As the role of architecture and design in people’s lives and the environment continue to evolve, so too are the practices of architectural firms around the world.
One such firm is SSK ARCHITEKTEN.
While the COVID-19 pandemic created stressors in varying domains in life, one other, formerly less noticed contributing factor is this concrete urban jungle we all live in.
Our innate craving for a connection with nature was greatly triggered during lockdown and made us realize how sparsely we see green in the city. As such there has been increasing momentum in creating urban green spaces to have healthier and more livable cities.
Similarly, for architecture and design to holistically embrace wellbeing and human-centric approaches, sustainability is also one of the largest trends of the industry.
SSK ARCHITEKTEN, an architectural firm in South Korea, is slowly making societal changes through these approaches.
We had the pleasure of speaking to its founder and principal architect, Mr. Sooseok Leo Kim, on how his firm is doing this.
Photo source: SSK ARCHITEKTEN | Project: Dr. Jart+ PU Store in Shanghai, China. A pop up store by Dr. Jart featuring its new product line – Cicapair – motivated by the concept of infinite loop of life; the arrangement mimics a Cica Leaf to allow circulation of visitors without traffic.
Let’s start at the beginning, how did SSK ARCHITEKTEN’s story begin?
Born and raised in South Korea, Arch. Kim saw early on how his country’s architecture gave emphasis on the practical aspects of real estate values and commercial properties. Greatly influenced by its neighboring Japan and the Korean War, architecture and design in the country never took root in true local culture and thought.
As such, Arch. Kim endeavored to further his architectural studies in Europe – particularly the UK and Germany – and experienced quite a shock at the approach he learned from the other side of the world.
“In Korea, the deformed and biased architecture that prioritized commercial value and rapid construction made me move to Europe where architectural approaches there gave me a fresh shock. Contrary to that in Korea, Europe, the birthplace of modern architecture, focuses on essential aspects such as direction, sunlight, air flow and numerical architectural modeling. Seeing its true value to society and people, it was a thoroughly new approach that I completely embraced.”Architect Sooseok Leo Kim
After a few years, with the belief that Europe would be the fitting base to practice his ideals for architecture, Arch. Kim opened his studio in Dusseldorf, Germany. In 2017, he then decided it was time to bring this knowledge over to his native country, South Korea.
During your studies, travels and experiences in Europe, how has this changed your ideals on the role of architecture in people’s lives?
An initial push to move came from an underlying sense of disconnect between his architectural goals and actual practices. Consequently, the fundamental ideals did not change, instead, it expounded.
“I moved to Europe because I felt an essential part of the meaning of architecture was lacking in the practices in South Korea. Because the country doesn’t possess architectural assets and knowledge accumulated over centuries, there was no real link in transforming traditional practices over architectural stories. I learned this in Europe; and I realized the importance of spatial experiences from the occupant’s point of view.”
Arch. Kim expressed his strong belief that architecture should be fluid and made to work for the people instead of the other way around. The past practices where spaces were strictly defined and given one function are no longer applicable. Conversely, the future of architecture shows the ambiguity of spaces, with diverse functionality and need.
Photo source: SSK ARCHITEKTEN | Project: Yeouinaru Ferry Terminal in Seoul, Korea. The site is a main node connecting different areas in Yeouidong-ro and its adjacent international business district. As such, the design concept of Yeouinaru focuses on expanding people’s activities to the riverside using broad pedestrian flows.
With the changing landscape in human behavior and earnest actions towards wellbeing and healthier cities, architecture can play a bigger role in elevating people’s lives. Apart from optimizing internal spaces, outer facade, materials and shapes equally affect our lives and habits.
“Architecture is a medium, to give vitality to life through a new and healthy spatial experience. Space governs human behavior. Architects are mediators who create a base where we can live safely and conveniently in a space optimized for us and the social system. For me, this is the future of architecture where the people’s point of view should take precedence.”
In a similar vein, guided by the aim of creating healthier spaces, architecture can help this concrete, built environment be friendlier towards Mother Nature.
Photo source: SSK ARCHITEKTEN | Project: Heygate Estate Regeneration in London, UK. This low income housing located at the South London borough of Southwark underwent extensive environmental research and simulation studies to arrive at design strategies that turned this once lonely area into a sustainable complex and a green heart at the center of the city.
Given your outlook and influences on architecture, how do you translate these towards the approaches of SSK ARCHITEKTEN?
Unique touches from two architectural influences are evident in the approach and works of SSK ARCHITEKTEN. On one side, the firm remembers the historical importance and traditional beauty of naturally Korean elements. On the other, there is the systematic and pragmatic belief of architecture lending beauty outside and shelter on the inside.
The firm’s design philosophies can be defined in three points.
First, in terms of architectural shape, the outer shell gives the impression of refined simplicity. Looking from the outside, you appreciate the sophistication of its facade that is showcased through simplistic elegance. While materials may show traces of time, its shape remains a timeless classic that will be continuously appreciated by many.
Photo source: SSK ARCHITEKTEN | Project: The Gilt-Bronze Incense Burner of Baekje Landmark Observatory in Buyeo, South Korea. To revive the local economy, the city wanted to build an ancient landmark. The narrow slit designed on the skin of the mass that mimics the shape of The Gilt-Bronze Incense Burner of Baekje is widened and narrowed depending on the ramp. As visitors move along the ramp, they naturally experience the Vista to the city of Buyeo and feel the beauty of the city.
Second, there is a systemic approach to identifying the spaces within that shape. SSK ARCHITEKTEN believes there is a natural hierarchy formed between spaces depending on the transitions and clusters formed inside. In this aspect, they perform several design studies and simulations to optimize flow within the structure and without.
“Architectural, is still after all, a visual art. An art form that works for the people. We pursue refined roughness permeating into a space as if it was originally there – adding beauty to an area as time passes. Therefore, for us, it is important to study the shape of architecture, its design language, and openness and closure.”
Third, enveloping all these architectural details is the practice of sustainability. Going back to the earlier points of healthier cities and elevating people’s lives, sustainable architecture is the future role of architecture for us and the environment. In SSK ARCHITEKTEN, this is called adaptive architecture, especially optimized and targeted for high-density urban areas.
“All in all, through our individual approaches of simple sophistication, systemized architecture, and adaptive architecture, our underlying design philosophy can be coined as systemized aesthetics.”
Photo source: SSK ARCHITEKTEN | Cooperation and Copyright: Populous Ltd. | Project: Tottenham Hotspur New Stadium in London, UK. SSK participated in designing a movable tension roof and cladding works for this stadium that aimed to be one of the finest in the world and serves as a major landmark for Tottenham and London – a public building that defines and enhances urban areas.
Seeing as sustainability is a forefront focus of your firm, how do you approach this in your projects?
In order to optimize the structure’s sustainable design, SSK ARCHITEKTEN carries out multiple design studies and simulations. Given the complexity of creating spatial functions that spell convenience, comfort and stability for its occupants, computational simulations help reach that diversified balance.
In addition, stemming from his experiences in modern urban cities such as London, Berlin and Seoul, Arch. Kim sees sustainable architecture as a response to these cities’ drastic environmental changes. Microclimate sudden changes coupled with pollution and compact structures make sustainable approaches essential to increase livability of these areas.
“For optimal sustainable architectural shapes, we use various design simulations such as Indoor Thermal Mass Analysis, Solar Radiation Analysis according to the material of the building’s skin, and CFD Analysis to determine the optimal shape.”
Photo source: SSK ARCHITEKTEN | Cooperation and Copyright: HPP Architekten | Project: Hafencity, Southern Überseequartier in Hamburg, Germany. A mega project that creates a city in itself with 11 buildings providing a multitude of retail, residential, office, hotel and cultural and entertainment spaces. SSK participated in BIM design in the construction tender stage.
