Nation Building

Nation Building


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.