Tracing the footsteps of Kim Swoo-geun, architect of Korean modernisation

Written by on April 12, 2012 in Arts

Despite all the money I’ve spent on cameras over the years, I’d still have to say that the most useful photographic equipment I own is my scooter. I’ve spent a lot of free time wandering around the city this way, photographing sights that catch my eye. Sometime around 2008, I discovered a common factor among a lot of my favourite buildings in Seoul: they were all designed by the same guy.

Kim Swoo-geun was a prominent Korean architect active from the early ’60s to his death in 1986. He left behind a great variety of magnificent buildings that challenged the architecture of Korea in its time, but many of his creations have fallen from favour in more recent times, as his grand projects continue to be upstaged and replaced by modern development projects.

Kim’s interest in architecture began in middle school, and by the age of 28 (non-South Korean) he won a design competition for the National Assembly Building. However, plans were put on hold two years later by a 1961 military coup d’etat that established Park Jeong-hee as president. Although Kim’s project was never realised, it bears some similarity to aspects of a future project.

That future project was Freedom Center, the Korea headquarters of the Asian People’s Anti Communist League. Kim was appointed as head of the building committee, and he designed a monumental building using the architectural style of béton brut to represent the power of the revolutionary government and international anti-communism. Built on the slope of Namsan, it cuts an imposing yet graceful figure, with gentle concrete curves and magnificent entrances and grand stairways.

Freedom Center

Completed in 1963, it has actually been preserved remarkably well (although I doubt pastel green was the colour of anti-communism back in the day). No longer the base of operations for a political group, it is now a wedding hall. I even attended a wedding there last year, giving me a chance to enjoy the monumental architecture.

Further up the slope, Kim also completed Tower Hotel, which was to serve as residential quarters for the guests of Freedom Center. Based on Kim’s aborted plans for the National Assembly, this hillside tower echoes the designs of Buddhist temples and authoritarian monuments. Its 17 floors represent South Korea and its 16 allies from the Korean War. And, at the time, this was the tallest building in all of Korea. As I know from another article, in those days Korean people were terrified of anything taller than a couple floors high.

Top: Tower Hotel in the early days (image from Culture Station 284). Lower left: Tower Hotel in 2008. Lower right: Tower Hotel in 2012.

You can see how over the years, the design has slowly moved away from brutalist architecture to a more contemporary glass-covered highrise. Today it is known as the Banyan Tree Club and Spa. I’m glad they maintained the top-heavy style of the building, although I do wish I could’ve seen it in its heyday before Kim’s vision was compromised by renovations.

Anyway, moving on.

Meet Ann.

Hi, Ann!

Okay, this is Daelim Arcade, one of four buildings that composes the Sewoon Mega Complex stretching 1.2 kilometers from Jongmyo Shrine in the north all the way to the foot of Namsan in the south. It was built on an odd plot of land only 50 meters wide, initially cleared by the Japanese in 1944 to prevent the spread of fires if the Allies bombed Seoul.

The four-building structure was to serve as a city-within-a-city, complete with residential units, schools, theatres, rooftop parks, and markets.These buildings were the first place in Korea where people could ride elevators. The three gaps between the four buildings served to allow passage for major thoroughfares such as Euljiro and Cheonggyecheon.

Seun Mega Complex in its heyday (picture seen at Culture Station 284)

“Let’s call the basic space for living primary space. Next, instead of the pyramid, the Parthenon, and the cathedral, we built efficient storage, factories, and offices for larger profits and faster communication… We will call this secondary space. …There is then a need for another spatial concept that maintains and expresses humanity, and this is called ultimate space. It is an extra space in time and an extra time in space. It is time to spare and space to spare. It is an unproductive space and a space for happening. It is a space for thought and a space for serenity.”

Today, the majority of the complex still stands, minus the northernmost tower which was demolished in early 2009. The northernmost building, Sewoon Arcade, still hosts a market for electronics and lamps. Daelim Arcade as well hosts a market, and when I last visited I discovered a treasure trove of vintage arcade games collecting dust. The third building from north has been renovated beyond recognition into a very modern building with a fancy hotel. The fourth hosts a pet market.

Left: the upper floors still serve as residences. Right: fans of vintage video games would love to get lost in the corridors of Daelim Arcade.

The felling of the northernmost tower was just the beginning of the Seun Green Belt plan, which will see all four buildings leveled in order to connect Jongmyo with Namsan via parkland. In a way things are coming full-circle and we’re once again approaching 1944 when the buildings on the spot were cleared. His design I believe has informed the designers other noteworthy buildings around Seoul, including Nakwon Music Arcade and Daju Shopping Center in Sinchon.

In 1967, Kim met with controversy over his design of the Buyeo National Museum, which was said to too closely resemble Japanese Shinto shrines. Coming shortly after the government’s unpopular decisions to normalise relations with Japan, it pressed the wrong buttons at the wrong time, and the building and its architect were judged harshly by the public.

