Exhibition blueprints career of overlooked architect

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Exhibition blueprints career of overlooked architect

In his book “Are You that Famous Architect, Kim Swoo-geun?,” Lee Gu-yeol, an art critic, described Kim as, “a giant who kept a low profile” all his life.
That modest position might not have been a choice. In one part of the book, the organizers of the inaugural event for the Korean Arts and Culture Foundation in 1979 excluded Kim’s name from the VIP list even though he was the chief architect of the building.
In a society that once cared little about architecture, such as Korea’s, Kim’s talents were often underestimated. He was better known abroad. In 1977, Time magazine ran a feature on Kim with a headline that likened the late architect to Lorenzo di Medici, the powerful Italian arts patron who lorded over Renaissance Florence.
To commemorate the 20 years since Kim’s death, an exhibition was organized at the Arts Council Korea; the exhibition runs through July 28.
He was born in Cheongjin, South Hamgyeong Province, in 1931 and died in 1986 at the Seoul National University Hospital.
Although often overlooked, Kim was a leading figure in modern Korean architecture. Yet it’s safe to say that his entire life was devoted to the development of arts and culture. He struggled in his work to give Korean architecture a unique identity. He appeared torn between nature and man, tradition and modernity. He had a notion that architecture is a philosophy that combines art and life.
In 1950, he was admitted to the architecture department at Seoul National University. But just before the Korean War began, he went to Japan to study architecture at Tokyo Arts University.
When his design for the National Assembly was selected in 1959, he returned to Korea to set up a firm. In November, 1966, he launched “Space,” a monthly magazine on architecture, which is still being published and is the leading industry source.
He was particularly fond of using bricks. He was asked why he liked bricks so much. “I love the warmth of bricks,” he replied. “You have to build bricks one by one with your hands. That’s taught me a lot about life.”
When he designed a chapel, Kim included a long stairway made out of bricks, encouraging visitors to slowly make their way up the path to get to the entrance.
The exhibition, “Now, Here Kim Su-geun,” held in a building the architect designed in 1977, is largely divided into three sections: Kim as an architect, a sponsor of major culture and arts, and as a person.
In the first gallery, the exhibit restores an old theater from “Space,” a building near Changdeok Palace, which contained Kim’s private office, a theater and the headquarters of an architecture magazine. The building, a showcase of the beauty of the architect’s work, was like a small castle.
In the second gallery are photographs of Kim’s architecture by Murai Osamu, a Japanese photographer who specializes in architecture photography. The two shared a 30-year friendship.
The works include images of Kyungdong Church, which is considered a landmark of religious architecture in Korea, the Olympic Stadium and the Arts Council Korea building.
The third gallery is for Kim’s archive, which documents drawings and quotes left by the late architect, as well as a map of Seoul, indicating where his buildings are located.
“He is the man who brought concepts to Korean architecture and theorized the idea of space with philosophy,” said Park Gil-young, a professor at Kukmin University.
Min Hyun-sik, a director of Giohyeon, an architecture firm, said, “He was never free from the restraint of conveying an idea of ‘Koreanness’ in his works, which was stressed in the era of Park Chung Hee in the ’70s. We should look into whether there is such a thing as ‘Kim Swoo-geun architecture’.”


by Jung Jae-suk

“Here and Now: Kim Swoo-Geun” runs through July 28 at the Arts Council Korea. For more information, call (02) 760-4602.
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