His career as an architect has propelled Minsuk Cho across the world and his buildings - whether the cute Pixel House or a giant corporate HQ - always have a considered point of view and a characterful beauty. After graduating from the prestigious Yonsei University in his native South Korea, he migrated 8,600km westwards to Rotterdam to work for Rem Koolhaas - the Dutch design provocateur whose OMA firm has been the incubator for a generation of so-called starchitects - before moving to New York during the post-dot-com-bubble gloom. Determined to do more than loft renovations, Minsuk returned to Seoul in 2003 to discover a megacity where skyscrapers go up overnight and neighbourhoods become unrecognisable in a decade. Here, against a backdrop of technology and transience, he established his own firm, Mass Studies, with the aim of creating buildings imbued with a reason to stay.
Felix Burrichter: Tell me about your move back to Korea.
Minsuk Cho: I moved back here in 2003, but before that I’d been going back and forth between New York City and Seoul because I was working on my first free-standing commission - a small two-storey family home that I called the Pixel House - in Paju, a city north-west of Seoul. Up until that point I had been living outside of Korea for 14 years and I think I resisted the idea of returning because I didn’t want to feel like I was going backwards.
FB: Why the change of heart?
MC: I realised that the Seoul I’d come from was quite a different place from the Seoul I was returning to. That was true of Korea in general, actually. There had been an enormous amount of political change, and it felt almost like I was coming to a new country.
FB: Really? You were born in Seoul, right?
MC: Yes, I grew up here and went to college here. It was at graduate school in New York City, at Columbia University, that I met James Slade, and we went on to start a firm together.
FB: How would you describe the difference between working in the East, where you are now, and working in the West?
MC: Quite fascinating. When James and I started Cho Slade in 1998, just after Rotterdam and my OMA experience, we were quite active in what I call the architectural discourse machine: doing exhibitions, entering competitions and getting recognition from the press. But we never had the chance to build from the ground up. Then we were asked by a client in Korea to completely refurbish a shop, and the entire construction took just two months. That was an astounding experience: we were so happy, it was like instant gratification. I calculated at the time that a comparable project in New York City would have taken about a year, meaning we were working six times faster in Korea. In one day there, we could do a week’s work. That was very exciting.
FB: Is there also a difference in terms of how long a project will actually exist?
MC: Yes, I was just going to get to that. After we completed that project, it had to be taken down after just two years! If you think of that cliché of architects considering their projects as their babies, this one had a very short lifespan and it was heart-breaking. That aspect diminished the excitement of being able to build so quickly. Now, 14 years after establishing my “new” firm Mass Studies, we’re consciously exploring alternatives to this faster-and-cheaper way of building, which is so wasteful. We have shifted our attention to longer-lasting projects. At the moment we’ve reached a kind of middle point.
FB: You like middle points, don’t you? I read something about how your favourite moment of the day is being in the shower, because it’s a transitional moment.
MC: I also like the minutes just before bedtime.
FB: Another transitional moment.
MC: Exactly. I like the idea of being in a liminal space. It’s also interesting because in Korea people don’t like it when other people stand in doorways. It is considered bad luck and a taboo. If your kid stands in the doorway, you say, “No, no, no, avoid that area.” I think architecture is interesting because you’re always being put into these kinds of threshold situations.
FB: Do you have an example?
MC: Well, the whole world tends to want to polarise everything. When we started Mass Studies, I felt like we were being asked to choose between two very opposite types of practice: there was the camp that’s responsible for 99 per cent of the built environment: slick, fast* and cheap. These architects are often very brave, but they also often feel very guilty because they don’t have much time to think, and they’re exhausted. Then there’s the polar opposite camp. They are mostly very serious people, and at Mass Studies we feel intellectually closer to them. They do a lot of critical thinking, and they’re very sensitive and, although what they do is of a very high standard, they often feel limited in terms of scale and scope. So the downside to that is that they’re often very angry.
FB: Hmm. Guilt or anger: a tough choice.
MC: Ha! What we try to do at Mass Studies is combine the one camp’s bravery with the other camp’s sensitivity. But without any of the guilt or the anger.
FB: How big is Mass Studies now?
MC: Now, we’re 25 people. We started with four, and only two years later we’d grown to 40 people. It was a very unusual trajectory. In terms of projects, we jumped from the 80-square-metre Pixel House to the Missing Matrix in Seoul, a 55,000-square-metre residential skyscraper, in two years. Then I realised I didn’t really like that size of operation, because it felt quite inorganic to me. I think certain architects have an amazing talent for being able to grow in an organic way, but that’s very rare. For most, it takes a good amount of time to develop a working culture, a language of your own.
FB: I understand the big project you’re about to finish is a university building, am I right?
MC: That’s right. It’s for Daejeon University and it’s basically a dormitory for 600 students. The site is quite unusual: it’s on a slope, with a 27-metre drop.
FB: Where is Daejeon?
MC: Daejeon is less than an hour away from Seoul on the high-speed train. Daejeon isn’t a large university but it’s developed a distinctive cultural identity in terms of working with Korean architects - most of whom are a generation or so older than me. The university really believes in architecture and how it can improve student life. It’s quite utopian in its way. Part of their educational mission is equipping students to be continuing members of society.
FB: How are you doing that with your design?
MC: We’ve enlarged the common space by applying a sort of Hertzberger approach.
FB: Hertzberger being Herman Hertzberger, the Dutch architect?
MC: Yes. Our goal was to make compact, efficient private spaces. We used bunk beds to save space, but then each bunk is large and private and has its own windows. This allowed us to enlarge the common spaces - to make them something more than just functionalist corridors.
FB: How, ultimately, do you measure the success of your firm?
MC: I think the measure of success is being able to be super excited about what you do. Especially in the Asian market, once you’re known for something, they can turn you into a robot, almost.
FB: When you say “the Asian market,” can you elaborate on that a little bit?
MC: In East Asia, it’s not as thriving as before - we are no longer in the era of the Four Asian Tigers, when Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan were industrialising - but there remains this enormous energy and also an appetite for new things, including architecture. It’s also a relatively new culture, so it’s less jaded, let’s say.
FB: I think there is an interesting dichotomy about Mass Studies. Your personal background and the conceptual underpinning of your work is very international, combining your education in Korea with your time in Europe and New York City. But then your physical output is predominantly in Korea.
MC: Yes. Korea is a small country but its population is in the region of 50 million people, so it’s very dense, with so many different cultural conditions inside it. A project I might work on in Seoul can have more in common with a project in Hong Kong than one in the Korean countryside, for example. When people started talking about the global versus the local, the idea of globalism was always equated with westernisation. Korea is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. There is the obvious westernisation in urbanised areas, but for non-urbanised areas it’s a kind of “southernisation,” I would say, where a third of the marriages are between Koreans and South Asians. So I think the idea of globalisation itself has been diversified.
MC: Yes, and due to this diversification, the number of foreigners has increased fourfold since I came back to Korea in 2003. In fact, one of the projects we’re currently working on is a community for mostly Filipino mothers.
FB: Where is that?
MC: It’s an hour north of Seoul, close to the Demilitarised Zone. It’s a small project and it’s really nice because it’s not about trying to turn these women into Koreans. Koreans can go there, too, and learn about Filipino culture.
FB: It’s funny you mention the Demilitarised Zone, or DMZ, between North and South Korea, given your interest in interstitial or liminal spaces.
MC: One self-initiated project we are currently working on concerns the DMZ. It’s kind of a spin-off from the Venice Biennale exhibition I did in 2014, which was about trying to understand Korean history through architecture and urbanism. The DMZ is a fascinating place - it’s something of a nature reserve, having become a haven for wildlife and plants. This project started two years ago, during a really dark moment in Korean politics. Right now, things are looking more hopeful.
FB: Clearly, that’s a project that’s intrinsically site-specific. Is that important to you?
MC: It goes back to the frustrating situation that, as an architect, you’re left with polarising choices. In one way, global architecture has become like a Wikipedia entry, with everybody sharing all the ingredients from all the different parts of the world to the point where you can’t even identify where something has come from anymore.
FB: A kind of a flattening of everything?
MC: Yeah, exactly. “Flattening” is actually the word that’s often used. And then there is the opposite end, which is this utter fetishisation of the local. I remember a few years ago I was invited to this very upscale dinner at somebody’s loft in New York and the chef there served each dish while proudly revealing his sources and basically sharing with us a directory of “boutique farmers” in the Tri-State Area. I found it almost decadently local. Likewise, I think there are some architects who consciously present the essence of their work as an anti-global force, which I also don’t find very interesting. As you’ve probably gathered, at Mass Studies we don’t like having just two options available to us. I think there should be another healthy and more informative way of dealing with this local-versus-global situation. I don’t know. I’m working on it. I can’t necessarily articulate it, but I know what to avoid.
FB: Well, that’s always a good start.
*) Contranym 3: FAST
A contranym is a word that has contradictory meanings, depending on its context. The word “fast” can denote both quick motion (“he put all of his money on a fast horse”) and an absence of motion (“the hors got its hoof caught fast in the grate”).