on a rugged mountain-side in northern Seoul’s Pyeongchandong district, making for spectacular views.
Project 
Four Box House
Architect 

Stepping out of a frigid January afternoon in northern Seoul, South Korea, and into the warmth of his 18-month-old wood-and-concrete home, Byoung-soo Cho grins.

“There’s snow in my living room!” he says gleefully.

Of course, the leafless tree and haphazard pile of snow that Cho is gesturing at are not literally in his living room; they are in a square, glassed-in courtyard that merges inside and out so seamlessly that it induces periodic fits of disorientation in visitors and residents alike. That simple open-air space, says Cho, was the key to designing a comfortable, elegant home in one of the world’s most hectic megacities.

“There is always space between interior and exterior in my work,” says the successful 52-year-old architect. “If you look at traditional Korean residences, they always have a courtyard. It works for climate and culture: Korea is hot and humid in the summer, so buildings wrapped around the courtyard have better air circulation. It’s also a social space to eat and gather.”

The central courtyard helps cool the house.
The central courtyard helps cool the house.

The Seoul native grew up in just such a traditional house and fondly remembers its chaotic courtyard filled with family and dogs. But when he and his wife, Eunsil Kim, bought a hillside lot in the recently developed neighborhood of Pyeongchangdong and began planning their future home, centering it around a similar space didn’t occur to him.

“We purchased the land in 2002 and started talking about the design whenever Byoung-soo had time,” says Kim, 46.

Back then Cho was flying frenetically between his acclaimed private practice in Seoul and teaching jobs at Montana State University and Harvard. (He has since resigned from both positions to focus on the firm.) When he finally was able to devote himself to the project, it proved unexpectedly challenging. “For six months I tried different schemes. Nothing worked, and I realized the constraints were stronger than I had thought,” he recalls.

Those constraints are typical of Seoul, where nearly a quarter of South Korea’s population lives in tightly packed apartment complexes, older brick buildings, and a scattering of single-family homes. Pyeongchangdong is an attractive residential district spread over the rugged mountains north of downtown—a plus for Cho and Kim, who both love to hike. However, houses within 20 feet on three sides of the lot blocked sunlight and views.

Then Cho hit on the idea of arranging four two-story, rectangular concrete boxes around a central courtyard. The layout resembles a top-down view of a cardboard box with all the flaps open. Because the sides of the boxes overlap only partially, the house has indented corners, which means each box can have windows on all four sides. The result is a house that—far from feeling oppressed by urban clutter—is flooded with sunlight and fresh air throughout the day. Strategically placed wood-framed windows capture light and views without revealing nearby houses: A long, low window in the second-floor master bedroom frames a slice of courtyard; a light well illuminates artwork on a living room wall that otherwise receives little direct sunlight; and sheer sheets of glass in the dining room and tea room give sweeping views of crooked red pines, temples, and adjacent modern residences.

A view of the dining room from the courtyard.
A view of the dining room from the courtyard.

For parties, Kim opens the glass doors on all sides of the courtyard to create a continuous living-dining-kitchen space open to the sky. Even the basement, which is located beneath the courtyard and houses Cho’s studio, is bathed in sunshine from south-facing windows. But if air and light were constant considerations in designing the 4,600-square-foot home, construction materials and methods were equally important.

“We spend a lot of time figuring out how to make buildings work in terms of physical construction, not just abstract ideas,” says Cho, who rarely attempts to disguise the raw materials of his craft. (“Wood is wood, concrete is concrete, and night is night” is how one of his employees puts it.) That’s not to say aesthetics get slighted: With a background in ceramics and sculpture, Cho has a knack for turning the constraints presented by a rough palette into artistic inspiration.

The house’s exterior is a case in point. The underlying structure is concrete (the most common construction material in timber-scarce Korea) strengthened by steel wires, but Cho and Kim wanted to add a teak facade to portions of the outer walls. The recycled Indonesian boards they purchased were just a meter in length or shorter, however, so Cho cut them into even smaller, irregular lengths and attached them vertically to the con-crete. Separated by strips of zinc and accented by a pair of snow-dappled pine trees, the asymmetric panels become a two-story-tall abstract painting.

Inside, contrasting slabs of wood, concrete, and glass form their own boxy abstractions. Some walls are covered in fine white paper, while others are raw concrete, marked with the imprint of the wood formwork used to pour them and the irregular drips where concrete oozed through during the process. A radiant heating system (typical of both traditional and modern Korean homes) warms the silky wood floors, and shiny floor-to-ceiling cabinets from Italy keep the rooms uncluttered and sleekly modern.

Light is a key element of the home’s design. Photography lights from a local manufacturer keep the basement studio bright.
Light is a key element of the home’s design. Photography lights from a local manufacturer keep the basement studio bright.

