ENJOYING A NEW CHALLENGE. Minsuk Cho is the South Korean architect who has envisioned the Serpentine Pavilion 2024, the 23rd pavilion in the series, in London’s Kensington Gardens. It is titled Archipelagic Void as a unique void surrounded by a constellation of smaller adaptable structures, each of which has a specific purpose: the Gallery, the Auditorium, the Library, the Play Tower and the Tea House. Minsuk Cho trained in Seoul and New York, and worked in America and the Netherlands before returning to Korea to open his own practice, which he calls Mass Studies.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Minsuk Cho, almost every year since 2000, when Dame Zaha Hadid did the first, at Serpentine there has been a different summer pavilion designed by an architect who has not previously worked in the UK. How is it for you? 

It’s really great to follow the works of 22 architects and artists who all explored different ways to be generous towards the public in this beautiful park, demonstrating what architecture can do in this particular location. It was exciting to confront this beautiful site, with surrounding trees and the building next to it which is used as a gallery, but also, at the same time, on top of these physical surroundings, the history of these 22 editions. Each one comes with a very particular narrative discovered through the site and through their design, and the accumulation of 22 times has built a collective memory.  

What you have built is like a constellation of five stars around a void?  

We looked at where the 22 former pavilions were located, and overlapped their footprints on top of each other. It turned out that one particular area was very much used, so we thought we will give that a rest, and kept it as an empty space. As a result, what was given was the edges of the site, which have challenging conditions because there are trees that you cannot touch and roads and so on. The possibilities became exciting and instead of giving a singular purpose for this space we thought of this multiple condition. There were always two kinds of activities that were required to contain: the larger space for 200 people capacity events which we call the Auditorium, and also the café, so often there was this grand canopy containing these two functions. We separated them into an Auditorium and what we call a Tea House, because Serpentine South, the building next to the Pavilion, used to be a Tea House in 1934 and only became a gallery in 1970, and we thought we would honour the history that we found out.

Architecture’s unique language allows people to interact, engage and understand in a very positive way.

Minsuk Cho

Minuk Cho, in the constellation you also have the Play Tower and a small Library. Why do you call it The Library of Unused Books? 

The Library came about because one corner of the site is facing north, and is related to what we call pavilions in my traditional culture. Usually this is a humble small wooden structure sitting on a stone plinth, looking out to the beautiful landscape, and associated with scholarly literary activities such as writing and reading poetry and texts, doing calligraphy, singing and chanting together. I wanted to introduce a cultural element that echoes contemporary culture in the city of Seoul, where small library projects in the parks have had an exciting response, are very well used, and are proliferating. The Serpentine curatorial team came up with this great existing project by the Singaporean artist Heman Chong and archivist Renée Staal called Library of Unread Books. Most people have many unread books stacked up at home, and they bring and put a book in the library to have this untapped knowledge explored by other people, also explaining why they didn’t read it.

Since 2011 Mass Studies have worked with buildings at the Osulloc Tea Museum and recently completed the Osulloc Farm Green Tea Factory?

Yes. We used to have a tea culture from the Buddhist era, from India from the 7th century, but recently more people are drinking coffee. Coffee is also nice, but one family in Korea has had a mission to bring back the tea culture. The UK has always  consumed tea, so we had this shared common culture and then globalisation changed it, so I thought we should highlight this.  

You did a Zen Buddhism temple in Korea. Are you interested in the Buddhist tradition?  

It is actually a Won Buddhism temple. Won Buddhism combines various Buddhist denominations with modern Buddhist customs and is a modern religion native to Korea. I appreciate the Buddhist tradition in how it can inspire a way of living. At the big opening event here at the Serpentine Pavilion someone asked me, “Are you Buddhist? This looks like a mandala.” It’s exciting that a lot of people say something. Some say that it looks like a star. Somebody said it looks like a Swiss Army knife pavilion. It has many functions. (laughs) 

You did other pavilions both in and outside Korea, one at the Shanghai Expo 2010, another in Venice at the 2014 Architecture Biennale. Why do you like to do pavilions?  

My entire career has been related to pavilions. Right now, we are making another kind of pavilion using an existing old, unused, power plant that housed a boiler structure. We are taking out the boiler so only the found structure remains. We call it the “Hyper Pavilion because it’s quite large. It is in the city of Seoul and is inspired by the Tate Modern, another appropriation of an industrial structure turned into a cultural space. We’ve done so many pavilions because the pavilion is such an open-ended genre of architecture. Actually, I didn’t design the Venice Biennale Korean Pavilion. 