“The architectural style of Buyeo Museum is neither that of Baekje nor that of a Japanese shrine. It is the style of I, Kim Swoo-geun.”

The museum has long since been replaced.

A model of Buyeo National Museum by Kim Swoo-geun at Culture Station 284

Kim put himself through a period of self-penitence, gradually moving away from monumentalism and eventually redefining his architectural style.

I was delighted to find the exhibit dedicated to Kim Swoo-geun’s body of work at Culture Station 284, now open to the public. I also discovered that Kim’s accomplishments weren’t lost to time and redevelopment as I had thought. I set out to voyage across Seoul, visiting as many as Kim’s surviving works as I could find in one day.

First stop: the American embassy, located in front of Gwanghwamun.

American Embassy

After a quick visit to Freedom Center and Tower Hotel as mentioned at the top of the article, my next stop was Kyungdong Presbyterian Church, which is more representative of Kim’s third period in the ’70s, in which he was guided by ideas like reconciliation, celebration, meeting, and environment. The shapes of his church designs are intended to promote circulation, with tapering ramps and staircases that allow a visitor to walk all along the exterior of the building.

Kyungdong Presbyterian Church

Although I didn’t go inside, the exterior was very enjoyable.The shape is different every way you look at it: from across the street it seemed to resemble a beckoning hand, but up close it’s more like an organic, flowing castle. The top is situated to have the feel of an arena, perhaps inviting God in to participate in the services.

I’m cheating by including Bulgwang Catholic Church, since I paid it a visit on a separate date. This church is now found at the foot of a couple highrise apartment complexes, overlooking a valley. Fortunately I was able to make it up to an open window in one, so I could look down on the rooftop of the church.

Bulgwang Catholic Church

Apparently the rooves of Kim’s churches were all designed originally with an open sky, to allow worshippers to pray on the rooftop, but both Bulgwang and Kyungdong have been enclosed with a roof.

But wait. There’s more. Next stop was Seoul University, where Kim designed the fine arts building. Surrounded by the mountainous backdrop of Gwanak, Kim worked to preserve harmony with nature, even building around existing trees with this multi-building complex. He started with a rectangle, and broke it down into smaller and smaller units of individual experience. His ultimate goal was not a building worth looking at, but a building worth looking at the mountain from.

School of fine arts and music, Seoul University

“The mountains and plains of Korea are small in scale, soft and overlapping. After passing a boundary thinking that it is the end, there is again an overlap.”

I was a little disappointed that the view was partially blocked by much newer buildings uphill, but the natural environment was still wonderful.

Last, I’ll leave you with one of Kim’s greatest creations. Maybe you’ve heard of it?

Seoul Olympic Stadium

He was commissioned to design the graceful stadium in 1973, long before Seoul was selected as host of the 1988 Olympics. Initially it wasn’t intended for any one particular event, and was mostly part of an ambitions plan to develop southeastern Seoul. It was upgraded slightly in 1981 following the Olympic announcement, but its form has remained true to Kim’s original conception. Supported by arching concrete piers that support the weight of the stands, the horizontal lines of the stadium are intended to emulate the gracefulness of Joseon-era pottery.

The 1988 Summer Olympics were a huge success, introducing South Korea to the world stage and also unintentionally leading the way to democratisation. With the upcoming attention of the world, President Chun Doo-hwan didn’t want to use violence on protestors participating in the June Democracy Movement, leading him to issue the June 29 Declaration which ended his presidency and led to the first open presidential elections, establishing the Sixth Republic of South Korea, which is still in power today.

Kim’s career began with the Third Republic, and it ended with his death in 1986 shortly before the start of the Sixth Republic, meaning that he was present and a major influential factor for most of the duration of Korea’s lightning-fast modernisation process. He began as a rising star of the military regime of the ’60s, receiving commissions for projects that would shape the modern face of Seoul. You can probably tell by some of the historical photos, that there was no tradition of Korean modern architecture for him to draw from, and it was up to his imagination to shape the path of urbanisation and modernisation that Korea was on. His works began as monuments to nationalism, but as his career matured he opened new doors, seeking harmony between nature and building, and he left a lasting legacy to Korean arts and culture.

And with that, I thought my architectural journey was over. But then I remembered Arko Art Gallery in Daehangno, and in unrelated research I just discovered that one of my favourite skyscrapers in downtown Seoul, the Gyeonghyang News building, is also a creation of Kim Swoo-geun. Don’t be surprised if I hurry out over the next couple of days and photograph both of them for inclusion in this post.

Culture Station 284 was invaluable in researching all this history. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re the type like me who can nerd out over architecture. It also has more information on some of Kim’s unrealised projects, such as his ambitious plan to develop Yeouido, as well as some fantastic architectural projects in Tehran, Iran.

Okay, now I want to visit Tehran.


About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats