Sungyong Joh



Jamsil-dong, Songpa-gu, Seoul

Domestic apartment buildings in Korea are usually supplied by the construction companies and the government, restricting the opportunities for architects to take part. Except for one exclusion, which is the Asia Seonsuchon Apartments built to accommodate athletes from all over the world who were expected to participate in the Asian Games in 1986 and the Olympic Games in 1988 held in Seoul. It was designed by architect Sungyong Joh, who was born in Tokyo in 1944. His family followed their engineer father to their motherland right before the liberation from Japan. Then they found refuge in Busan during the Korean War. He had walked through every bit of the modern history of this nation. Renowned for his designs for Seonyudo Park, the Seoul Olympic Museum of Art (SOMA), Uijae Art Museum, we had the chance to hear his interesting stories and thoughts behind the apartments and parks in Seoul. Our interview began by taking a walk through the apartment complex, which later took place at his studio located in Palpan-dong.

Yoojin Jung

You’ve been an architect for over 40 years. What’s your latest interest?

There’s always the feeling of accomplishment once the construction is over but as an architect, I’m very much interested in how the building will turn out after the coming decades. I’m also curious about how people feel as they live in the space that’s not of my possession, how much effect the surrounding has on them. And as I age, I’m also concerned about the ways we tear down buildings. I wonder if there are alternative ways to treat an expired building other than simply demolishing it and building another.

An international design competition for an apartment building is a rare case in Korea, marking Asia Seonsuchon Apartments its first. We’re curious about the vibe of the society around the time you designed the Apartments.

After the Gangnam development took place, the government went ahead with the Jamsil area as well, as it was expected to host the global athletic events. The people in Jamsil believed they were part of Gangnam. The international design competition was held in 1983 and considering the fact rhat architects usually designed private houses or public facilities, being able to design an apartment building was certainly an exceptional case in the past and even for today as well. It was just a couple of years after the critical 5.18 Gwangju Democratization Movement so the domestic politics was in an unstable phase. So as a means to show off, the government set the size of the site very large, with a condition to install a park within. It was a project with an extremely high demand of symbolism and monumentality.


What was the priority for its design?

I desired to bring to life the concept of a community within the complex where people would dwell closely with their neighbors. So I created a number of communal spaces in order to increase the chance of running into each other. Instead of aligning them straight, I arranged the three buildings into the shape of a ‘ㄷ’ and created 8 clusters. It was a giant complex that housed 1,400 apartments so I wanted to create little villages inside. In the beginning residents complained about the outer communal spaces being too big or uncomfortable but as time passed, they gradually understood the intentions of my ‘intended discomfort.’ It could be annoying to be walking through the snow or the rain or the pile of fallen leaves while you head to the public parking lot from your front door, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the weather and the environment while we live our daily lives. And I wanted the buildings to stand as a mountain, which explains the difference in the ceiling heights from the 9th floor to the 18th. Thanks to that, the parking lot doesn’t look too suffocating due to the good amount of sun that shines towards it all day.

Today’s apartment complexes highly lack the sense of a community.

The structure of apartments today are intended to cut off encounters with neighbors. People have just been fooled by the irresponsible construction companies that only focus on building them taller and taller. Well aware of the people preferring big brands with apartment buildings today, they keep advertising fantasies. However, the apartment buildings overseas are built with much diversity. Whether it’s a single dad or mom, an elderly who lives by him/herself, or a nuclear family, you obviously need different layouts according to the size of your family members. But unfortunately, for the past decades, the Korean construction companies just repeatedly stamp identical, easy-to-build structures for the sake of themselves.

We were told you had the Korean funeral culture in mind when you designed the apartments.

A house is basically a plate someone’s life dwells. Although it’s pretty much gone, we had certain rituals for our weddings and funerals, of which you need a wider space to carry the ‘bride’s box’ or the coffin, and that’s why I designed long corridors that stretch from the front door to the elevators. The half-circle-shaped elevators also takes the coffins into consideration so people could carry it without having to hold it upwards. It was until the early 90s when people still held funerals at home. In my intentions, I wanted people to be able to set up a tent at the public field if needed, and neighbors would stop by and share the grief.

Could you share us how you came about living in the apartment you designed?

As soon as the Olympics was over, the apartments were up for sale in lots. Unlike the normal apartments built and owned by companies, it was in possession of the government, and so the higher the donation, the chance of auctioning off one of the apartments was bigger. And my wife had made quite a donation without my knowing which enabled us to succeed the bid.