But in 2014 you won the Golden Lion? 

Yes, I was the commissioner, co-curator and exhibition designer of the Korean Pavilion in 2014. The history of the pavilion really embodies an aspiration of how the public can gather, to bring people together, a place to meet like a covered square. Maybe there is a role in architecture to connect North and South Korea, these two separated countries which have been a single state for more than 1000 years. Architecture can become a window to understand each other, just as much as maybe more popular ways, like sports, or games. Architecture’s unique language allows people to interact, engage and understand in a very positive way. This was why I wanted to have the opportunity of organizing the exhibition, as a way to bring these two countries together, although it didn’t happen exactly the way I wanted it to.  

You also redesigned the Embassy of France in Seoul, so, for you, architecture has political importance?  

Yes. I come from a country that has been divided since 1945. North and South Korea. 300 kilometres of wall is an architecture that clearly is a result of a political situation. What we do has the implication of what is included and what is not included. That’s also why this temple project was very important because there are no walls in between, and these things come as the most vivid, concrete result.

This Serpentine project is exciting because the whole thing only takes six months from conception to completion.

Minsuk Cho, what comprises your philosophy of architecture?  

It’s not on a philosophic level, but what made me go back to Korea around 9/11 time, with the euphoria of this new millennial energy and new technology, was that Korea was becoming a very civic democratic society. Plus, before that, over maybe 40 years ago, it was the fastest urbanized country in the world. It reached 90% of the population living in urban areas. Half a century ago it was the other way around, a 20% urban population. After I came back the big crisis happened in 2008. It was going up and up and up, and then it just stopped, and from then on we saw cities that stopped growing. But I grew up seeing only these massive developments. We thought the entire thing would converge into a large city.  

Was this massive urban development done well?  

It’s well done if the purpose is such an ambitious plan as quickly providing 5 million houses in a few years. But did they consider quality? No. You have to sacrifice things. These will only last 30 years, are disposable, like a literal translation of wealth into these concrete structures very quickly, because everybody wanted to join modern urban life with the wealth that it has. All the farmers came to the cities and they built the cities. That is happening a lot in developing countries.  

30 years go by in a second. What is going to happen afterwards?  

This was something that they didn’t consider, but at that moment when I came back Korea gave such an exciting, diverse situation that I could explore, because there is still a very strong urban energy of creating these new cities. At the same time, there are things that need to be protected or preserved, or we have to work with much more complex situations that we have overlooked during this fast growth, because we demolished so much and erased so many histories. All these challenges at the same time was such an exciting condition for me. My work is mostly in Korea, but even if I’m a local guy I feel very foreign there, and it gives me so many exciting new foreign conditions.  

Since new buildings only last 30 years, has the architectural sentiment for creating enduring structures such as pyramids and Roman buildings ceased to exist? 

No, I definitely have the sentiment about something that lasts longer. What we architects are basically doing is organizing the material world that’s taken from nature to create a society. That explains why I use the word “Mass” for our company name, because mass is a word in physics and scientific studies about nature, and in fields such as sociology, mass culture, mass media and so on. I am also very conscious, like many of my architect colleagues who care about the earth and what’s happening globally, that we shouldn’t think that nature is the means to reach to an end. We have to be very careful, not only of the human centric position, but in terms of using resources. We turn down work that has to do with that kind of problem, because we don’t want to participate in this redundancy of using resources in a very inconsiderate way.  

What work are you the proudest of that you did with your architectural practice Mass Studies?  

The Won Buddhism temple started being used a year and a half ago, but some part wasn’t completed until now. I wouldn’t say it’s a visually iconic project, but it has become quite iconic in the sense that a lot of people go there to visit it. It’s really hidden in this very complex urban condition, and you have to find the way, almost like hide and seek. The reason why I am very proud is that I didn’t do it by myself, but I worked with the temple congregation and the monks to communicate with the neighbours to create what we call an urban acupuncture process, which has no dead spaces in between the neighbours. We really encouraged them to communicate and take part in this collective effort, so what happened in a way resembles the Pavilion, Archipelagic Void, because it also has an open space for gathering. It’s a temple and you need that, but you can circulate around and you can access it from seven different alleyways, which wasn’t possible before when it was all retaining walls or other kinds of barriers and there was only one alleyway for access. That’s why it’s taken so long, and construction is still going on, but in a month it will complete. This Serpentine project is exciting because the whole thing only takes six months from conception to completion. This is a very unusual thing they created, and I’m part of this amazing history now. I’m very grateful to observe this unique situation that lasts for five months, and then goes somewhere else.

