Can We Save This Building?: Architect Kim, Joong Up’s Seo Gynecological Clinic

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: 


About alleyrun

I am an architect and writer. I live and work in Seoul's belly of alleys.
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11 Responses to Can We Save This Building?: Architect Kim, Joong Up’s Seo Gynecological Clinic

  1. admin says:

    headson (2010.07.09)
    I hope so. I hope it can be saved. Several years ago, one of the most popular student competition’s topic was renovation of that building. Because of that, a lot of freshman architects know well about that building and have assent opinion with you. I think it is good start.

    Anyway I am reallly happy to open such a good community.

  2. alleyrun says:

    eastrock (2010.07.12)
    Thank you for the feedback.

    I think in order to nuture and foster the talented people in the present, we need to respect and honour the talented people in the past.

  3. admin says:

    byungkeun (2010.07.15)
    Your statement, ” despite personal apathy for his type of architecture, [I hold] a high level of respect for pioneers in the profession and a strong disapproval of the lack of social interest in architectural heritage.” echoes my sentiments.

    There must be a cultural heritage foundation who could take on the preservation of this building? Though my knowledge of modern Korean architecture is rather quite limited, it should be saved to inform and educate the people–of a “pathetically pragmatic country like Korea where ‘architecture’ often means ‘construction’ and vice versa”–of their architectural heritage.

  4. admin says:

    sunhyung_kim (2010.07.15)
    I can remember,, I had stayed up all night to find the answer to the question you brought here when I was working on that student’s competition. Even without all the historical or cultural values of it, I think it’s worth saving the building as one of design typologies in Korea. If we can classify all the modern buildings in Korea according to the formalistic view, it could be a “one of a kind”. I think it could be interpreted as a primitive trial of blob architecture and 1960s construction technology to realize it. I hope someday we could have a valued moment; giving a rebirth to the small giant. Lastly, for those who are pulblic officials in Seoul, I hope they know, preserving old buildings also could possibly be a part of “DESIGN SEOUL”. I hope they know, inviting foriegn architects is not the only way to go.

    BTW, I’m really glad to be here as one of members.

  5. alleyrun says:

    eastrock (2010.07.15)
    Thank you, Byungkeun and Sunhyung. (Is this the same Sunhyung I know?)

    As Sunhyung said, this building was a subject of a student competition held by DOCOMOMO Korea ( / English) several years ago and I was one of the juries. There are similar NGO’s and citizen activists’ groups in Korea dedicated to the preservation of the historic culture and buildings, such as National Trust ( / English), Arumjigi( / Korean only) and Yeol ( / English). On the public side, regional governments and the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea( / English) of course pitch in as well.

    I just hope this small masterpiece will be saved from a wrecker’s ball and continue to stand as a symbol of the free and creative in all of us.

  6. admin says:

    sunhyung_kim (2010.07.18)
    Yes, it’s me. I’m the one you know. Thank you for inviting me to this great community.

  7. alleyrun says:

    eastrock (2010.07.19)
    Oh, there you are. Good to see you again.

    Any interesting news from Ann Arbor? You can wirte about it on Plaza.

  8. mtlcan says:

    mtlcan (2010.08.10)
    I think we should save it! The plan has a bit of a Victor Horta / art nouveau feel to it. It is quite unique to see such a building considering the urban context of Seoul.

  9. admin says:

    khunhae (2010.08.26)
    The building was my first research project when I was a freshman in the college.
    I was shocked because of the various space in the buillding.
    I feel bad for the building which is covered with signage.
    Anyway, we should save and renovate it.

  10. admin says:

    pearlhill (2010.09.25)
    can we save this building? I appreciate your approach to the past. At the same time I feel sad about public interest in architectural heritage in Korea. But if we think the reason why it happens, maybe the answer comes back to us. architectural profession. I think the major leading group in Korean architecural profession try harder to get public interest at the level of other countries’ level. It might take long time to be loved by the pubic. With same kinds of thought, I think the approach to save this kinds of architectural heritage, we need to have more general presevation policy or regulation(maybe we had already. For example in usa, I think if the building meets the standard in presevation policy, you cannot even clean that building at your own way. It is prohibited very strictly). Not only for Kim joong up’s case, I am pretty sure we have a lot of precious heritage we need to preserve with our social consensus.

    By the way, unlikely you. Kim Joong up is the only hero when I decided to study architecture to me. Yes, his building might be difficult to find the suitable furniture from the standard market for the resident. but on the other hand, his building might touch public much deeper than very well designed by serene, minimal and controlled architect. just my opinion.

  11. Pingback: Found on | A Flâneur in Korea

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