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As part of her annual State of the City address, on February 9 City Council Speaker and potential mayoral candidate Christine Quinn announced her support for the future growth of New York’s design industries: “We have more designers than any city in the United States, with nearly 40,000 New Yorkers working in everything from graphics to movie sets, architecture to interior decorating. We’ll grow our design sector by stealing an idea from the fashion industry. Fashion Week, which starts today, brings 300,000 visitors and nearly $800 million into our city every year. Working with Council Member Karen Koslowitz, we’re going to give that same kind of boost to our design industry by creating and hosting a New York City Design Week.”
The next mayoral election is still over a year in the future, but the speech does raise the question of what a new mayor will mean for the city's departments of Planning, Transportation, Parks and Design and Construction not to mention our dynamic design community. It is common knowledge that Mayor Bloomberg’s administration made a conscious effort to bring architectural and urban design thinking into city government more than at any time since Robert Moses and John Lindsay in the late 1960s. In the same way that Lindsay's two terms as mayor coincided with a remarkable transformation of urban life in New York, Bloomberg’s three terms have witnessed a profound change in the life of the city. It will of course be up to future historians to assess the current mayor’s ultimate success and failures but his quartet of Commissioners at City Planning, Transportation, Parks, and Design and Construction have overseen a total transformation in how citizens move about, experience, and live in the city.
Then again it may be that Bloomberg only happened to be mayor when architecture was taken up for the first time by New York property developers as a salable commodity and when they commissioned some of the world’s best architects to design Manhattan luxury housing. The mayor certainly did not directly create anything of great civic architectural quality for our public sphere, but as a believer in the private market supported by public, philanthropic initiatives of high design quality like the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Governors Island development, and the DOT’s bike lanes and “parks in a street” maintained by Business Improvement Districts and other non governmental agencies. These are of course heavily Manhattan-centric in their geographic reach and influence, so Bloomberg’s new city is less visible the farther one travels from Midtown. We all remember when he pinned his legacy to an Olympic master plan, West Side Football stadium, and the possibility of a really great World Trade Center development.
Or it may be that Bloomberg happened to be mayor when New York emerged as the most important design hub in the United States if not the world. Last summer we commented on the Growth by Design report assembled by the Center for an Urban Future that detailed the growing importance of the design sector to New York’s economy. It revealed how design sector jobs in the New York metropolitan area grew by 75 percent over the past decade. In fact the report claimed that in New York the design field (architecture, graphic, interior, fashion and industrial design) has nearly twice as many designers as Los Angeles, the nation's second largest design hub.
But back to Speaker Quinn and her support for design in New York City. Really, is a week-long design festival the best that the Speaker can do to support and encourage this dynamic sector of the city's economy? We need to hear what she proposes for the various departments like City Planning and Parks. Its hard to imagine that department heads like Amanda Burden, David Burney, Janette Sadik-Khan, and Adrian Benepe will stay on after 12 years of public sector employment, but will the new mayor even want them to stay or will she/ he replace them, and what types of policies will new commissioners be pursuing? Will the next mayor continue to support new bicycle lanes and curbside park development from the DOT and the ambitious architecture policies of Commissioner Burney? We have heard almost nothing from Quinn and the two or three other likely candidates about their potential policies. Proposing a week-long festival is not really enough of an initiative to tell us much about what a new Quinn administration might mean for the city. In the coming months, we need to hear much more from the Speaker and all the other candidates.
In late October, the MTA announced it would lease 70,000 square feet of retail at the $1.4 billion Fulton Street Transit Center to a single operator who will manage and rent out the space. With the announcement, downtown Manhattan’s vast multi-grade retail landscape comes further into focus. After the MTA makes their firm selection, three major shopping centers will be connected via underground transit hubs and pedestrian passageways. The Westfield Group is in the midst of planning 365,000 square feet of World Trade Center (WTC) retail, and Brookfield is revamping 200,000 square feet at the World Financial Center. On completion, commuters will be able to shop and eat indoors all the way from Broadway to the Hudson River. A grand total of 635,000 square feet does not include 90,000 planned for the pending Two World Trade.