Additionally, the firm also analyzes its openness or indoor-outdoor flow – catering to the dwindling green spaces and public squares in modern cities. With an open street level floor, structures provide a smoother flow of people where the spaces can also be optimized for public use. These behavioral patterns are also analyzed and understood from the public’s perspective.
All in all, environmental simulations are the signature of SSK ARCHITEKTEN. The firm reaches the essence of architecture for each project by understanding the physical elements of the site – the identity of the land, movement of the air and wind, position of the sun and changes in its microclimate.
Photo source: SSK ARCHITEKTEN | Project: SEOULTECH Library and Students Hall in Seoul, Korea. Fitting a new library between the main and annex buildings led to an openness of the ground floor, an adaptive skin and individualized views on each floor that allowed the building as well as the students to connect more to their books as well as the green expanses surrounding it.
With SSK ARCHITEKTEN’s focus, what are the challenges you encountered in building the firm and where do you see architecture heading towards?
Arch. Kim muses that there is still quite a way to go for them and for architecture as a whole in truly embracing the sustainable practices of the art. Similarly, as a firm with a highly focused direction, there is still a long process to go to build its name.
Winning the ArchTriumph Venice Biennale Pavilion Design Competition in 2013 with “Gone with the Fog” – was a turning point for Arch. Kim personally and for his firm.
“Realizing our architectural philosophy requires great effort and patience. Since we’re a relatively new studio, we intend to prove this philosophy and approach one project at a time. I hope our firm will be recognized as one that builds architecture with convenience in restrained simplicity.”
Photo source: SSK ARCHITEKTEN | Project: Gone With The Fog. First place winner in the Venice Biennale Pavilion Design Competition, 2013.
SSK ARCHITEKTEN believes their main philosophies that align with sustainable and human-centric approaches coincide with the current industry and lifestyle trends globally. In Asia, there is already very evident behavior of three macro points – symbiosis, remodeling and public spaces.
First, symbiosis refers to the connection between land, surroundings and people. With increased real estate values and smaller lands, there is a larger need to increase architecture’s value through spatial experiences. Second, remodeling means transforming old and existing buildings and designing them anew. Here, the architect’s role is equally important in giving new purpose to old bones and spaces.
Lastly, public spaces point to increasing the amount of urban green spaces and leveling up the quality of each. For this, industry experts have a wider role and scope to enhance overall wellbeing of people and livability of cities through positive environmental changes.
“While sustainable approaches are still in their infancy in South Korea, and Asia, these other areas can be a stepping stone to integrating more humanistic approaches to architecture that understands individualistic lifestyles without forgetting the whole picture.”
Photo source: SSK ARCHITEKTEN | Project: The Gilt-Bronze Incense Burner of Baekje Landmark Observatory in Buyeo, South Korea.
Today, which of your latest projects mirror this outlook?
Just in the last month or so, Arch. Kim spearheaded a new project called the Wondang Gateball Field that garnered the firm another winning trophy. This competition was held in Seo-gu, Incheon, South Korea, targeted specifically for the growing elderly population in the city.
Due to the increase in single-person families and younger generations leaving the nest, social issues regarding healthy leisure activities for the elderly are emerging. Accordingly, Seo-gu, Incheon looks to encourage healthy social activities for this aging society by constructing a gateball court.
“The Wondang Gateball Field project alleviates the feeling of isolation amongst these grandmas and grandpas with a bright space through sustainable architectural design.”
Looking at the project images, you can pinpoint its winning design element. The façade ventilation in-let system and ceiling respiration system are the first architectural design methods attempted in Korea. In a country where seasonal temperature fluctuations are rather extreme, temperature and humidity control are essential in sports facilities for seniors.
With this as a primary inspiration, Wondang Gateball Field was designed for elderlies who are sensitive to temperature and humidity changes by allowing natural cross-ventilation rather than air conditioning facilities. Indoor activities in this sustainable field are comfortable and fun all-year round.