Minsuk Cho at 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, which he curated.
Minsuk Cho at 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, which he curated.

Korean architect Minsuk Cho discusses the political importance of architecture

Having recently visited Dubai and presented at the design MENA Summit as a keynote speaker, the founder of Seoul-based studio Mass Studies was quite vocal about the role of architecture in developing a new world for transitioning societies

I think everything you do is political,” said Korean architect Minsuk Cho, founder of the Seoul-based studio Mass Studies. “Wasn’t it Winston Churchill who said that? He said something like, ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.’ I think it’s very important and very powerful being an architect – we need to be very aware of what we’re doing.”

Having recently visited Dubai and presented at the design MENA Summit as a keynote speaker, Cho was quite vocal about the role of architecture in developing a new world for transitioning societies. He has long been committed to the discourse of architecture through socio-cultural and urban research. His built works include the Daejeon University dormitories, Daum Space 1 and Missing Matric, among others. In 2011, he co-curated the Korean Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, which won the Golden Lion for best national participation.

“Korea in the 1970s was all about creating new wealth,” he said, “which was reflected in the towers and monumental blocks drawn up across the cities. Everyone who moved into those communities was finally becoming a part of the middle class and, in that, they lost interest in the politics of the country. They were busy paying mortgages now. And we’ve been going through that ever since – it not only encourages an anti-urban space, but it creates a homogenous mindset that’s easy to control.”

According to Cho, following its growth spurt in the 1970s, South Korea’s urban development has been stagnating. “Important values can sometimes be lost or forgotten when we create a city,” he said, “but we now need to translate them into a much denser and higher understanding of urban development. We need to create something that hasn’t existed before in a very fast way – a 21st century format, if you will.”

When confronted with issues that arise out of rapid growth – from little genuine community emphasis to poor on-site decision making, Cho noted that countries can learn from each other’s mistakes.“If you look at China, they’re skipping mistakes that we’ve made, which I find very impressive,” he said. “You have to be fearless to create a human environment that hasn’t been created before – and at such a speed.“I think the majority of countries are now expressing their modernity. America, Europe and Japan were major protagonists in modernism, while the rest of us were living in the margins under colonial rule. Until the 20th century, Japan had been implanting modernist principles into Korea, which were taken from Germany, the UK and so on. It’s only been half a century that we’ve been actively articulating our own modernity, and Korea is not a rare case. Now, everything happens simultaneously. We are now all learning from each other.”

Since establishing his firm in 2003, Cho has spent the better part of his career designing buildings that also serve as public interventions. They command their site, draw movement from the environment and reflect his hope for progression. And while he believes architects are often forced to choose between two identities, Cho looks to move fluidly between impact and intention.

“You’re either part of this giant machine that spits out systemic ways to create spaces and cities, or you’re on the side that’s sensitive, artistic and intellectual. These polarities are very severe in architecture,” he observed. “I would like to bridge this gap. I’ve been trying to build a practice that’s equally fearless and sensitive. That’s what I’m interested in and, along the way, I would like to make some decent, nice buildings that people enjoy and are inspired by. That’s the ultimate goal.”

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