Interview of Soo-Young Kim of Su:mvie Architects

This is a translation of the interview of Soo-Young Kim of Su:mvie Architects; Original interview in Korean by Changhyun Park of A round Architects found here;

Sooyoung Kim

Born 1971; B.Arch. Hongik University; M.Arch. Kyonggi University; Worked in offices of Joon-Sung Kim, and Jong-Kyu Kim (M.A.R.U) who were both mentors from graduate school; Founded Su:mvie Architects in 2010; Closely worked on Alvaro Siza’s ‘Amore Pacific Research & Design Center’ while working at M.A.R.U. and published Constructing, a documentation of the design and construction process of the same project through Su:mvie Architects.

Educated in Korea, 1995

Park: Those who were born in 1970 have a different upbringing from the generation before. The earlier generation had to live through tear gasses (Korea went through a political turmoil and students were fighting against dictatorship for democracy). On the other hand, as the generation that began college in 1990, you guys were the ‘orange generation,’ or the ‘x-generation.’ This is the ‘Windows 95 generation,’ who grew up with the internet. Their graduation happened to coincide with the IMF period (financial crisis in Korea in the mid-90s) and as active proponents of culture instead of politics, many people began studying abroad.

During this time, the architecture scene, led by the 4.3 group, began experimenting with architectural education and this was facilitated by the earlier generation of architects who were just returning from overseas. Institutions such as Seoul Architecture School, Kyonggi University School of Architecture, Sunkyung Studio, Korea National University of Arts sprang up during those times. Yet, with the regulations that controlled overseas studies loosened up in 1980, there was a boom of students who chose to study abroad.

Upon graduating from college, you chose to attend Kyonggi University. I believe this decision was influenced by Joonsung Kim, who had worked in Alvaro Siza’s office and was teaching in the program.

Kim: When I was graduating from the undergraduate program, I didn’t think about studying abroad right away. I had at least a vague idea that I would gain work experience before leaving the country. Since I had no plans to attend graduate school, I was going to apply to Space Architecture since they had the earliest openings for jobs. But around December, I learned that Kyonggi University is launching a graduate program led by Joonsung Kim. I first learned about Joonsung Kim in 1993 in a special issue of ‘Architecture & Culture,’ and I told myself, ‘this is the guy!’ At the time, I kept a note where I had been writing down my top 10 favorite architects, philosophers, artists. My favorite architect then was Joonsung Kim and second was Alvaro Siza. (laugh)

Park: Space Architecture’s influence and legacy was unprecedented at the time. But, was there any special reason you chose the office?

Kim: Their job openings began in November, which was the earliest among firms.

Park: I’m sure Space, being the office started by Korea’s first generation architect, Soo-Geun Kim, would have had certain implications and meanings?

Kim: To be honest, I was applying as one of my close friends had applied. (laugh) I did think highly of the office though. But I don’t think I had given serious thought to the idea of practice. So I don’t think I placed any special meaning to Space Architecture, which was already an outstanding office. When Kyonggi University began its promotion in December, Joonsung Kim was the director of the program. So I had all the reason to drop Space Architecture. I quit my job in January of 1995 and visited Joonsung Kim. During the four semester in graduate school, I took three studios with Joonsung. At the time, there was a school regulation that didn’t allow taking the same studio more than twice, but I argued my way into it. (laugh)

Joonsung Kim in academia

Park: How was Joonsung Kim in school, was he different from how you learned of him in magazines?

Kim: There wasn’t a difference. The way Korean architects viewed architecture or the way they developed ideas was fundamentally different from what I had known and learned. I had visited Joonsung Kim’s office with an embarrassing four-page portfolio. I still remember him working at his desk closest to the front door in his bright orange jacket. It was just incredible to see your hero in real life. I remember asking him ‘Is it a good idea to quit Space Architecture to attend Kyonggi University? I’m taking a leap of faith.’ and he replied “Setting up Kyonggi University was also a leap of faith for me.” That’s how we met.