Minsuk Cho

Minsuk Cho

Minsuk Cho

Minsuk Cho

Minsuk Cho

Minsuk Cho

“The world is changing, and I don’t want to become a jaded professional. I take everything as a new challenge.

Minsuk Cho, do you build private homes? 

Once in a while. I wouldn’t consider us as a private home expert, but we’ve done them, mostly for friends. With houses you have to create a very strong, intimate relationship with the client. You have to know them very well. So I feel more comfortable working with my friends, who I already know well.  

What are your future projects?  

We are always thinking of our future, but right now, the one I already mentioned, the power plant conversion into a cultural space by the main river of Seoul that the Ministry of Culture is investing in. It’s taken six years, so I’ve given tours for four different culture ministers, because they change all the time. I observe some of my really good friends, often in France, develop their careers doing public sector work and I’m really into that. Another project we’re doing is building social housing for young people, 100 units on top of a water flood prevention infrastructure. The city had this property in a very good location surrounded by universities, and they had to build this water pump station which once a year – for maybe six hours a year – it operates when the river starts to flood during the monsoon season. Then you have to have this backup reservoir, but it is such a good location they decided to have this multi-use space and build housing for younger people, almost like a social incubator that they can rent out for a certain period of time, about eight years. We are involved in this very good intention and it had to have a new architectural imagination, not only as a single object but as a part of the city infrastructure as well.  

Maybe one day you will want to go back to building things in America or Europe? 

I am open to new opportunities, but it’s not a goal, because I’m having so much fun in my own country. If I find that there could be a meaningful exploration of a different culture, of course I would. As I said, I feel very foreign to my own country. That explains the second word in the name of my practice, “Studies”. It’s a determination to remain a student, because the world is changing, and I don’t want to become a jaded professional. I take everything as a new challenge. It has to do with the level of intimacy. In my time in Korea over the last 30 years, I’ve seen very fluid, active exchanges, with both local and foreign architects engaging with the city and country in different ways. Korea gives me so many unique opportunities.  

Suddenly Seoul became a hub like London or New York, a city where people want to go, with art fairs and many cultural events. What do you think about this Korean explosion? 

I am very much part of why that happened. My generation, who are getting recognition in their 40s, 50s, 60s, grew up in that very long authoritarian regime in which freedom of expression was not supported. I studied architecture or philosophy through pirated books, because a lot of them were forbidden to read. That’s why I moved to America. And then, all of a sudden, in the late 90s when Korea opened up and developed as a more civil democratic society, people like me came back. Or those who had stayed but who were unable to express themselves, started freely to express. The result is now coming out, because they have become mature artists, musicians, writers or film directors. What you’re seeing comes from the milieu of a very compressed social change and political evolution.  

In the region you have Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, China…. Is this accepted everywhere around Korea?  

Each one is very unique and has a very unique political history. There is economic interchange, but culturally each country is different. We have these big neighbours: China, Japan, America, basically. Also, Russia. We are always affected historically because of this geopolitical dynamism.  

You studied in the West and went home. How does your country now look at the West? 

The younger generation don’t feel the need to go and study outside or have that experience, less and less so, but in my time I really had to get out, because I knew that I wouldn’t survive as a creative being. Then I also realised that times had changed around the millennium, and that’s why I made the move back. In terms of Western democracy, we look up to certain countries so that we can have a much fairer, much freer society, in a more equal way. The whole multicultural model is something that Korea still has to learn, because for geographical reasons Korea has been an ethnically homogeneous country for quite a long time and that was less of an issue, not because we were not interested, but it just happened that way because of how we are positioned on the map. With the global situation now, we have more and more immigrants and migrations happening because we became richer than before. Dealing with a much more diverse society, with a much more complex constellation of differences, should be more practiced and learned from the West. I admire what’s been happening in America, despite the fact we have a better social system than America, for example in terms of health care and things like that. Compared to Europe we are a kind of neoliberal country, but we also have a quite good, less polarizing system. It changes depending on the politics, because we have healthy dynamic oscillations between this way and that way every five years.  

Thank you very much.

Portrait of Minsuk Cho: