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Minsuk Cho: touching the void

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Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

With the Korean madang at the centre of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, Seoul’s Minsuk Cho brings his native influences to Hyde Park and beyond, along with the idealism and realism of mentors Koolhaas and Frampton

Thoughts tumble like dice from the mind of Minsuk Cho, and so do numbers. Speaking online to the South Korean architect of the 23rd Serpentine Pavilion in London in his Seoul office, my questions are met with what feels like a stream of consciousness; verbalised ideas spark other concepts and associations, even before initial thoughts are fully formed. Consequently, Cho, 58, comes over as a man in a hurry – as if there is still much left to do. So it is no surprise to find that his pavilion, ‘Archipelagic Void’, which opens this month, is actually five, arranged around an 8m diameter courtyard with a Korean ‘madang’ forming an emptiness at the centre. 

‘Eight pavilions were circular, six were square and the rest free form,’ says Cho of the annual commission’s previous iterations; noting that all seem to comprise a single utopic idea. For his first UK project ‘I wanted to do something rooted in my own culture while pulling in other narratives – keep the centre empty and instead look to its periphery and see how to engage there’. So he gives us his curious mass timber star of five functions: a main gallery and entrance, a 20m long auditorium for events straight off the neo-classical art gallery, a small tea house, a library and a strange play tower pointing towards Buckingham Palace ‘so kids can look over the wall’. With five ‘island’ structures, one formal entrance and five informal between them reaching out to the park, ‘there are 11 ways to physically encounter the madang’, he says, adding ‘and 180 ways in which the site specific and siteless whole can be reconfigured elsewhere in the future’. That’s a mathematical conundrum for which I’ll take him at his word.

Mass Studies’ Minsuk Cho, interrogating the West’s Modern Project from a uniquely Korean perspective.
Mass Studies’ Minsuk Cho, interrogating the West’s Modern Project from a uniquely Korean perspective. Credit: Mok Jungwook

It seems it all revolves around the madang and its Korean-ness; part of a continuing self-discovery that seems to have underpinned Cho’s creative output since he founded practice Mass Studies after returning to Seoul in 2003. 

Following in the footsteps of an architect father, Cho graduated from Seoul’s Yonsei University before going to New York to study at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture. Kenneth Frampton was both a history and studio tutor there, which might explain the ease with which Cho can slip in design inspirations as varied as local Hanok village vernacular, John Soane or Bruno Taut. In 1992 he did a formative three-year stint at OMA in Rotterdam (‘work-wise, it felt like seven!’). There he was room-mates with Joshua Ramus, of REX, and Bjarke Ingels, founder of BIG. 

All that made a high-octane blend of cultural and architectural stimuli that affect him to this day. ‘Koolhaas and Frampton were canonical figures in my education,’ states Cho. ‘The former had a lot to do with thinking you could change the world and the latter with knowing where to draw the line.’ And it wasn’t just personalities but the physical location; setting up firm Cho Slade in New York in 1998 with partner James Slade he had intended to remain in the USA. But  9/11’s tectonic shift in the geopolitical situation saw him leave it and Bush’s ‘militant’ administration to return to his home country five years later. He realised that, as his mentor Koolhaas had posited in his 1978 manifesto ‘Delirious New York’, after many years away he’d unwittingly been in exodus, or a ‘voluntary prisoner of architecture’ all along.

The star-shaped pavilion will house a gallery, auditorium, library, tea house and curious kids’ ‘play tower’.
The star-shaped pavilion will house a gallery, auditorium, library, tea house and curious kids’ ‘play tower’. Credit: Mass Studies, courtesy of Serpentine

‘It felt like a parallel universe: progressive agendas bankrupted in the West were still alive in South Korea, both socially and politically,’ Cho recalls. Returning just with Pixel House, a small private home near the North Korean border, he found himself reappraising the great regional modernists – Korean architect Kim Chung-up, Sri Lankan Geoffrey Bawa or Singapore’s William Lim – early proponents of the ‘critical regionalism’ that Frampton had helped identify. Cho tells me he came to an appreciation of regional conditions that made modernism here distinct from the Western modernist project and ‘began to enjoy the creative mistranslations I could apply here, cherry-picking Western influences but owning them in a unique way – what Columbia professor Gayatri Spivak called affirmative sabotage’.

Back in South Korea six years after the IMF’s $58bn bailout of 1997 there were other benefits, with the local economy defibrillated back to life and Cho embracing all the design opportunities that presented – luxury private residential, office and leisure developments. Here, in the ‘shape-ist’ manner that defines much of the work of young Koolhaas acolytes Ingels, Ramus and Scheeren, Cho revelled in the use of cast concrete to create his alluring ‘plastic’ forms, notably in the 150m high, zig-zagging S-Trenue office tower in Seoul (2006), the curvaceous Daum Space.1 campus office development in rural Jeju Province (2011) and the Southcape golf clubhouse on Changseon Island (2013). This last is two finely finished concrete boomerangs in plan whose ceiling soffits ripple smoothly out to the seascape beyond.

The roof on the Southcape Clubhouse on Changseon Island is of exquisite rippled concrete.
The roof on the Southcape Clubhouse on Changseon Island is of exquisite rippled concrete. Credit: Yongkwan Kim

Challenged on the sustainability of so much concrete, Cho gives an contrary view to an earlier remark about the nature of pavilions in South Korea. These he saw as sitting on rather than intervening in the landscape, ‘as a granite archipelago where land is hard to manipulate, it was never about conquering the location’. But for Changseon Island, ‘concrete remains the default material here. South Korea is like Switzerland in that, in an urban context where land is at a premium, nothing touches the ground gently.’ Cho concedes that South Korea lags in sustainability strategies but while his heart has him designing mass timber competition entries (he claims he loses them as clients baulk at their structural or fire integrity) his head seems to be looking to low- carbon concretes of the future.

Mass Studies’ course shifted after winning the commission to design South Korea’s pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Expo. An imposing three-storey structure, its cut aluminium and multi-coloured tile facade of Hongul letters, designed with artist Ik-Joong Kang, won the Silver Award. This was strengthened by his show Crow’s Eye View at the 2014 Venice Biennale, which won the Golden Lion. Curating a show on design in the Korean peninsula in the 20th century – a unified country, Japanese colonisation, Korean War and now frozen conflict – with contributions prized out of the North, Cho realised that ‘Korea’s early modern condition was very different to Japan and Singapore, Taiwan and the Philippines, which were to varying degrees, historically bound in with the West. Our modern period effectively started in 1945.’ But both wins seemed to see him as an interlocuter of Korean culture abroad as well as a serious choice for cultural projects at home.

At Daejeon University’s dormitory and student centre (2018) the megastructure fully uses a 26m sectional drop on a steeply sloping hillside.
At Daejeon University’s dormitory and student centre (2018) the megastructure fully uses a 26m sectional drop on a steeply sloping hillside. Credit: Kyungsub Shin

Since then, Mass Studies, now 50-strong, has been primarily defined by its cultural output. Its 2018 Metabolist-like residential building for Daejeon University houses 600 students in a 10-storey, hybrid dormitory/student centre that starts with the tiny module of a two-bed room, then drops 26m across its hillside site to end with 40m long mega-trusses suspending common areas over roads. The firm’s work on Kim Chung-up’s 1961 French embassy in Seoul reintroduces its pavilion’s lost, expressive concrete roof and adds a discrete, contextual admin tower to a campus site. Ongoing work includes the Seoul Film Centre in Chungmuro district. Championed by directors Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, it’s a dense programmatic stack of cinemas, social and admin spaces creating a stark white Gropius-on-acid hub to nurture home-grown talent in a city area traditionally linked to the film industry. 

Perhaps Cho’s biggest challenge is Seoul’s Danginri Cultural Space, the conversion of a 1930s riverside power station into a public arts space. Eking a public face to the river via a high-level plaza over a raised road that would otherwise block the view, its open programme is clearly inspired by Cedric Price. ‘We don’t have a South Bank, so this is a Found Fun Palace, a chance finally to have an ambitious public space on a riverfront that’s been screwed up since the war.’ Due to complete in 2027 and with about half the money he thinks they’ll need to do it, Cho is taking local and central government figures round to drum some up even as ‘the building’s steel intestines are ripped out. We’re recycling all of this and the money raised will go back into funding the project.’ 

  • Model of the Danginri Cultural Space project – an arts Fun Palace for Seoul, characterised by its high level public plaza.
    Model of the Danginri Cultural Space project – an arts Fun Palace for Seoul, characterised by its high level public plaza. Credit: Yousub Song
  • The Seoul Film Centre, due to complete at the end of this year, is intended to support South Korea’s burgeoning film industry.
    The Seoul Film Centre, due to complete at the end of this year, is intended to support South Korea’s burgeoning film industry. Credit: Mass Studies
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But with the 70 projects he’s built in the last two decades – and now that he can pick and choose – Cho’s interest lies in the politics of public engagement, bringing us full circle to his madang, a cipher for it all. He contrasts it with the loaded, Japanese concept of emptiness, one more readily understood by the West. ‘The Korean madang void has a distinct meaning and purpose, with an emptiness that’s not symbolic but nonchalant,’ he explains. ‘It’s a dirt courtyard between buildings that you might use to dry chillis in, host a wedding or throw a noodle festival. It’s ubiquitous and utilitarian- that both rich and poor identify with.’ An open space for gathering then – just like, he notes, the city roundabouts occupied by pro-democracy victims of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising against the military coup d’etat, and over-excited football fans when the home team made it through to the World Cup semi-final in 2002: ‘It has both no meaning and all meaning.’