At Fulton, the MTA, in a departure from |its landlord role at Grand Central, will focus on running trains, not curating vendors. The main building, designed by Grimshaw Architects with Arup, employs a multifaceted circular glass atrium within a glass cubed-shaped curtain wall. At street side, market cafes will wrap around the atrium, dubbed the oculus, and retail will take up the interior walls. The second level is intended for destination restaurants, while the third floor awaits an anchor tenant. More retail can be found below at concourse and platform levels. The underground Dey Street passageway, devoid of retail, will take commuters toward the Calatrava-designed WTC Transportation Hub.
With much of the focus on the oculus, the project’s incorporation of the 1888 Francis Kimball-designed Corbin Building next door tends to be overlooked. MTA renderings show a restored 19th century clubby interior revived as a destination restaurant.
Westfield will be responsible for all retail at the World Trade Center. The company expects to finalize their agreement with the Port Authority next month and will spend more than $612 million on the retail environment, which will run over many levels at the WTC Transportation Hub, connecting concourses through to Three and Four World Trade. At Three and Four, the stores will meet the street and continue above grade. Retail intended for Two World Trade awaits financing for the tower as a whole. From the Hub, commuters can shop in concourses that lead to the World Financial Center, where Brookfield then takes up the baton.
Brookfield’s $250 million renovation of Cesar Pelli’s late 1980s World Financial Center ensemble includes preserving the Grand Staircase and balcony overlooking the World Trade site. Both are contained in a pavilion that juts out east toward West Street. The prime spot beneath the staircase is expected to be leased by a fashion or luxury tenant. Overlooking the Hudson, Brookfield plans a “locavores marketplace” featuring locally grown produce. Here, pedestrians may finally be enticed to come up for air and take a café seat overlooking the Hudson—outdoors!
This much we know: On October 20, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey confirmed Patrick J. Foye on Governor Cuomo’s recommendation to be the new executive director of the bi-state agency overseeing a 2011 budget of $7.2 billion with $3.9 billion in capital spending. We also know that Foye is a Skadden Arps (“recovering” in his own words) lawyer with Long Island Republican roots who spent less than 15 months as the downstate chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation under Eliot Spitzer and more recently was Cuomo’s deputy secretary for economic development.
We also realize that out-going PA executive director Chris Ward, who two months ago was the hero-du-jour for getting stalled projects at the World Trade Center up and building smoothly enough to pull off the 9/11 decennial, is currently serving as an all-round scapegoat for the cost overruns associated with that achievement. An audit begun on September 30 promises to thoroughly finish the job of tarnishing his legacy.
That the Port Authority is an unwieldy bureaucratic behemoth should come as little surprise; it manages the ports for two states, five airports, two tunnels, four bridges, a commuter railroad, a small police force, and a major planning agency. Established by Congress in 1921, the PA was a fiscal sinkhole until 1931 when it took over the Holland Tunnel. Even Robert Moses considered it an intimidating adversary of labyrinthine complexity and impenetrable means.
A recent opinion piece in the New York Post written by former PA executive director (1995–1997) George J. Marlin described an agency of career turf-fighting bureaucrats admitting little accountability to directors who come and go (on average at a 2.5 year clip) eager to get capital construction projects going before they have been appropriately planned because “once construction starts it’s almost impossible to stop.” Bluntly, Marlin also wrote: “PA employees are political animals who view the executive director and the governors they serve as meddling interlopers, and will fight to the death to protect their power, perks and pensions.” (Pensions apparently include lifetime guarantees of annual salaries ranging from $125,000 to $196,000.)
Knowing this casts a pall on Cuomo’s latest suggestion that the murky Port Authority amass even more responsibility by taking charge of the Moynihan Station Development and the LMDC. And while it’s good news that Cuomo is trying to redirect attention to the no-brainer but somehow long-idling Moynihan Station, it seems too early to think of LMDC as winding down, as Senator Charles Schumer put it in commending the consolidation. With a majority of the site still incomplete and unrealized—the board of the mega-performance center by Frank Gehry won’t even be announced until the end of the year, there’s miles to go before either State or City can let up their guard. In fact, even as I write, Bloomberg’s people and the Governor’s people are wrangling over who’s going to pay for all the security at the site; the City said it always assumed the PA had the money.
Foye is known to be a bit of a number cruncher and, according to a press release from the agency’s chairman of commissioners, his job will be to “re-prioritize future construction to limit money-losing projects and identify new revenue sources besides the region’s residents and businesses.” At the same time, Cuomo calls the PA: “a major economic engine that plans for the region and attracts business on an international scale.”
So let’s get this straight. The mandate is to keep costs in check at the same time as making a splash? Sounds like Foye has his work cut out for him. Then again, there’s always the $3.4 billion-and-counting transportation hub by Calatrava. Renting it out for wedding receptions could be just the ticket to having it both ways.
Obama’s jobs speech was music to the ears, but for architects the music is still playing in another room.
Perhaps you sat up at the president’s call for a “world class transportation system” competitive with China’s, and salivated at the prospect of “modernizing” 35,000 schools (although Obama quickly established the modest scale of renovation at fixing roofs and caulking windows and “installing science labs”.) Rebuilding schools still comes closer to design work than filling potholes. It was slightly dispiriting to hear Obama quickly—in the next breathe, actually—go from talk of re-establishing our status as an “economic superpower” through rebuilding to citing a trucking bridge in Ohio in need of a fix. (Sounds like the powerful U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lobby is still calling the shots.)
Obama did not once utter the word “infrastructure” in his speech although some tealeaf readers found implied support for the Infrastructure Bank that architects once thought was going to be the ticket to the kind of ambitious capital investments in which they long to participate—housing, courthouses, libraries, and multi-modal transportation hubs. Many more architects seemed resigned to the fact that the second stimulus, like the first, is going to pass architects by, because the work of making architecture—that’s vertical construction in job-friendly speak—with all the advance prep work from site analysis to public review, takes too long at a time when the economy needs immediate help.
But could it also be that the president believes the American public is wary of Grand Projects, and therefore of capital-A architecture? Two New York projects could easily fuel that impression: One is “New York by Gehry.”
The problem is not that Frank Gehry’s shimmery supertower doesn’t add some glamorous swag to the skyline: it most certainly does. The sorry part is the awful brick box that Gehry designed for the public school at the base. For the rental tower, he was working with $875 million. Surely he could have insisted on spreading some of the joy to the public school. He had the chance to show the world that superstar though he be, he can still do the amazing with a small budget. As it happened, Swanke Hayden Connell did their best with $65 million to fit out more than decent interiors for which they are getting zero credit. At the first day of school, it was Bloomberg and Gehry welcoming the kids. In other words, it was the usual architecture as marketing.
More worrisome still is the World Trade Center transit hub by Santiago Calatrava. If Obama never said infrastructure, he did say transportation, several times. Now under construction, most would agree that Calatrava’s hub will be world class, some ten long years after breaking ground. But as far as stimulus, this winged white elephant is an egregious overproduction. And as soon as the political group hug—also known as the tenth anniversary of 9/11—is a few weeks behind us, someone is going to start wondering why this station serving 80,000 PATH commuters—originally budgeted for $1.9 billion with expected completion by 2006—is now costing $3.44 billion (the memorial and museum cost $925 million). Charles Bagli of The New York Times—the first canary in the coal mine?—notes that Penn Station serves seven times as many people. There is a real danger of this project becoming a Red Letter A for architectural extravagance, and precisely the kind of fancy work that the country cannot afford. And that’s a real pity because the disappointing Spruce Street School cereal box and the bloated transit-osaur do not represent the highly engaged and smart long-term planning that most architects we write about today are working towards. I wish Obama had had some words of encouragement for the important work they are already doing, stimulus or not.
