Looking out over the mudflats being reclaimed west of Incheon city, on the Yellow Sea, one can see for miles without spotting a single tree or shrub. Yet in one section of this newborn land, designated as a free economic zone, a city is rising. This is not a trick of nature, reviving the lost city of Atlantis, but the work of humans, creating what they envision as an urban utopia.
Among the cluster of construction projects taking place here, the white beams of one oddly-shaped structure, which looks like the hulls of overturned ships lined up on the sand, stand out from the rectangular boxes. They are the framework of the Songdo Convention Center, designed by Kohn Pederson Fox Associates (KPF), an architecture firm headquartered in New York.
“I tried to express the form of overlapping mountains,” said KPF senior architect Jisop Han. “Korea is a land of mountains, and yet Songdo is such a flat, open space. Having grown up next to a mountain as a child, I felt emotionally destabilized by the flatness of this landscape.”
KPF is working with the global real estate developer Gale International to design a number of elements for New Songdo City, a patch of land that Gale is developing within the Incheon Free Economic Zone. The American firm has designed several landmark buildings around the world including the Mori Tower of Roppongi Hills in Tokyo and the Shanghai World Finance Center in Asia.
For Songdo, KPF has laid out a 1,500-acre master plan for the city, including the convention center, a mixed-use residential and commercial complex, an international school, the Songdo Central Park, and most recently, the 65-story Northeast Asia Trade Tower, which broke ground last month. Mr. Han, who has been involved in the project from the beginning, is heading several design teams for these projects.
Mr. Han says that for his design projects in Korea, he tries to implement visual motifs that are very Korean. Reflecting the Korean culture through his designs has been one of the characteristics of his work. For instance, the Dongbu Financial Center, a corporate headquarters in southern Seoul, is a sleek modern fusion of tinted glass and steel- and yet a “wall” placed in front of the building incorporates patterns found in Korean patchwork. Korean motifs were also used in his details for the Northeast Asia Trade Tower Lobby. “The twisted patterns in traditional straw shoes and the repetitive patterns of the Palmandaejanggyeong [80,000 Buddhist prayer blocks carved over a period of 16 years from 1236] will be used in the lobby and on the elevator door,” Mr. Han said. In order to find these Korean motifs, Mr. Han traveled to Korean palaces and sites like Gyeongju, the historic capital of the Silla Dynasty.
Mr. Han’s desire to express local art motifs in his work comes from his personal background. Though he was born in Korea, he went to the United States on an immigrant visa when he was 16, and has lived there ever since. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Cornell University, he joined Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in New York and after a year moved to KPF, where he was promoted to senior status in just two years. He later received a master’s degree from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and has worked on a number of projects in the United States and Asia including the Bank Niaga Tower II in Jakarta, Indonesia; the Mohegan Sun resort in Connecticut; the 130-story Sangam-dong Tower planned for Seoul; the 60-story Fortune Plaza Phase Three tower, the Hua Mao Center; and the Beijing Science Technology Part Lot 21 project.
Born in Korea and educated in the United States Mr. Han said that he has noticed that, comparatively, Koreans make too many excuses and conclude too quickly that something can’t be done.
“When I’m told that something is impossible, I feel a stronger sense of duty to do something more unique. Someone has to make a breakthrough in order for the industry to develop,” he said. He noted that when the Trump Towers mixed use residential and office buildings were built in Yeouido, they were the subject of controversy, but now, such buildings are extremely common. “It’s important to have the ability to accept new ideas,” he said.
He said that he believed the difference between Koreans and Americans is the result of education. He thinks the United States has a system that nurtures people.
“Undergraduate school was very intense and tough, but high school was a liberal place and graduate school was very encouraging. I remember how shocked I was when I took my first physics test after moving to the United States. Instead of a multiple-choice examination, we only had to solve a few problems, and, even when I got the answer wrong, I received a partial credit for my thinking process,” he said.
Mr. Han added that the culture of encouragement continued at work. “At KPF, the senior associates don’t automatically throw out ideas posed by student interns or fresh graduates. This openness and encouragement stimulates creativity because you’re not afraid to make mistakes,” he said. “Americans respect their superiors, but with Koreans, it’s like the military. When I suggest to Korean employees that we draw some options, they look at me to do it for them. Koreans are good when you order them to do something, but they lack initiative and creativity, that’s why we have lower productivity than the United States,” he said.
Because of his design projects in Korea and China, Mr. Han used to be such a frequent flier that he earned the nickname “Superman” from his friends. But as the Songdo project began taking up more of his time he moved to Korea late last year with his wife on a one-year contract that may be extended indefinitely.
“We have eight design projects, some of which have begun construction, while others are still in the design phase. It’s going to be a long-term project,” he said. “Not all foreign architecture firms check on every stage of the construction process because they leave it up to the local builders to do their job, but we like to be on the site to explain our design intentions to the builder and see if any joints are crooked.”
Mr. Han said that he believes people who push their limits eventually succeed. “When I got my first job, I went to work 30 minutes early. I also set goals for my creativity, aiming to make at least one impressive sketch a day. That sounds easy, but it’s not. Some days, however, I find myself making 10 sketches that I like. I wasn’t very good at [architectural] sketching during college, but after a year of self-discipline, I found that my sketches were presentable,” he said. “I don’t think this driving force is a particularly Korean trait. It’s something anyone needs in order to survive in a competitive corporate environment.”
Mr. Han expressed his regret that Koreans do not receive as much attention as he feels they should. “Compared to their abilities, I don’t think Koreans are recognized globally as much as they should be. But I feel it’s just a matter of time. Korean filmmakers and fashion designers are now being recognized and soon, Korean architects will be too,” he said.
Mr. Han said that he hoped he could play his part in helping Korea’s architecture scene develop more quickly by sharing his international experience with Koreans.
“It’s exciting that, after experiencing American culture, I can come back to my hometown and contribute something to Korea’s architecture. For my graduation piece in college I designed an exhibition hall for sculpted stones. As I child, I remembered how my grandfather used to display his sculpted stones in our backyard. Now, I am a professional and work for an American firm so I try not to get emotionally involved, but in the back of my mind, I think I always feel a sense of duty toward my mother country.”
Wohn Dong-hee for JoongAng Daily