Park: You joined Kyonggi University for Joonsung Kim, but they had great faculty at the time. Architects such as ByoungSoo Cho, Hun Kim, Heon-Tae Kim, Thomas Han, Sun-Joo Min, Hye-Lim Seo had just returned from their studies from Europe and the US. However, you still chose Joonsung Kim. Deconstructionism was hot then, and paper architects, who did not use the classical vocabulary, taught at the school.

Kim: You’re right. The school at the time was filled with architects changing the scene at the time. But I didn’t have to think twice and didn’t look around. Joonsung Kim was the most impressive at the time for me.

Park: From what I remember, Joonsung Kim often talked about phenomenology . His architectural vocabulary was beyond modern.. very active and dynamic. There was much talk about tectonics too. What were your most memorable moments with him?

Kim: I was most moved by the process in which you draw an idea and develop it into an architectural project.

Park: You mean an architectural process?

Kim: Yes.

Park: When you started a project in school, how did a design process begin?

Kim: It’s a matter of where and how an idea is derived. During a lecture, Joonsung explained this through Steven Holl’s Sokolov Retreat project. One sketch depicts a scene rowing a boat towards a glass block tower through the city backdrop, and the other shows taking one’s shoes off and rolling up pants in order to enter the house situated 4 cm below the water surface. He explained that the journey of rowing a boat to the retreat, taking one’s socks off and dipping into the water to enter the house was the idea. I was appalled by this new approach. This was what I meant by how it differed from the design process I was accustomed to. Undergrad was an endless cycle of guessing the program through multiple mass studies and resolving the circulation through plans. But here, Joonsung was talking about a different starting point. He also discussed the possibility of an architectural approach through other disciplines such as physics or film. Those were more about phenomenon rather than phenomenology. It was about experience, and it was impressive how architectural ideas could be developed from experiences.

Park: Now that you are practicing, what do you think of back then?

Kim: Of course practice has its influences, but I do think my views on architecture have changed. Perhaps that’s why I’m not as crazy about Joonsung Kim now as I was back then. (laugh)

Three teachers

Park: Many students at the time were impressed by the diverse approaches to architecture. It was different from the architecture resulting from the gravity or pressure of the existing architectural process from the beginning. Before making any judgment calls, it was just too different and new. I wonder what the differences were, what the possibility was, and what enabled it.

Kim: I can see two reasons. Like in the first question, I think the boredom of the existing architectural process played a big part. It was almost a resistance to making similar projects of different sizes with the same design process. Looking back to school days, I think there was a bigger emphasis on making better presentation instead of making better architecture. The other is the expansion of architectural vocabulary through 1st generation oversea-trained architects including Joonsung Kim. It was fascinating. Materiality was a big topic then. It was even possible to go through a semester without producing a single plan. (laugh) Thinking back to it, our situation now hasn’t changed much, but it has expanded the pattern in which we view architecture. While working after meeting Joonsung Kim at school, my encounters with Jongkyu Kim and Alvaro Siza has also changed my perspective on architects and architecture significantly.

Park: How do you think the influences of Joonsung Kim and Jongkyu Kim manifest in Su:mvie architecture? Joonsung Kim and Jongkyu Kim are very different. Joonsung Kim is more emotional while Jongkyu Kim is rational. Architects born in the 70s didn’t have a lineage to the previous generation that went through political turmoil. However, you’re unique in the sense that you maintain ties with your mentors. I think it explains why your work and approach differs with others. Many young architects nowadays focus on small scale jobs such as houses, renovations, and interiors. However, those few who have connections to their mentors are doing larger scale work like museums, offices, and other work where there is more room for intervention. The two types of work offer different sets of problems and construction costs.

Kim: It’s a great question. I have three mentors who I’ve mentioned earlier: Joonsung Kim, Jongkyu Kim, and Alvaro Siza. Their influences on my work is a separate story, but I am very lucky to have mentors who are currently practicing in the field. In moments where I face a decision, I try to imagine how each of my mentors would respond to the problems. It may be less imaginative compared to other young practices, but the work we are trying to do at Su:mvie is a bit different. I have spent a long time working in other offices so there is pressure to produce quality architecture before experimenting here and there. What we pursue at Su:mvie is different from young architects (that are actually young).

Meeting Alvaro Siza

Park: The impression I had was that although Joonsung Kim had guided you, Joonsung Kim and Alvaro Siza’s tendencies are very different. Their Aspirations and projects yield different results. As you grew in the office, I think it would have been inevitable to be influenced by Siza’s details. I’m curious because although you were exposed to many things in school, you were interested in Joonsung Kim (who had worked for Siza) and ended up with Siza. Alvaro Siza’s work is more traditional and modernist. If your current work reflects that tendency, are you interested in returning to modernism or are you interested in something past Alvaro Siza’s modernism and post-modernism?

Kim: You’re right. I can’t deny Siza’s influence in my current work. My friend calls it ‘Siza-fanboy.’ If Su:mvie’s practice is different from other offices, it’s that our first work was a book. We produced Constructing, a book that documented the design and construction process of the work I did with Siza while working at M.A.R.U. If a conventional office slowly develops a vocabulary through every project, Su:mvie began by climbing onto Siza’s shoulder and proclaiming its architectural stance. In our first built work, Finelink, many commented on Siza’s influence on the work and I admit it too. But our goal with the book was to explore the meaning of building in Korea, and the sustainability of the role and responsibility of Korean architecture. Su:mvie’s architecture will continue to examine this problem as we build. It does not matter whether it looks like Alvaro Siza, Joonsung Kim, or Jongkyu Kim.

Park: In addition to construction buildings, can you elaborate on the other aspects?

Kim: I’ve always had a deep respect for Siza as an architect, but I never imagined that I would produce a book. The most difficult aspect of the process was the lack of architectural vocabulary in Korean. As a Korean architect practicing in Korea, I felt a dearth in the appropriate terminology to describe Siza’s perspective on a building built in Korea. As explained earlier, Constructing is about the construction process of a building. You can tell that the five chapters that consist of the book refer to the tectonics. You could say that the underlying theme of the book is the principle of units for tectonics. The design and construction process was a continuing battle of units/measurements and part of the goal of the book was to reveal that tectonic is the process in which all necessary units are gathered, placed, connected, and applied. That is the job of the architect. My biggest lesson was how an architect should manage his role and responsibility from the perspective of tectonics. The rest is about design language. But I also think design language is developed through tectonics.

Park: Alvaro Siza has actively engaged the situation he was in and took charge of projects that gained social attention. In regards to Portugal that went through an unstable period during the movement to establish democracy in 1974. Siza had often worked against dictatorship regimes and it shows through his work. Can we discuss your work through that lens?

Kim: I haven’t been able to give serious thought to Siza’s background. However, it did seem like the social status and role of architects in Portugal seemed solid and respectable. Perhaps the architect’s social role was possible due to the difficult circumstances surrouding his projects. I could also see the toughness of the architect and the obstacles of society clash and create something productive. But one could say otherwise given the unfavorable conditions Portugal is facing at the moment. In contrast, architects in Korea are completely different beings. There is nothing much of a role… Anyway, Siza did get me to think about the fundamental aspects of architecture and architects.

Park: What do you mean by fundamental?

Kim: I’ve mentioned it earlier briefly, but in the construction of an building, the architect’s role is the wholly understand and connect the elements of construction. I think that is the role of architects and that’s what design is. Design happens in the collaborative relationships among structure, mechanical, electrics, engineering, material, and products — This is what construction is. Construction is forming everything physical, social, and cultural on top of an architectural foundation. I think this is the basis of architecture… It’s kind of embarrassing to have this much conviction having built only one building… I take it back (laugh)

Achieving spatial clarity

Park: The collaborative relationship and process with subcontractors is nothing special in an architectural process. I’m curious about your relationships and positions with your collaborators and how you dealt with the changes and processes.

