Architecture, Contemporary architecture, DesignMENA Summit, Korean architecture, Mass Studies, Minsuk Cho, South Korea

Six projects by architect Minsuk Cho that redefines South Korea’s contemporary architecture

South Korea’s architectural language has been strongly influenced by colonization and later a civil war which led to a urgency to rebuild its urban fabric with funding from the United States. This resulted in a uniformity of buildings that were largely sterile, unsustainable, built with cheap materials, and designed in a way that was both unsophisticated and unfitting in its context. Read more about South Korean architecture on designMENA. 

It was only in the late 1980s that Korean architects who trained abroad brought back an architectural sensibility that was stylistic in its context, using sophisticated materials and a reinterpretation of what contemporary architecture in South Korea could be.

Today, Seoul’s architecture in particular is largely distinctive its in ambitious nature and forward-looking approach.

Buildings, designed by both local and international architects grace the city’s skyline, from Zaha Hadid’s futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza to the 1980’s-designed Olympic Stadium by prominent South Korean architect Kim Swoo-geun who recreated the shape of a Korean porcelain vase from the Joseon Dynasty, as well as other tall towers and cultural and public buildings.

Minsuk Cho, founder of architecture studio Mass Studies, is one of such architects who has not only contributed to South Korea’s contemporary language, but has additionally brought his ideas abroad.

Cho was born in Seoul and graduated from the Architectural Engineering Department of Yonsei University and the Graduate School of Architecture at Columbia University.

Here is a list of projects by Minsuk Cho, the keynote speaker for the 2017 designMENA Summit: 

Missing Matrix (2008). Photo © Yong-Kwan Kim

Missing Matrix: Boutique Monaco

Type: Residential Location: Gangnam District, Seoul, Korea

The Missing Matrix tower features commercial, cultural and communal spaces on the lower levels, and officetels on the 5th to 27th upper levels. It is a south-facing U-shape plan for optimal lighting conditions, with unit configurations consistent with the Domino Matrix, and reaching the maximum legal building height of 100m.

When the plan is simply repeated vertically, the building’s total floor area exceeds the legally allowed amount by approximately 10%, hence the introduction of missing matrices. Through 15 ‘missing’ spaces, the building gains more exterior surfaces and corners for more natural light and better views. Inside the tower, a total of 49 different unit types, 172 units in total, are arranged heterogeneously. There are 40 units with bridges that divide public (living/dining area) and private spaces (bedroom) and 22 units with garden terraces.

Dome-ino (2014) – Photo © Kyungsub Shin |


Type: Office Location: Hannamdong, Seoul, Korea

This office building placed its core to the rear, and the 16.5 m single span is more or less too long for a square plan, column-less space. To overcome this, a 12m2 structural grid is placed in plan, askew, creating open views from cantilevered corners.

The dome-shaped ceiling is not only a formal element, but a structural slab that utilises its form to allow for ceiling space to facilitate equipment within the very structure. It is rare that the structural and mechanical systems go hand in hand to create a sense of space; however, the rational use of space in an orthogonal system is converged with the dome-shaped structure and is a stackable structural prototype that the architecture studio call the ‘dome-ino.’

The convex roof caused by the domed ceiling is covered in green, providing a place of rest for the workers. The outdoor Venetian blinds are installed on all four curtain-wall facades that enclose the office spaces is energy efficient and allows for a bit of privacy in the workspace.

Daum Space.1 (2011) – Photo © Kyungsub Shin |

Daum Space.1

Type: Office Location: Jeju Province, Korea

Daum Space.1 is the first headquarters for Daum Communications in Jeju Island, with office spaces and support facilities for 350 employees, in a structural language that unifies the entire masterplan. Through the combination and variations of  8.4m x 8.4m cantilevered structural modules that can be expanded horizontally and vertically, an open plan with a variety of vaulted and arched spaces was achieved.

The four open elevations of the building, with the countryside to the west, Halla Mountain to the south, the ocean to the north, all of the surrounding landscape is visible from inside the building creating the most favorable work environment. Daum Space. 1 has systematic rigor, but by creating an array of spaces of various scales and qualities, it feels like a village without being necessarily picturesque.

Shanghai Expo 2010, Korea Pavilion Photo © Kyungsub Shin |

Shanghai Expo 2010: Korea Pavilion

Type: Pavilion  Location: Shanghai, China

With land culture (China) and sea culture (Japan) surrounding the peninsula, Korea has been permeable to imported cultures and global influences, whose progressive mix defines contemporary Korean society. Using ‘convergence’ as the main concept, the Korea Pavilion is an amalgamation of ‘sign’ (symbol) and ‘space.’ Signs become spaces, and simultaneously, spaces become signs.