 Now is the era when apartment buildings draw clear lines between the social stratum. And as of today, the Asia Seonsuchon Apartments has become one of those high-class apartments.

Although it’s located in Jamsil, the prices have exceptionally skyrocketed just like Gangnam. The Asia Seonsuchon Apartments have a wide range of sizes, all clustered to share the same parking lot. In a way it’s a social mix. And we’ve planted countless trees outside, which forms a forest now. And residents get to share the multiple tracks through the forest.

Is there anything you feel sorry about while living here for over 30 years?

To be frank, main gates of apartment complexes should be eliminated and let everyone easily come and go. However, us Koreans like to make clear boundaries of ‘my apartment building,’ ‘my apartment complex’ and prefer fences and gates. They refuse to share any space with outsiders. During the design phase, I insisted on getting rid of the fence but in the end I had to yield to the government with four gates on all four sides of the complex. Parks in Korea also keep a line between the outside space and the inside. We should get rid of the idea of separating spaces. I’m also sorry that it lacks proper spaces for children. I should’ve created more sites with soil, trees and grass besides playgrounds limited to toddlers only, but back then I wasn’t capable of thinking that far. Kids should be able to slide down a slope, be able to craft things with branches and grass leaves, create secret hideouts at hidden spots parents don’t know about. Because the variety of senses you build as a child keeps existing inside you.

As an architect, which project gives you most satisfaction?

Certainly the Seonyudo Park which used to be a water reservoir. I believe it will become better over time. The concrete will slowly corrode and the trees will become more rich, which will someday overtake the industrial mass. The place will be full of greenery. The reason behind its popularity is because it offers different landscapes as the seasons change. I purposely excluded plants that are green all year, like those at amusement parks. It should be springing with greens in spring and be bare in winter.

Seoul is acquiring a number of parks today. This tells us how thirsty the citizens were for parks.

Do you know how the history of parks began? Once you step outside the city, it’s green all over so parks don’t make sense out there. It’s definitely the cities that are in need of them. Parks are places where you can rest within nature at least once a week, visiting whenever you please. The citizens must be the owner of the city parks, meaning it must exist like air, like a place that’s always there for the owner, whether one goes from work or home. The owners of the restored Cheonggyecheon are the workers of the surrounding stores and factories. But in reality, it’s mostly tourists from other parts of the city or country.

In the eyes of an architect, what’s unique about Seoul?

If you picture cities like Tokyo, Paris, New York or London, you clearly don’t see any mountains. But Seoul has a number of mountains in such small city, and in a way, we might not need that many parks after all. I mean, the mountains are just within your reach. However, nowadays it’s hard to feel like you’re close to the mountains. If a city development has to take place, I personally wish it only happens on the outside of the Seoul Fortress Wall.


And you’ve been actively teaching architecture major students.

I teach students of generation that design with computers, so my lectures might sound outdated. But they’re not generations that time-traveled from outer space you know. Architecture is still about understanding the earth, the lives and thoughts of people from this day and age, therefore I believe there’s still some left for me to teach.

Please tell us about your current project.

I’m currently engaged in making a record of the living environment of patients that suffer from leprosy at Sorok Island. It’s been over 5 years since I started this project. The Sorok Island used to be a concentration camp that crammed every single patients with Hansen’s disease on a deserted island, offering treatment as well as using them as a source of labor during the Japanese Colonial Era. But even after the independence, the Korean government pursued to operate it. There’s no other place in the world that imprisoned patients against their will like the Sorok Island. Today there are approximately 500 patients left, the average age is around 70 so in a couple of more decades, after they all pass away, the island is going to fall into ruin. So my mission here is to seek ways to preserve the island. Some are trying to make it into a tourist attraction. Once you’re there, you’ll immediately get the sense of the tragic history, so sad that it might make you teary, but on the other hand, its landscape is just incredibly beautiful. No one has ever archived nor studied the days and spaces of the people that were doomed to live there throughout their whole lives. I’m working on this project together with the researchers at the Sungkyun Architecture Institute(SKAi). Roofs of empty houses and buildings have collapsed, the trees and bushes have long been tangled so those are already in such bad conditions, which makes it difficult to draw out an accurate floor plan. There’s also this lodging for patients built in 1928. And it’s no building built with normal construction supplies. It’s built with bricks, piled up by patients who could barely stretch their fingers. You can’t just easily tear things like this down. I wish more people become aware of the island and its unfortunate history. And I sometimes think this might be the last project of my life. If I’m not able to complete it, someone else must finish it up for me.