Kim: We want to be as clear as possible wit the space we intend to create, especially with the sensibility and the feelings.The only way to achieve that is to be precise with units. A slight mismatch always leads to a problem. At Su:mvie, we try as hard as we can to produce 1:1 scale construction documents. Unlike foreign projects, the client, the contractors, and other subcontractors do not try to work closely with the architect. Since everything adds to the cost, changes on site are very difficult and thus we try to make as little change on site as possible. Things might get easier as I become a master architect, but not at the moment. Since there are few contractors and subcontractors who actively try to seek out the architect’s intentions, you need precise principles and measurements. But I also understand why the contractors are passive. Contractors suffer from low bidding costs and subcontractors suffer from low design fees which make it harder for them to spend more time on the project. Considering how bad the social position of the architect is, you can’t expect any better for the subcontractors. It is a difficult condition for the architectural ecosystem. But I think everything starts with the role of the architect.

Park: I’d like to learn more on how you managed those collaborations.

Kim: I’ve mentioned it briefly, but we had to check everything from the position to the height of each installation during the process. If the ceiling height is 2400(mm), every subcontractor worked to meet that number. One thing that stayed with me from Siza is his precision with measurements. It almost felt like he was sketching with the image of the full-scale building in his head. Of course, his sketches were confirmed through models, but it was remarkable and I was always curious as to which principle he would set for the units.

Park: If we were to exploring this topic in relation to your practice, I think there are connections to the Finelink project. If the units of that project did not have a strict principle, I think there would be a big difference in the visual experience of the space and the bodily experience of the space. As a final product, I could see the intentions presented in a clear manner. So I was please with the project. (laugh) I’m curious where Siza derived those measurements such as 2400 and 2150 and in what circumstances they could change. I also wonder if he has all the units memorized to applied universally. However, I think units can be flexible depending on where the window goes, colors change, and the texture differs. Where do those measurements come from? Experience or sensibility? Or data accumulated over time. I think all three cases offer different narratives.

Kim: It’s a very important question. I’d like to say first that I always carry measured drawings of other architects. I try to memorize the ceiling height, the modules, and any measurements outlined in the drawing. I try to understand architects that work with precise architectural vocabulary such as Siza, Chipperfield, Olgiatti, Märkli through drawings. There are things you can pick up from photographs, but there are distortions so I like to read buildings through drawings. I don’t have much experience with good spaces. It means that I don’t have a clear understanding of what consists of a good space. I haven’t been able to visit buildings in other countries as well as buildings here. Of course, buildings that work in other places may not work in Korea. But it is a problem to be tuned in reality. Such is a reason you can see the influence on measurements in the Finelink project. But what’s interesting is that the architect’s I have listed before use existing architectural languages. You can tell that they take the existing architectural language and transform them to fit the given conditions. Even the translation process is according to strict architectural principles and nothing invented by the architect. I’ve been thinking about two things regarding measurements. One is ‘what does scale mean in a Korean context.’ And If scale does have a meaning, ‘what kind of scale can we come up with?’ I think it’s an never-ending architectural problem…

Park: Rafael Moneo uses the terms” Silent Lyricism,” or “Condensed Space” to describe Siza’s space. This includes the precision, the way you connect a space to space, and unexpected moments that disrupt the stability. I think it actually contradicts the precision in the way Siza works. How does this work in real life?

Kim: Rather than contradictory, I think the lyrical, emotional spaces are possible because of his precision. How do you even fathom the spatial brilliance of his genius…?

Park: Are you saying that he creates those spaces based on precision in measurements and content?

Kim: Siza is tremendously technical in every aspect. This is something all Korean architects must learn. Siza understands the entire process including industrial and physical principles in building a building. His measurements are based on this knowledge and this why his spaces are more impressive.

continued in part 2