How Contemporary South Korean Architecture Is Making a Name for Itself


It has been said that thanks to globalization, architecture all over the world looks exactly the same. While this might be true in some aspects, this vision is rather simplistic. Today every country's architectural design is unique, thanks in part to the global trend of rediscovering traditional techniques, a trend that permeates to different disciplines, from cuisine to architecture and design. South Korea is not the exception to this trend. The country, though often overlooked as an architectural referent, has plenty to offer when it comes to design mixed with cultural identity. 

What makes contemporary South Korean architecture so special, and who are the architects shaping the face of the country? 

South Korea excels mainly in two aspects of architecture: residential and commercial/retail. Both typologies are closely linked to some of Korea’s most defining cultural aspects, which are focused on how other people perceive an individual; the age and social stratification, and their high regard for tradition.

Read on as we explore South Korea's most spectacular architectural masterpieces.

Residential Architecture

A popular trend in contemporary Korean residential architecture is to borrow architectural elements from the traditional Korean home, called Hanok, while giving the structures a modern touch. This appearance is meant to accommodate the new Korean market––young professionals who wish to embrace all the good western culture has to offer without forsaking their cherished heritage.  

South Korean residential architecture ranges from small infill homes to dwellings with generous spaces. They all mix traditional elements, such as interior patios, inspired by inner courts found in traditional Korean architecture called Madang, with clean contemporary lines or intricate conceptual shapes.

Iroje KHM Architects: Ga On Jai House

How Contemporary South Korean Architecture Is Making a Name for Itself

Ga On Jai House, designed by Iroje KHM Architects

The incorporation of the Madang is the protagonist in this ample contemporary home, designed by Iroje KHM, a Korean firm founded in 1989. This firm specializes in residential dwellings and is dedicated to the inclusion of traditional Korean architectural traits, as a result of what they saw as a "blind westernization" of Korea's urban settings. With their designs, they aim to restore South Korea's urban identity, by mixing traditional design and western techniques into one design.

See more photos of Ga On Jai House.

Moon Hoon: Conan House

How Contemporary South Korean Architecture Is Making a Name for Itself

Conan House, designed by Moon Hoon

Gangnam based architect Moon Hoon doesn't limit his designs to residential spaces––he dabbles in entertainment, art galleries, and retail, putting his easily recognizable personal seal into each project. He is known for experimenting with unusual shapes, created with concepts based on his client’s needs and personal preferences. The Conan House, for instance, was created for a toy collector and Hoon made sure to incorporate his client’s hobby into the design. In doing so, he turned the staircase into the house’s order generator axis––this feature, much like a Hanok’s Madang––connects every other room in the house.

See more photos of Conan House.

Hahn Design: P House

How Contemporary South Korean Architecture Is Making a Name for Itself

P House, designed by Hahn Design

The P House was designed by Korean architect Hahn Jon with an effort to bring nature into the dwelling. To achieve this goal, Jon recurred to adding his own interpretation of a Madang, creating a clear, contemporary space with a natural feel that acts as its heart.

See more photos of P House.

Retail Architecture

Korea is one of the most economically buoyant countries in the world, which is why the development of big commercial zones comes as no surprise, such as the neighborhood of Gangnam in Seoul. South Korea is also one of the biggest consumers of luxury brands in the world. Many of the world's top brands are beginning to enter the country physically, which means they are taking an important role in the architectural shaping of commercial urban areas.

Different brands appeal to different layers of Korean society, which is heavily stratified both in age groups and acquisitive power; young Korean professionals seeking status mobility and social recognition are drawn to luxury brands as a way to distinguish themselves from others. Foreign brands use architecture as a means to make themselves known and appeal to the Korean market, resulting in very interesting designs. Korean luxury brands use a similar approach to stand out in this very competitive environment.

House of Dior Flagship, Seoul: Christian de Portzamparc

How Contemporary South Korean Architecture Is Making a Name for Itself

House of Dior Flagship, designed by Christian de Portzamparc

Located in the district of Gangnam, this project stands out thanks to its very interesting shape created through a novel way of constructing with fiberglass. While House of Dior was not made by a Korean firm, its design still manages to represent Dior's spirit and Korean contemporary culture––a culture that values tradition and occidental culture at the same time.

See more photos of Dior Flagship Store.

Sulwhasoo Flagship Store: Neri&Hu Design

How Contemporary South Korean Architecture Is Making a Name for Itself

Sulwhasoo Flagship Store, designed by Neri&Hu Design

This store emulates a traditional Korean lantern, creating an atmosphere of simple elegance, which corresponds to the spirit of the company; Soolwhasoo sells high-quality, handmade skincare products created with traditional Korean ingredients. The architects behind Sulwhasoo's flagship store took a distinguishable element of Korean culture and gave it a unique and contemporary twist.

See more photos of Sulwhasoo Flagship Store.

Boontheshop: Peter Marino

How Contemporary South Korean Architecture Is Making a Name for Itself

Boontheshop, designed by Peter Marino

While not designed by a Korean architect, this store manages to capture one of the subtleties of Korean culture: the importance of age. Age influences Korean cultural dynamics, starting from everyday interactions ramifying to other aspects of their lifestyle. Boontheshop's store makes this concept tangible, visually separating two sides of the store: one aimed at young professionals and the other to older professionals. Both age groups seek different retail experiences, which they can achieve in this single space.

See more photos of Boontheshop.

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