Seven Questions for H-Sang Seung

On a trip to Seoul last week, I met an architect who my guides called “the most famous architect in Korea.”

H Sang

Junggokdong Catholic Church in Seoul

From secondhand bookstores to one of the villas at the base of the Great Wall of China, H-Sang Seung’s architecture sits at the intersection of elegant Western modernism and the bustling Asian metropolis.  We sat down over cookies and tea at the Seoul office of his firm Iroje to talk about the current state of Korean architecture, the prospects of his young colleagues and one of his great loves, classical music.

Something you talk a lot about is the “beauty of poverty.”  What do you mean?

I wrote a book called The Beauty of Poverty to explain my design principles. When I was starting my office I needed my own way to work. I had to study about myself and the outside world. Korea has been very influenced by the West because our dictatorships encouraged both Westernization and Industrialization. We had to follow Western models. This made us very advanced people, and it also made us very rich people. But we have to question ourselves, has this made us happy people?

Our cityscapes have become worse in this time of economic development. Commercialization has taken over. I started to go to small villages in the mountains and I found so much wisdom there about architecture. A built memory remained in those areas and helped inform the principles of my architecture: emptiness, function and dysfunction, the city within architecture and architecture within the city.

What do you mean by function and dysfunction?

Of course the way a building functions is very important, but functionality does not always lead to a good way of living. Mankind really isn’t very functional. As humans our feelings and emotions often govern us, not our rational minds. Dysfunction it seems is closer to how we live, so perhaps architecture should follow that. Maybe buildings should be uncomfortable, they should make us move around more than we like.

Has the influence of poverty made you want to build affordably?

Expensive, inexpensive–that all relates to the situation of the client.

Emptiness seems to play a central role in your buildings. Why this love of voids?

In the famous Salk Institute in San Diego, Louis Kahn wanted to put cypress trees in that courtyard, but his friend and collaborator Luis Barragan said, no leave it open in a “façade to the sky.” Later Kahn was upset that he hadn’t thought of it himself.

I’ve seen three of your buildings now—the Welcomm building, the Lock Museum and your own office—and they all make liberal use of Cor-ten steel exteriors.  Why do you like that material so much?

Because it is very cheap and changes according to natural conditions. After five years it has become dark red and is protected by the rust. People don’t need to work to maintain it, and I like for my buildings to reflect the change in time. I call it “containing the memory of the moment.” 

I think I was the first in Korea to use it, but now many others do too. I’ll have to change. I think I’ll use stone.

As one of the country’s most famed architects, who do you see on the horizon of Korean design?

So many young Korean architects are rising. Most are trained in Europe, as I was in Vienna, or the US, but I think there are many good young architects to keep an eye on. There are Moon Kyu Choi and Jong Ho Lee, and Kim Young Joon, who is now teaching in Madrid and used to be on my staff. But hey, I’m still a young architect too.

Which piece of music do you love right now?

I love Mirror in Mirror [Estonian composer] by Arvo Pärt.  It was the background music at a show I did and I can’t get it out of my head.

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