There’s one room in the house that’s neither sleek nor particularly modern, however, and that’s the room Cho and Kim head for as soon as they shed their jackets on that snowy afternoon in January. It’s just a small box on the second floor, constructed of glass, wood, and white paper walls that glow with winter light, but somehow it seems to distill the spirit of the entire house. Each morning before Cho drives to his busy downtown office, he stands in the tea room and greets the sun with 108 bows. Now, as he and Kim perch on purple silk cushions and sip steaming cups of barley tea, it’s hard to remember they are in the middle of a sprawling megalopolis. High above the pines and blissfully removed from the sea of roofs below, they seem, instead, to have joined the world of the two black-and-white Korean magpies that glide silently past on the other side of the glass.
 

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016
lamp show 99 cent plus gallery 0
At Brooklyn's 99¢ Plus gallery, 30 artists and designers re-imagine the lamp in an illuminating light show.
February 04, 2016
Hidden storage stairwell with raw brass hardware
Having ample space to stow items is a daily struggle—peep these modern homes for some ideas on maximizing your square footage.
February 04, 2016
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus living room Patricia Urquiola sofa
Whether it's along a coast in Australia or the French Alps, wood provides a natural touch in these interiors.
February 04, 2016
Glass and steel sculpture in Printemps store of Paris.
In the Paris' venerable Printemps department store, two Toronto-based firms were tasked with enlivening a new atrium and creating a unique experience for visitors. YabuPushelberg, partnering with UUfie, designed this stunning steel "sail" embedded with vibrant dichroic glass.
February 04, 2016
Monochromatic Master Bedroom in Copenhagen Townhouse
Whether it's to maximize limited light or create a soothing interior, these five projects go white in a big way.
February 04, 2016
EQ3 Assembly quilt by Kenneth LaVallee
The new Assembly collection from EQ3 celebrates up-and-coming figures in Canadian design. Discover this newly appointed class, which debuted at Toronto's Interior Design Show, here.
February 03, 2016
The Greenhouses of Half Moon Bay
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 03, 2016
Deck of Australian addition to Edwardian home.
A 1,500-square-foot home in Melbourne welcomes a modern black and white kitchen, dining, and living area.
February 03, 2016
open plan concrete home in japan
Embracing the organic, imperfect material, these raw concrete surfaces are a step up from exposed brick.
February 03, 2016
Renovated DC Row House loft space with Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair.
The classic designer's signature and comfortable forms continue to be popular in homes today.
February 03, 2016
Zinc-roofed cabin France.
An architect builds an energy-efficient home near one of France’s most popular pilgrimage sites.
February 03, 2016
1973 Palm Springs home
Made for casual design enthusiasts and Palm Springs connoisseurs alike, Unseen Midcentury Desert Modern offers a peek into 51 buildings—some not open to the public—in that Southern California mecca of modernism. Begun in 2008 by photographer Dan Chavkin, the book is set for release this February 9th and will be available on Amazon and at multiple venues of Modernism Week in Palm Springs, February 11 - 21. Here we preview some of its images.
February 03, 2016
Millennial concept home with an outdoor living area
A concept home aims to reflect the requests of the Millennial market.
February 03, 2016
The two twelve-by-sixteen-foot bedrooms, directly above a comparable pair on the first floor, feature a glass transom that follows the pitch of the roof. “The stair and railings were very simple,” Depardon observes. “We added a bit of design, with panels
Skylights needn't be simple overhead daylighting; sometimes they can truly define a room.
February 03, 2016
Modern small space Rhode Island cottage with landscaping and cedar cladding
Surrounded by nature, these cottages are tranquil retreats from the city.
February 03, 2016
The couple kept original touches, including the arch.
Historic archways belie these contemporary homes with physical reminders of each structure's storied past.
February 03, 2016
modern guesthouse in norway with angular facade and cutaway patio with spruce cladding and ikea chair
These houses make room for nature, not the other way around.
February 02, 2016
Modern kitchen with yellow sectioned walls and monochrome appliances
Whether it's a splash of color or bold strokes, this collection of interiors brightens up these homes.
February 02, 2016
Rust-washed concrete wall in Moscow apartment renovation.
This 590-square-foot apartment was stripped down to admit sunlight and dramatically reveal forgotten surfaces.
February 02, 2016
Nendo's collection of objects inspired by Star Wars
In a galaxy not so far away, Japanese studio Nendo has released a versatile collection of objects inspired by classic Star Wars characters.
February 02, 2016
Monti catered to his mother’s love of cooking by giving her ample storage areas along the 70-foot long walnut wall-slash-cabinet. The refrigerator, kitchen items and other goods easily disappear into the wall when not in use. The nonporous, stain-, scratc
Sometimes the earthy colors and vivid grain of a wood like walnut is all you need to make a space.
February 02, 2016
renovated modern home in Austin interior kitchen
From California to Connecticut, these midcentury interiors still shine through thanks to the careful attention of architects and residents alike.
February 02, 2016
Outdoor dining area at a Saigon home.
A city home honors the local culture with communal outdoor space and reclaimed materials.
February 02, 2016