Agricultural buildings aren't really designed, someone just made them. I try to design like that—so it looks like it's not designed at all, it's just there."
Overnight, winter’s first snowfall coated Montana’s Gallatin Valley in a white sheath, and chunky flakes continue to fall as architect Byoung Cho traverses Interstate 90 from Three Forks to Bozeman. As happens each year, drivers accustomed to fairer conditions have forgotten how to navigate the snow-covered roads; stranded cars line the highway’s shoulders and the flashing lights of emergency vehicles flank an overturned SUV. Sipping coffee, Cho pilots his Jeep Cherokee cautiously in the tracks left by previous drivers and begins to explain the unique transcontinental balancing act of his life.
It happens that the 48-year-old Cho not only is a full-time professor of architecture here at Montana State University but also operates a thriving and acclaimed practice in Seoul, South Korea. A typical day includes teaching second- and fourth-year architecture studios in the morning and afternoon, and later working in conjunction with Korean office hours in downtown Bozeman. Despite the voluminous workload and disparate settings, Cho is upbeat. “I’m really happy to be away from my office,” he confesses. “I can really concentrate and think here. It’s much more calm.” For Cho, who even upon cursory introduction gives the impression that he breathes architecture rather than air, Montana provides much more than a big sky and respite from the hectic pace of life in Seoul: Its agricultural buildings—a subject to which he refers often and with great relish—are a never-ending source of inspiration.
That Cho today finds himself living in Montana isn’t so much a tangent as the closing of a circle. After studying ceramics in Korea, Cho’s enthusiasm for the writings of Mark Twain led him to Western Illinois University in Macomb (near the author’s boyhood home) in 1982 to learn English. After one semester, having seen photographs of the mountain-studded Gallatin Valley landscape, he transferred to Montana State to pursue architecture. As Cho recounts, he had wonderful experiences with professors who challenged his intellect and readily welcomed him into their families. His close ties with the MSU faculty would lead him back to Bozeman in 1999, when Clark Llewellyn (formerly Cho’s professor and now the director of the School of Architecture) tracked down Cho’s phone number in Seoul and asked if he would consider returning to Montana to teach. Cho, who in the meantime had completed graduate studies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, taught in Germany and Korea, worked for practices in Boston and Seoul, and experienced success with his own firm, Byoungsoo Cho Architects, readily accepted the offer.
Passing through Bozeman’s storybook downtown, Cho arrives at a tall (for Bozeman) grain-storage facility crafted from corrugated steel, its series of gabled roofs stacked at seemingly random intervals. Tromping through the snow, Cho draws an unlikely corollary between the structure and the teachings of Lao Tzu. “In the first chapter of the Tao it says, ‘Ever desireless, one can see the mystery. Ever desiring, one can see manifestation.’” He explains the connection: “Agricultural buildings aren’t really designed, someone just made them. I try to design like that—so it looks like it’s not designed at all, it’s just there.”
While Cho’s work easily falls into the modernist canon, it exudes a dramatic sense of timelessness—as though it were built centuries ago. Dualities like this, which hint at the sense of mystery achieved by following the Tao, are a persistent theme: the confluence of the primitive and the refined, of the handmade and the industrial, of monetary expense and true value, of emptiness and volume, of purpose and poetry. Meandering through Bozeman’s outskirts, making stops to admire the play of light inside a wooden barn, the cathedral-like reverberation of sound inside the cavity of an empty concrete silo, and the dignified simplicity of a metal roof sitting atop an open-air steel frame, it’s impossible not to adopt Cho’s enthusiasm for the unrefined elegance of the vernacular structures—and even more interesting to experience firsthand the unlikely antecedent to his own architectural designs a continent away.
Over an equally unlikely lunch of Montana sushi, an ebullient Cho shares reprints of his work from Korean architecture magazines in the same way fathers share pictures of their kids from their wallet. He describes three of his most recently completed projects: the Camerata House, a music-listening studio and home built in the celebrated Heyri Art Valley; the Concrete Box House, his own vacation retreat; and the Village of Dancing Fish, a group home for mentally challenged adults. These works, all designed and constructed after Cho returned to Bozeman in 1999, both in spirit and construction detail echo the agricultural buildings of Montana.
Drawing from his present surroundings, as well as site visits in Korea, Cho begins his design process with loose sketches in his notebook—almost abstract perspectives and elevations, which gradually develop into construction details and plans. From his satellite office in Bozeman, where one or two members of his Seoul staff assist him for semester-long periods (and usually suffer virulent culture shock), he oversees the creation of working and construction drawings. A dedicated branch of his firm, run by his brother, Young Cho, oversees all construction—ensuring that the architect’s intentions are carried out to a tee.
With one foot in the academic world, where progressive ideas flow freely, Cho’s built architecture is a continuous exploration without compromise. “I don’t take projects I don’t like—I’m not working for money,” he explains. “Prospective clients come to me, often through a friend who owns a gallery in Seoul, and I find out what their values are—then maybe we will do a project. It’s why I still have no website.” Although on paper Cho may come across as just another controlling architect (a prospective client in Bozeman sold his lot after Cho told him it wouldn’t work), his conviction is tempered by humility, humor, and honor.
Later, at the campus, Cho walks through his students’ studios, stopping to chat and check in on their projects—the second-year studio is designing an “alley house” (his second passion, after agricultural buildings, are the alleys that criss-cross Bozeman’s residential streets), while the fourth-year studio is working on a cartography museum at a site adjacent to the Colosseum in Rome. He’s arranged for a critique with the fourth-year students, who tack their midsemester work to the walls and take turns explaining their progress. Cho listens attentively, teasingly points out items he had obviously been pushing the students to work on, and offers suggestions on how to proceed. Explaining his choice to remain an educator, Cho says, “When they do something correctly, it makes you so happy. We share a lot of information, and get a chance to experiment. Most of all, we all work hard together trying to create something meaningful, so we should have good time.”
As Cho did with his own professors, many of his students work for him after graduation. Between MSU students working in Seoul, and his office staff coming to Bozeman, Cho operates something of a one-man exchange program. That night over dinner, two former students who worked in his Seoul office and who have since returned to Bozeman share experiences and stories and catch up with Cho. It’s not a stretch
to imagine a similar scene some years ago, with Cho’s role reversed into that of the student. Cho seems to enjoy his present role as a mentor, and out of sheer enthusiasm for the opportunities and possibilities architecture presents, the topic rarely strays. The waiter returns with the check and pauses, “I thought it was you, and when I saw the card I said, ‘I knew it’—you’re my roommate’s professor.” Cho smiles as the waiter continues: “Our house is covered with models and he’s always working on something or talking about something you told him. He says you love, like, simple boxes and always wear jeans.”
Nobody begs to differ.