Han-geul, the Korean alphabet, was the prime element of ‘signs’ within the pavilion. The overall volume, lifted 7.2m above ground level, is created by a convergence of Han-geul letters, allowing signs to create the exhibition spaces, so that the visitors can experience the geometry through horizontal, vertical and diagonal movements. The primary geometries that compose the Han-geul letters are universal to other cultures, thus acting as a sort of ‘open’ set of signs that is engaging to everyone.

The exterior surfaces of the Korea Pavilion are clad in 2 types of pixels: Han-geul Pixels and Art Pixels. Han-geul Pixels are white panels with a relief of letters in four different sizes whose combination forms the majority of the exterior, mainly the peripheral surfaces. Most of the non-peripheral surfaces are composed of Art Pixels, which are 45cm x 45cm aluminum panels created by Korean artist, Ik-Joong Kang, who is renowned for creating massive art walls out of small hand-painted tiles, either self-produced or by gathering from around the world: another type of convergence. About 40,000 of these panels textured the façade, contributing to a bright palette of colors, hope, and unity throughout the Korea Pavilion. Sequential lighting installed behind the Hangeul Pixels highlighted the individual letters on the exterior façade at night, further animating the pavilion as a sign, like a text message, on a larger scale.

By understanding a map to be a type of a sign that depicts space, the ground level piloti space was translated into a sign, by making an abstract 1/300 scale 3D map of a characteristic Korean city as its surface. The rest of the building, containing the exhibition space, is suspended 7m above to create a 40m x 77m free, open space generated by the map. The map became a semi-exterior landscape that expressed the converging of mountains, water, and a dense metropolitan area, as exemplified by Seoul, the national capital.

This ground floor is shaded by the main volume and additionally cooled by the a replica of a river (modeled after the Han River, Seoul) flowing from one corner to the other as a 5m wide, 79m long artificial stream, while the notable mountains became stages/seating/spaces for the visitors to enjoy shows while queued in line to enter the exhibition space above, in order to improve the typical inverted condition that most visitors spend more time waiting than experiencing the exhibition itself.

Songdo Triple Street (2017). Photo Courtesy of Mass Studies

Songdo Triple Street 

Type: Commercial Location: Songdo, Incheon, Korea

Songdo Triple Street is a 570m long, 59,000+m2 shopping complex/public space with emphasis on a new kind of hybrid retail, culture, and urban experience. It is a man-made landscape within the tabula rasa of the city. Essentially an infiltration of public infrastructure into a commercial development, it has the ability to bring more ‘publicness’ and programmatic diversity to the complex, culminating in a vast elevated public roof-scape, immediately approachable by the public. Triple Street is a tri-layered looping experience for both pedestrians as well as low-speed personal electric vehicles.

Daejeon University Residential College. Photo © Changwoo Choi

Daejeon University Residential College

Type: Education Location: Daejeon, Korea

Currently under construction, the Daejeon University Residential College is part of an ongoing evolution of its campus. The building is situated on a steep hill with a 27m level change, and is a 10-story volume with a courtyard. Rethinking the typical dorm room yields a structural module, which then influences the transformation of the typical mono-functional corridor with in-between spaces and generous communal ‘living rooms’ to encourage flexibility and synergy for students’ interaction.

The upper four floors are men’s dorms and the lower four floors are for women’s dorms, which leaves the 5th and 6th floors, the Student Hub, to be shared by everyone, even students that do not reside in this particular dormitory. The Student Hub holds a large dining hall, seminar and study rooms, and additional public facilities open to the entire student body.

The structural challenge was to insert this large, two-story, open public space, sandwiched by a planar structural system created in a domestic scale. Additional challenges came in trying to keep to the logic of the site and to preserve an existing access road on the site. For this, the 5th floor utilizes four 30-40m long super trusses running east to west, and at the 6th floor dining hall level, three 27m long trusses running north to south supporting the three dormitory floors above. Tension columns are used to support the 5th floor slab, allowing for an open flexible plan.

The spatial qualities of the Student Hub are contrast to the more intimate scale of the dormitory spaces, and gains dramatic lighting. This building is in a stepped composition both in plan and in section, and were both generated from the topographic logic of the site.