Global vs Local: the Case of Contemporary Architecture in Twenty-First Century Korea

       As I was concluding my last article (cf.: Architecture as the Built Form of Colonial Ambitions), I hinted at the Korean national architectural identity currently being molded by today’s work from Korean architects. Parallel to that development, there is also a reality more and more present in Korea that is hard to look over: the influx of international architects.

      Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Park & Plaza, KPF’s Lotte World Tower, Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Busan Cinema Center or Asymptote’s World Business Center Solomon Tower in Busan are but a few examples of the international firms having projects in Korea. They usually end up with large scale, “key-in-hands”, high profile projects with lots of media coverage. Such a result is understandable, especially in a culture as brand-conscious as Korea, it is no wonder that clients want to have signature architecture. At the same time, websites like Archdaily or Dezeen give great world-wide publicity and exposure to such projects.

From left to right: Zaha Hadid [G], KPF [C], Coop Himmelb(l)au [B] and Asymptote [A]

The latest high profile architectural endeavor, the Yongsan International Business District (YIBD) project, has created quite a controversy. Located in the center of Seoul, this gigantic project is headed by Daniel Libeskind who is in charge of the masterplan of an area over 500 000m2 big. Nineteen world-famous design offices (including BIG, REX, KPF, SOM, Asymptote and MVRDV – their newly unveiled Cloud Towers is their contribution to the Yongsan project – to name a few) have been selected to design the buildings of the YIBD.[3] The main problem though is that no local architecture offices are part of the list.

Masterplan of the YIBD by Studio Libeskind [F]
MVRDV’s Cloud [D]

        Hiring international offices is not entirely bad, after all, having a signature building, good publicity or positive economic impact (though not always guaranteed [2]) brought in by these constructions are always good. Also, foreign offices need to contract with Korean architecture groups in order to have their plans in accordance with local laws and regulations. But what is the price of seeking that “Bilbao effect”? If we look on a purely architectural point of view, beyond the publicity stunts, the branding and local employment, what happens to this “architectural identity” that is being shaped at the moment if the Korean practices are not given design work?

         These years are key moments in defining what Korean architecture will be like in the coming generation. This country’s recent history was filled with external influences before Kim Soo Geun’s heritage took over. But now that the Kim Soo Geun era is over, it should be a time of diversity and strong design messages from different offices and architecture studios across the country to start shaping up a new architectural identity. Unfortunately, giving the big projects to foreign firms and relegating Korean architects to adjust foreign designs to laws/regulations does not enable them to fully express their creative potential. Chances of landing a big contract should be given to local offices as well, especially in culturally significant projects like the YIBD. A radical, Korean-only, approach might not be the ideal solution as well, but a fairness in project distribution would be an appreciated effort and would bring about diversity in the built environment.

        An interesting project to look at is the National Art Museum of Seoul presently in construction in the historic part of Seoul.[4] The selection process was through an international competition where, in the end, Mp_Art & Siaplan Architects – Korean offices – were selected as the winners of the competition. They proposed a design that is simple, contemporary as well as respectful of the culture and its surroundings. It must not have been an easy task considering the significance of that area in Korea’s history.

National Art Museum of Seoul [E]

         In the end, in order to create their new identity, Korean architectural offices should not only be given the design leftovers at the architectural “starchitect-guested” banquet. Though some international architects have the ability to create a dialogue between their building, the local culture and the built environment, let’s not forget that local firms are in known grounds. [1] Their knowledge goes beyond simple imagery, basic cultural references, stainless steel or glass towers. They should, after all, shape the new vernacular of their country. All that is left to wonder is if the job givers are more interested in the evolution of the Korean vernacular or if the shiny glass of dreamed towers will not blind them in believing that Korea is now nothing more than a funhouse of swirly designs and cloud-tickling structures.


1.   DVIR, Noam. “Starchitecture” vs homegrown design, as seen on on Feb. 7th 2012.
2. LEE, Hyo-won & PENER, Degen. Can “Starchitecture” Change the Busan Film Festival?, as seen on on Feb.7th 2012.
3.  LEE, Kyungtaek. Yongsan International Business District, With no Signpost for Development, in Space, no.531, Feb. 2012,120 pages, pp. 20-23.

4.   National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea
website:, as seen on Feb 8th 2012.

IMAGES REFERENCES: (as seen on Feb. 17th 2012)

A. Asymptote Architecture:
Coop Himmelb(l)au:
Kohn Pederson Fox Associates:
MVRDV Architects:
National Art Museum Seoul:
Studio Libeskind:
Zaha Hadid Architects:

David Martin


About mtlcan

I am a graduate from Université de Montréal, Canada. I am currently getting professional and life experiences in Seoul, South Korea. I look forward to spreading the word about Korean architecture.
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2 Responses to Global vs Local: the Case of Contemporary Architecture in Twenty-First Century Korea

  1. Y Lang Ly says:

    Nice article! Great job 🙂

  2. alleyrun says:

    In a way those foreign star architects are also victims. A tragic side of this Korean love affair with ‘star architects’ is the surprisingly poor quality of the finished projects, compared to what they do outside. As you point out, what the Korean public and corporate clients are after is probably not quality architecture, but the brands. They do not necessarily respect these creators either, star or not; they simply ‘consume’ them. A real tragedy is that the public ends up not being given good architecture they deserve.
    Thank you for an insightful article.

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