Kim Swoo Geun was a prominent South Korean architect, educator, publisher and patron of artists. His creations are somewhere between brutalist and MidCentury, while drawing on traditional Korean aesthetics and techniques.
Korean architect Kim Swoo Geun (1931-1986), born in Cheongjin, North Korea, is acknowledged as one of the most important figures of 20th century Korea, in the cultivation of art, crafts, architecture, music, performance art, and education. The architect’s commitment to humanitarian ideals inspired by traditionally Korean forms, sets his work and activities apart from his counterparts in the West as well as in the East. Kim’s visionary approach was based on his concept of controlling scale and defining the elements of the ‘ultimate space’, whereby the architect’s goal was to improve quality in the life of the people. Due to his dynamic influence across diverse cultural activities, Kim is not only regarded as one of the most important leaders in Korean architecture, but also, equally as one of the most important advocates of Korean culture and patron of the arts.
Along with architect Kim Joong Up, he is recognized as a significant contributor in the history of Korean architecture. With his support for diverse art genres of Korean culture, he was referred to as Lorenzo de Medici of Seoul by TIME in 1977. After his graduation from the school in 1950, Kim entered Seoul National University, majoring in architecture. In 1952, during the Korean War, he withdrew from the school and went abroad to Japan where he studied modern architecture at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. During his study at this school, he interned at Hirada Matsuda’s architectural firm. In 1960 he received a master’s degree in architecture from Tokyo University where he finished his doctoral course as well. In 1959, he won the competition for the National Assembly Building of South Korea, but his proposal was not realized due to the political situation at that time. In 1960, he returned to his country with his Japanese wife Michiko Yajima. In 1961 he founded his architectural firm Kim Swoo Geun Planning and Design, the predecessor of the current SPACE group. At the same time, he also began to teach at the architecture department of Hongik University.
Kim Swoo Geun’s Career
Kim’s achievements in design exceeded two hundred works during his short lifetime spanning over many political regimes, including the Freedom Center, Saewoon Mega Complex, Space Group of Korea building, Masan Yangdeok Catholic Church, Kyung Dong Church, and the Olympic Main Stadium. In 1966, Kim published ‘Space‘, the only monthly magazine for primary research and criticism of the arts at the time, which was dedicated to architecture, environment, and aesthetic issues, that Kim intended as a record of the present and a basis for the future. Kim’s headquarters in Seoul, the Space Group of Korea, was the well-spring of cultural activity and a mecca for architects, contemporary artists, curators, musicians, performance artists, craftsmen, writers, and educators within Korea and from abroad.
Kim Swoo Geun’s father was a successful businessman in shipping and mining. Whilst Kim’s early childhood was spent in Northern Korea, his formal education was based in Seoul. During the Korean War (1950-1953), Kim, then a student at the College of Engineering at Seoul National University, fled to Japan in order to pursue his studies in architecture. In 1958, he graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts with a B.A. in Architecture, soon followed by a M.A. in Architecture from the University of Tokyo in 1960.
In 1960, Kim won first prize in the national competition for the Korean National Assembly Building. Kim returned to Korea and established his own architectural practice in Seoul, Space Group of Korea. The architect’s return coincided with the newly industrializing nation and the beginnings of modern Korean architecture. When government officials insisted on modifying Kim’s design, he boldly refused and promptly dropped the project. Seoul’s government officials under the newly instated president Pak Chung Hee, were impressed by Kim’s disciplined adherence to his principles. Kim became a rising star in the new military Pak regime, and was showered with large scale commissions, such as the Hill Top Bar Pavilion (1961), Freedom Center (1963), SaeWoon Complex (1963), Korea University Hospital (1963), and Korea Times Building (1965). These projects propelled Kim into a leading role in Korea’s modern architectural development, and for the next three decades, Kim also played a vital role in Korea’s cultural revitalization and metamorphosis. Sensing the limitations in the adoption of purely Western models on the one hand and extreme nationalism or patriotism on the other, Kim developed his original concept of architecture that synthesized the changing conditions of post-war Korea with the widely forgotten Korean cultural history and primordial spirit.
