I saw Kim, Joong Up only once, at an art exhibition of his wife, a painter. Tall, round-faced and impeccably dressed in a suit, this pioneer of the Korean modern architecture was holding a book and occasionally snapped a few words to people around him with a heavy North Korean accent. I was in my early 20’s; he was in his early 60’s, only a few years before his rather premature death at 66.
I didn’t particularly like his buildings. My heart as a young architect leaned more toward the serene, minimal and controlled classicism of Mies van der Rohe; Kim, Joong Up’s architecture to me was a world of romanticism and rhetoric. He added to this much bravado about his famous connections with star architects, including Le Corbusier, for whom he worked for 3 years between 1952 and 1955. Never known for modesty, Kim was a symbol of an artist-architect, with a unparalleled strong ego and relentless self-promotion. The world had to evolve around him and it did.
After his death, however, things started to get rough for his posthumous reputation. His office literally disintegrated; the number of his disciples, never many even in his lifetime, dwindled; and his buildings, mostly private commissions, started to get demolished or seriously altered. As a result, Kim, Joong Up’s legacy as an architect these days survive mainly in images and writings, not as much in physical reality as it should. This is to the chagrin of people like myself, who, despite personal apathy for his type of architecture, holds a high level of respect for pioneers in the profession and a strong disapproval of the lack of social interest in architectural heritage.
Seo Gynecological Clinic is a potent case study in this regard. Located on a triangular piece of land at the intersection of the Toegye-ro and Eulji-ro, two of the major east-west boulevards in Seoul, this small, 4-story building is considered by many as the quintessential example of Kim’s architecture: romanticism on the verge of fantasy and the emphasis of symbolism over function. Completed in 1965, the building has miraculously managed to survive Seoul’s rampant urban explosion and the change of ownership. No longer a medical facility, the building currently houses a few commercial venues, including sports garment shops. The plan is a nightmare from a practical point of view. Based on a variety of forms such as a penis and a womb, the symbolism of the building may resonate happily with gynecology but the function doesn’t. Dr. Seo is known to have complained about the building fighting with the furniture and medical equipments all the time. (Special thanks to another Dr. Seo, the son, who told me the story.)
Would Kim have minded? Probably not. He was building a monument for life: spirited, dream-like and optimistic. A complex play of forms and spaces that is more like a question than an answer. ‘An ode to a new-born life’ as he said. And it is precisely these qualities that make this building unique and memorable, especially in a pathetically pragmatic country like Korea where ‘architecture’ often means ‘construction’ and vice versa.
Can we save this building? Can’t we turn this building into a small architecture museum dedicated to Kim, Joong Up? A quick calculation gives me a budget of 2 million dollars for purchasing and renovating the property, not including the operating budget. A substantial amount of money, but there should be ways to justify it. Barrowing Kim’s own penchant for rhetoric, can we save this building and turn it into a monument for the dreamer and the hopeless romantic in all of us? And without those, what is life for after all?
For more information about Kim, Joong Up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Joong_Up