The eloquence of the void at Ground Zero will never be surpassed. Walking past the site almost every day, I am always moved by its immense formal authority and grandeur, its presence. Its scale and proportion are not unfamiliar: Times Square, the Zocalo in Mexico City, Red Square, the great plaza of Isfahan are in the same family of spaces, profound settings for public assembly and crucial city symbols. I imagine Ground Zero transformed into such a space of gathering, something between a plaza and a park, a permanent memorial to an event that was so terribly public.
To build such a place requires both an excellent design for the square itself and careful attention to its perimeter, the solid edges that enclose it. The basic envelope is fundamentally sound and includes many superb and historic structures, such as the Barclay-Vesey building, St. Paul’s Chapel, and the beautiful post office. Many opportunities to further shape this envelope also exist, particularly to the south where virtually the entire edge might be reconstructed. There are also sites both east and west that—rebuilt—could dramatically reinforce the sense of place. These sites would be logical for cultural institutions, commercial space, and housing.
Although there were many who immediately called for the dedication of this entire place to public use and public commemoration, this option was quickly removed from consideration as “impractical.” The Lower Manhattan Development (not memorial) Corporation decided early on that the only “vision” they would support was one that replaced all of the commercial space lost on September 11 on the site itself. The LMDC has been remarkably adroit in stifling any other suggestion and has been equally canny in their use of architecture to obscure the fundamental exclusion of the public from a meaningful role in decision-making.
When the public responded with outrage to the series of diagrammatic solutions to the site design offered two summers ago, the LMDC feigned responsiveness by staging a “competition”—whose winner was selected by administrative fiat—in which a number of architects proposed designs for exactly the same program. None had the courage to suggest that massive amounts of office and shopping space might not be the only possibility. With their fawning connivance, the public was distracted from a discussion of fundamentals and invited instead to debate the finer points of architectural style, which version of 12 million square feet of commercial space it preferred. Now, even the winner of the competition enjoys the indignity of seeing his ideas winnowed away by the growing committee of high-style designers hired by Larry Silverstein, who uncritically seek to bolster their reputations and bank accounts on the site.
Why build skyscrapers here? The main argument is commercial—pulling Silverstein’s and the Port Authority’s chestnuts out of the fire—but this flies in the face both of a lack of demand (vacancies are high all over town) and of many alternative sites for such buildings. There is, of course, also an argument that the restoration of what was there is the appropriate riposte to terror. This has unfortunately yielded the stupid machismo of yet another “world’s tallest building”—a title the Trade Center held only briefly, an equally likely result for any successor. This is simply too preening a response, without gravity, without respect. Finally, it’s argued that skyscrapers are the preeminent symbol of New York. Certainly they are the highest architectural achievement of our commercial life. However, I believe that Central Park is the greatest symbol—and the greatest repository—of our public culture.
The last act of the LMDC’s roughshod arrogation of downtown’s future has been the memorial competition—its finalists just announced—which attracted over 5,000 entries, a clear indication of the pent-up desire for participation. This competition, however, can never substitute for what should have happened, an open competition for ideas at the beginning of the process, throwing it wide open for invention and debate and allowing the memorial to function as the driver. The LMDC has instead waited until the very end and offered competitors a site that is luridly constrained. Submerged below grade, hemmed by the glass-covered slurry-wall and a gigantic waterfall, over-hung by cantilevered cultural institutions, surrounded by Daniel Libeskind’s elaborate and banal iconographic program, and lying beneath the looming bulk of the world’s tallest building, the memorial—whatever it turns out to be—will suffer the consequences of being an afterthought, an appendage to the big plans of the LMDC, the Port Authority, and Larry Silverstein.