After rising to fame through large-scale monumental projects in the 1960’s, Kim became increasingly critical of his own approach. He began to question design in relation to the state versus individual identity and individual freedom. He aspired to define his own approach and directed focus to the ‘human’ aspect of design. At the same time, Kim pursued a deep understanding and promotion of Korean art, architecture, crafts, music, and performance. The architect was particularly struck by the mysticism of Korean spaces, which he believed to be an essence of traditional Korean aestheticism. Abandoning béton brut, the 1970’s period was characterized by humanistic design, meticulous attention to human scale, tactility, irregular forms and rhythm of space. Increasingly, Kim preferred earthy materials, brick in particular. The Korean-style density of spaces, the special organic unity between the whole and its intricate elements, became an important principle in Kim’s design methodology.
In 1972, Kim built his own Space Group of Korea headquarters building in Seoul, and within it, the Space Gallery focused on the display of works of contemporary art, prints, ceramics, crafts, calligraphy, photography, and architecture. 1977 saw the opening of an intimate subterranean Space Theatre in the Space Group building, where, both modern and traditional plays, music, dance, films, by foreign and domestic artists alike, were performed, and lectures, symposiums, and workshops in the arts were held. In addition, the Space Group building included a crafts shop, and a cafe. Korean cultural leaders and foreign intellectuals alike, gathered around Space Group of Korea and Kim himself, who possessed a rare breed of personality that gives momentum to cultural movements.
The Space Group building, acclaimed as one of Kim’s masterpieces, embodies Kim’s concept of such ‘ultimate space’. During his last phase, Kim planned and designed a number of civic and cultural centers, intended to be the heart of the respective communities within Seoul and abroad, including the Olympic Stadium, Art Center of Korean Culture and Art Foundation, and the Kyung Dong Church.
Kim Swoo Geun’s 10 Most Incredible Designs
The Freedom Center and International Freedom Hall were constructed on Namsan Mountain in the early 1960s by the military regime installed after the May 16 coup, which aimed to make Korea the main anti-communist outpost in Asia. At the time, it was a large-scale national memorial, but today, the Freedom Center is only remembered as one of architect Kim Swoo-geun’s earliest works.
The center (with one underground floor and seven aboveground floors) was originally built to be the main building of the Asia Anti-Communism Federation with an exposed mass concrete technique, which uses only bare concrete as the facing. However, today’s Freedom Center is covered in a coat of paint that completely conceals the concrete, which itself had been a symbol of the building’s commemorative function. First attempted by Swiss-French master of modern architecture Le Corbusier, the exposed mass concrete technique was applied to many subsequent works by his disciple, Kim Chung Up, as well as Kim Swoo-geun, leading the 1960s to become known as the “era of exposed mass concrete.” The Freedom Center’s structural beauty consists of a cantilever (a beam that protrudes from a wall or column) that turns up toward the sky—at a distance equal to that from the roof to the ground—and a massive colonnade. The central stairway that connects to the lobby area emphasizes the building’s authority.
2. Seoul Olympic Stadium
The Seoul Olympic Stadium also known as Jamsil Olympic Stadium (formerly romanised as Chamshil), is a multi-purpose stadium in Seoul, South Korea. It is the main stadium built for the 1988 Summer Olympics and the 10th Asian Games in 1986. It is the centrepiece of the Seoul Sports Complex in the Songpa District, in the southeast of the city south of the Han River. The lines of the stadium’s profile imitate the elegant curves of a Korean Joseon Dynasty porcelain vase. Spectator seats are distributed on two tiers, half covered. Initially built with a capacity of approximately 100,000, today it seats 69,950.
Before its construction, Seoul’s largest venues were Dongdaemun Stadium and Hyochang Stadium. Seating 30,000 and 20,000 respectively, they were too small to attract world-class sporting events. Construction on the new stadium began in 1977 with the aim of staging the Asian Games in 1986. When Seoul was awarded the Games of the XXIV Olympiad in September 1981, this stadium became the centrepiece.