But this need not be. Let the winner of the memorial competition—the only open competition held so far—build his or her winning entry in a great space of public assembly, not in the midst of a clutch of slick office towers. Let those who are so eager to build do so on the perimeter of the site, or in Midtown South, or in Queens or Brooklyn or the Bronx. Let us have a wonderful hub of transportation—the means of bringing people together—under and near Ground Zero. Let cultural institutions gather around the site, as they do around Central Park. But stop the demeaning arrogance of business-as-usual and the construction of an architectural zoo on this hallowed ground.
Can we pay for this? We must. It is time for the federal government to step in: No less than Gettysburg or Pearl Harbor, this is the site of a national trauma and, whatever its ownership, a place that “belongs” to us all. To be sure, the price tag would be several billion dollars but we are about to spend $87 billion reconstructing Iraq, to make that country whole after the devastations of tyranny and war. Surely, we can afford to make Ground Zero a place of peaceable assembly for everyone. Indeed, if terror demands a civic reply, what better than a solemn memorial to those lost and a space for the most fundamental exercise of democracy in space, the freedom to gather in a place that is our own.
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An abstract vision of the site's future is also a high-tech marketing display.As work at the World Trade Center site progresses steadily, a matryoshka-like replica of it has taken shape on the 10th floor of 7 World Trade. With a view of the construction below, the Silverstein Properties marketing suite occupies the same floor as the WTC architects’ annex offices, providing a tableau of the working architects as well as the completed site to prospective tenants of towers Two, Three, and Four. Scaled architecture studio Radii Inc. have been designing models of the site since its earliest phases, so Silverstein’s senior VP of marketing and communications approached Radii partners Ed Wood and Leszek Stefanski with his conceptual ideas for the diorama. “He wanted it to be big,” said Wood. “Our first questions was, ‘What are the ceiling heights?’” With 14-foot ceilings and 25 square feet of floor space, the team mapped out a footprint of Lower Manhattan from Chambers to Albany streets on the north and south and from Hudson to just past City Hall from west to east. Radii then began to experiment with varying levels of details and abstraction for the WTC buildings. “When you abstract a building, it can be as challenging as making it photo-real,” said Wood. “How do you distill it down to an iconic replica but still have it read as a whole?” They decided to render the models in ⅜-inch cast acrylic with a P-95 finish, a factory matte that lends a frosted appearance to the crystalline forms. More than 60 sheets of 4-by-8-foot acrylic went into the full model. Fenestration is laser-scored on the exterior, and interiors contain ghosts of interior floor plates and cores. Only details that point to the essence of each design are included: Roger’s structural ladder accentuates its verticality, while Calatrava’s transportation hub is distilled into a bony spine and Snøhetta’s visitors center into a gestural representation of the building’s gradated skin. Towers are lit with interior columns wired with rows of LEDs, a concept developed, along with a backlit transparency of the street grid and subway lines, in collaboration with an exhibit electronics technician. Each LED color identifies separate leasing zones, allowing marketing presentations to control the display via iPad. Even with a two-month design process and thousands of parts to be pre-assembled, labeled, disassembled, wrapped, and transported to the marketing suite, the entire installation took place over a long weekend, in time for a post-Memorial Day opening. Ultimately, though, Wood said the biggest challenge was making sure his team had the latest information about the ever-changing World Trade Center site and building designs. As a result, Radii became a sort of clearinghouse for the latest details, often fielding calls seeking the most privileged information. “We even get calls asking how many trees are on the site,” said Wood. “There are 463. And they will grow to 60 feet when they are mature.”
Buzz and hype have surrounded China’s recent building boom, but to the east, South Korea is becoming the next hot spot for international architecture.
Far from deferring to China’s hectic development, South Korea is positioning itself to be the East Asian country that grows not only faster but also smarter. In 2010, Engineering News Record ranked Seoul as home to six of the 75 top international contractors—a significant number for a nation so small. The juxtaposition of major construction corporations side-by-side with government support and a growing national interest in architectural design is producing opportunities inevitably attractive to international players.
From big corporate firms from the United States to young, internationally-trained Koreans, architects are capitalizing on opportunities in the East Asian nation and particularly Seoul as it rises to compete with China and assert itself as a business hub for northeastern Asia.
After generations of political turmoil, South Korea can now guarantee a degree of economic stability. As a result and on a grand scale, Korean companies that went abroad to build some of the tallest buildings around the world (Samsung led construction on the Burj Khalifa) are now looking to field monuments on their own native soil. Even at the grass-roots level, there is a growing interest in avant-garde architecture and design—home-brewed as well as imported—providing opportunities for small firms and young designers to have an impact on the street by designing art galleries and small homes.
Off the coast of South Korea and not far from Seoul, Songdo represents a new kind of large-scale planned city. A joint venture between Cisco Systems, Gale International, and the New York City office of Kohn Pederson Fox, New Songdo City could be the prototypical aerotropolis—a city defined as much by its proximity to an airport as by its livability—as described by authors John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay in their new book Aerotropolis: How We’ll Live Next.
Since 2001, when Gale International signed a $35 billion dollar loan from Korean banks to develop a city right by Incheon International Airport, Songdo has grown rapidly on landfill in the Yellow Sea. Today, it’s home to the tallest building in the country —KPF’s 68-story Northeast Asia Trade Tower—and it’s still growing. Construction on KPF’s masterplan will be completed in 2015. Fitting to the city’s mission to attract foreign business, its architecture includes work by multiple American firms: KPF’s own nine buildings in the central business district include a convention center and an international school, and there are also six residential towers and a hotel by HOK.
Songdo is intrinsic to the South Korean government’s vision of the future, according to Richard Nemeth, a KPF principal: “[They] realized that to compete with China, they needed a platform to work internationally. [Songdo] is connected to the new airport, one of the busiest in the world.”
If its proximity to an international airport gives Songdo the futuristic moniker “aerotropolis,” its vast scale represents a first in international sustainability. Under the USGBC’s LEED for Neighborhood Development Pilot Program (KPF engaged with USGBC to certify the masterplan and develop a new LEED category), Songdo boasts a central non-potable water canal, electric vehicle charging stations, and a city-scale co-generation plant—elements that operate on a larger scale than traditional single-building LEED certification. The city also takes some of its literally green inspiration from American roots: a large public park in the middle of Songdo is named Central Park. The city also attempts to offset the effects of massive new construction by recycling 75% of construction waste and using local materials to minimize transportation costs.
Elsewhere on the western edge of Seoul and in the coastal city of Busan, another American firm is hard at work: Skidmore, Owings and Merrill is constructing what will be two of the tallest buildings in Asia. To be completed in 2013, the Busan Lotte Tower will stand 126 stories high and the Seoul Digital Media City Landmark Tower—renamed Seoul Light Tower—will rise over the capital at 133 stories as the tallest building in East Asia when completed. While the two high-rises began differently—the developer Lotte Group directly offered SOM the Busan tower, while the Seoul Light Tower was won in an international competition (with Gensler plus the local Samwoo Architects on the team)—both towers respond to the demand from public and private sectors in Korea for skyscrapers to represent a new Korean identity.
“We have seen a larger demand for super high-rise buildings out of Korea than from most other countries,” said Mustafa Abadan, an SOM design partner. “This has been driven by the fact that Korean contractors have been involved in the construction in the world’s tallest buildings. Part of this desire to build a homegrown super-tall tower is for the contractors to establish themselves as the contractors who will be building the super-tall buildings of the future.” Several such towers from Korea will be featured in the upcoming exhibition “Supertall!” this July at the Skyscraper Museum.
Busan, like Seoul, is becoming the launching pad for something of a skyscraper arms-race: another New York City firm, Asymptote Architecture, was commissioned in 2007 to build the World Business Center Solomon Tower, a set of three jagged spires, now under construction, designed to culminate 131 feet higher than SOM’s Busan Lotte.
Because Seoul and Busan are mostly horizontal metropolises, sprawling laterally rather than vertically, permits for these high-rises were individually negotiated as anomalies to existing zoning laws. When issuing permits for such major projects, local Korean public authorities require that a certain amount of square footage be dedicated to public amenities. For example, KPF’s 110-story Hyundai Tower in Seoul will house a museum, an orchestra hall, and a cineplex. These policies exemplify a growing public demand for cultural centers and high-end public spaces.
Public interest in art and design is also creating opportunities for architects at smaller scales, including institutional and residential projects. The APAP Openschool, an art school built of eight bright yellow shipping containers, was recently completed by New York-based architects LOT-EK in the city of Anyang. Joel Sanders’ New York office in collaboration with the Korean firm Haeahn Architecture designed the Seongbuk Gate Hills, a complex of 12 private homes in Seoul’s chic Seongbuk-dong neighborhood. Also working in Seongbuk-dong is the Brooklyn-based firm SO-IL, whose design for the new Kukje Art Center is currently in construction.
Far from the corporate glitz of the super-tall towers, Sogyeok-dong is filling up with independent coffee shops, boutiques, and galleries that are a hub for young creative professionals. SO-IL’s “campus plan” for the Kukje Gallery infiltrates the low-rise neighborhood by occupying different sites within walking distance of one another. The main gallery is designed to house live performances and large-scale installations in the open-plan first floor.
Comparing Korea to Japan over a decade ago when architects from Aldo Rossi to Steven Holl were working there, SO-IL principal Florian Idenburg said, “I think the same thing is happening in Korea, there is a growing appreciation for design and also for being Korean.”
SO-IL has two Korean staff on the Kukje Gallery team, part of a growing trend wherein local designers who studied abroad then practice in Korea with local or international firms.
Jae K. Kim, the young founder of Counterdesign, recently completed his own first project in Seoul. Kim studied architectural engineering in Seoul before attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he currently studies. Kim’s approach to the Bikyoshoki House was born of his work experience at a local construction company and his education at MIT. “People [in Korea] are now starting to be interested in design itself,” said Kim. “Before, it was really profit-oriented. Now things are changing, and I’m not talking just about developers, I’m talking about people. They’re more interested in environments between architecture and people.”
The concrete and steel Bikyoshoki House defies both conventional traditional Korean and American housing typologies: it is a single-family dwelling in a place where most city-dwellers prefer high-rise condominiums, and its spatial organization is provocative. With angular concrete forms paired with glass railings and glazing, the design seems to herald a new Korean architectural identity free of overt historical iconography. While in the past few years, there were few opportunities for small firms to work on single-family residential projects—in the way young architects do in the States—such projects are becoming a common testing ground for young talent.
“There is a new trend in Seoul to have a house as primary residence,” said architect Francisco Sanin, chair of graduate programs at Syracuse University’s architecture school. “Before that, the trend was for apartment buildings, and an incredible number were built, but in more recent times there is a feeling that you can have a private house.”
Sanin is currently working on the construction of ten such private houses in Jisan Waldhaus, a townhouse development of 50 houses built by five architects, all Koreans apart from Sanin. The homes at Jisan Waldhaus—which uses contemporary materials like steel and cast concrete—show off the growing collaborative relationships between international and Korean architects resulting in a new modern suburban typology.
“I think there is a new sense of critical and intellectual discussion about what is best for Korea,” said Sanin, adding that there is increasing confidence, especially among architects, in engaging with their own history objectively and creatively.
Brant Coletta, an SOM managing director working on the Seoul Light Tower, noted that rather than building a Korean cultural identity drawn from well known historical icons or philosophy, there is a desire to look forward and build toward a vision of what Korea could be in the future. And that, not surprisingly, is of considerable interest to architects both inside and beyond South East Asia.