3. Walker Hill Hill Top Bar
The Walker Hill Hill Top Bar is a landmark of Walker Hill which was commenced as an entertainment complex for foreigners in 1962. Walker Hill was named after Lieutenant General Walker who was the first commander of the 8th division of the U.S. Army and died in the Korea War. This pavilion is situated in the highest place of Walker Hill and its basic form is a reversed pyramid of ‘W’. The second floor is a bar where people can appreciate a beautiful view. Kim designed this legibly symbolic building, this time in eastern Seoul with the shape of the Hilltop Bar paying tribute to Walker. Kim’s unusual structure still stands on Walker Hill, and still looks essentially the same, though subsequent renovation has downplayed all the concrete surface so architecturally fashionable in the 1960s, and the business occupying it has changed: the Hilltop Bar is gone, but Pizza Hill lives on.
4. The Republic of Korea Pavilion
The Republic of Korea Pavilion may look rather small when viewed from a distance, but it is so attractive that when visitors get close they are practically certain to look inside. It is on Ile Sainte-Hélène, a mere step from the Métro station. The pavilion is built entirely of wood and combines the classic beauty of traditional Korean architecture and the qualities of modern design. At its entrance a tower soars high towards the sky, an integral feature that symbolizes Korea’s aspirations. In the exhibition hall visitors meet the Korea of yesterday and today, land and people, growth and development. Special displays are devoted to Korean art through more than 4,000 years. A large and authentic model of the world’s first iron-clad warship, designed by Admiral Yi Sun-Shin in 1595, is on display as well as a replica of a 5th Century Maitreya Buddha image, the masterpiece of the Sylla Dynasty (B.C. 57-A.D. 935) sculpture. Manufactured goods of many kinds produced in Korea are on display, and an expert staff will be glad to answer questions.it was widely praised to have played a significant role in revealing Korea′s national identity to the world at that time. This pavilion demonstrates a few different design intentions. The pavilion tried to mediate between tradition and modernity in Korean architecture. Although the design manifested the aesthetic sense of the Korean traditional housing hanokthrough applying the hanok′s wooden structure, the designer also reflected on modern architectural concepts through implementing open spaces and irregularly arranged columns in accordance with functions. The pavilion mediates between authentic Korean and Japanese traditional styles. Influenced by his educational background in Japan, Kim drew on his perception of Japanese architecture when designing this pavilion and included Japanese traditional elements. The pavilion mediates between the processes of preservation and development in an urban context, and the preservation issue of this building is still an ongoing debate.
5. Tower Hotel
In the mid-20th century, high-rises meant modernity, and so mid-20th century urban development, in the East no less than the West, meant high-rises. Yet despite Kim’s unofficial role as something of a state architect in a fast-developing state desperate to signal its own modernity, he seldom worked in that form. His Tower Hotel, first built to accommodate guests of the Freedom Center, is an exception: its seventeen stories, symbolizing the seventeen nations that took part in the Korean War, made it the tallest building in Korea at the time. It still stands out in its now startlingly unbuilt-on part of Seoul, though it does so no longer as the Tower Hotel but as the Seoul branch of Thailand’s Banyan Tree Club and Spa.
6. Arko Theatre
The Arko Arts Theater opened in 1981, and it is one of Daehak-ro’s major theaters. The theater spans 5 levels in total with three floors above ground and two underground levels. The theater’s venues include the main hall, the small hall, Studio Darak which is used as a multi-purpose room, and practice facilities. In addition to being a performance venue, the Arko Arts Theater also offers educational programs on classical Korean music, acting, and dance. The theater is conveniently located close to Hyehwa Station. Both have a main hall, a small hall, studios and a cafe. Together they host around 160 performances per year and welcome around 140,000 visitors, contributing to the preservation, sustainability and development of performing arts. The building is a beautiful terra cotta brick, with simple yet striking lines, and detailed brickwork. The effect is understated and yet striking.
7. Space Centre
In the early 1970’s Kim designed the headquarters of his architectural firm, SPACE Group. The name reflects Kim’s central idea about craft: “Architecture is not about structures, but really about space,” as his protege (and onetime Seoul City Architect) Seung H-Sang, once put it. “The exterior of a building is just to cover up the space inside, and it is the space inside that’s the most important.” But it was the exterior of the SPACE Group building that gave Kim a highly visible chance to make good on his promise, after the Buyeo National Museum fiasco, to make a return to his Korean roots. He did it with brick, an unfashionable building material at the time, and brick that brings to mind jeondol, the fired clay blocks used for palaces and ritualistic structures during the centuries of the Joseon Dynasty prior to Japanese colonization.
Kim found a site for the SPACE Group Building in Bukchon, a neighborhood now known for its concentration of traditional (and pricey) hanok houses but which in the 1970s had even more of them than it does today. It was also the neighborhood where Kim spent his adolescence, his family having relocated there in 1943 from Chongjin in present-day North Korea. Any architecture critic would be tempted to draw parallels — though “parallels” may not be quite the geometrically appropriate term — between the winding, narrow alleys of Bukchon and the organically layered interior spaces of buildings like this one. He may well have made this still often-quoted observation with Bukchon in mind when he said, “The narrower a good street the better, and the wider a bad street the better.” (Though one might well question the second half of that statement if one has attempted to walk along a Gangnam thoroughfare like, say, Teheran-ro.)
8. Kyung Dong Church
By the early 1980s, Kim altered course from the cruder language of exposed concrete that marked his civic and institutional projects. His focus turned to a more subdued and layered articulation of space, a move commensurate with the new arrangement of materials that elevated the ordinary into a profound visual and tactile experience. The charcoal-coloured brick that mimicked jeondol – fired clay blocks of ancient origins known almost exclusively for palatial uses and ritualistic applications – formed his raised braille-like facades, which are reserved yet wholly intricate to command ornamental status.
9. National Assembly Building
If post-war Korean architecture lacked an avant-garde architect gilded with a utopian vision or manifesto worthy enough for international translation, Kim was the closest one could vouch for. His tenure in Korea had begun with a political commission, his 1960 winning competition entry for South Korea’s first National Assembly Building planned for Namsan Hill. A year later, what launched his career and prompted his return from Tokyo fell sideways in the aftermath of the 16 May coup that propelled President Park Chung-hee into power. Before 1975 the South Korean government used the current Seoul Metropolitan Council Building, a public hall created during the Japanese occupation of Korea.
10. National Museum in Buyeo
Kim’s work of the early 1960s would seem to impeccably demonstrate the sensibilities, both nationalist and pro-American, then demanded of any high-profile South Korean. But these credentials came into question in 1967, with the opening of his National Museum in Buyeo. Journalists, and even other architects, charged Kim’s design, reminiscent as it was of the Shinto Ise Grand Shrine, as excessively Japanese — a potentially career-ending accusation in those days, especially for a Korean not just educated in Japan but married to a Japanese woman. “Because traditional Korean architecture is my psychological foundation,” Kim insisted in response, “it is from traditional Korean architecture I have drawn influence.”
In 1977, his work as an arts-and-culture impresario got him described as the “Lorenzo di Medici of Seoul” by Time magazine.That appellation has stuck to Kim’s image over the decades, due not least to its having been applied by a Western publication (and to an architect who often seemed to build either for or with an eye toward the rest of the world). But the article’s headline described him, more amusingly and perhaps more accurately, as “The Swinging Lorenzo of Seoul.” And because of the generosity, even profligacy, that implies, Kim was no stranger to financial precariousness. The way he later remembered getting started on the SPACE Building sums up his attitude toward money matters: “I was so deep in debt to the bank that my house and the land for the SPACE Group Building had been up for auction several times. Even so, I started construction the building that’s on the land today. You can run up a debt of money, but you can neither borrow nor repay time: with that thought, I just went ahead and built.” In many ways, Kim was a controversial architect and figure. He also garnered less international acclaim, perhaps because of the political conditions of Korea and his lack of exposure / building opportunities in the West. His buildings, however, left a legacy of modernism in Korea and clearly left a mark on the development of architecture as a practice.