Rear View. #3 Bukchon, Seoul
… in which our guest columnist Jing Liu contemplates the shifting nature of perception and tension in the architectural form of the Kukje Gallery, Seoul.

Part road-movie, part fictional distillation of a life in architecture: Rear View is a six-part experimental column by Jing Liu, architect and co-founder of the Brooklyn-based design firm SO-IL. The subjects and spaces described in these little journeys move between the poetic and banal; along the way, we are asked to consider what we find en route as well as everything we bring with us. In the third instalment, Jing invites the reader into the gently auto-ethnographic and semi-fictional world of the traveller. In Seoul, she contemplates the shifting nature of perception and tension in the architectural form of the Kukje Gallery.

It was already late afternoon, the ailing day high on adrenaline. Just a moment before the traveller was roused, she was in her bed in Brooklyn. Two large windows at her feet, looking at a red brick church across the street. Tree canopies laden with chirping birds. But this bed felt different. The sheet was crisper, colder, and the blanket flatter. There were too many pillows around. She opened her eyes and found herself in a large room lined with excessive wood panellings, varnished with a glossy finish that repelled every touch. Then, she remembered where she was: the Somerset Hotel in Seoul.

Walking to the construction site requires passing by the royal palace, the principal buildings of which are held at such vast distances from each other that it takes a solid twenty minutes to walk the length. For eight hundred years, its expansive metes and bounds, impressive ornaments and craftsmanship, have affected a celestial posture which the Japanese invasions destroyed twice, and which twice, the Korean people dutifully restored.1 This frail body, held together by an elusive collective identity, hardened as more materials, labour, and tears poured into its pores and joineries.

For much longer than eight hundred years, smoke and aroma rose from the chimneys of the Hanok houses, warming the walls, the floors, and the bodies of the stubborn people who made the harsh peninsula their home.

Across the street, Hanok2 homes cluster in a close-knit fabric. Their perimeter stone walls, barely a rickshaw-width apart from each other. The site is nested snuggly among them. It is impossible to see from a distance. For much longer than eight hundred years, smoke and aroma rose from the chimneys of the Hanok houses, warming the walls, the floors, and the bodies of the stubborn people who made the harsh peninsula their home. The traveller hears whispers. Whispers of matters ceaselessly pressing themselves into time, making meaning possible in the eternal present. Stones. Walls. Bulges. Cracks. Curves. Bones. Rounded. Corner. Glass. Passage. Shiny. Reflection. Salt. Flat. Straight. Door. Curved. Tiles. Ripples. Roofs. Shadows. Long. Soft. Mesh. Surface. Climb. Cantilever. Steel. Stair. Whistle. Wind. Elevator. Stump. Ground. Concrete. Rattling. Air-con. Enclosure. Hanging. Rings. Falling. Curving. Stretching. Between. Zenith. Nadir. Pliable. Mutable. Cloaks. Springs. Parapet. Light. Skylight… when the traveller finally comes to, it is already fully alive. Like the elephant “seen” by the blind men.3 Oddly banal and strangely familiar; from one angle, the building looks like a rectangle parasitically reworked by an alien species. From another angle, it’s a creature that has swallowed but is yet to metabolise a peculiar object twice its size. The metamorphosis of an earthly mammoth. A cocooned transient state. Rising, not from affectation, but the roused soul of our deepest dreams.

Completed in 2012, Kukje Gallery is SO–IL's first free-standing project. Built over an inherited foundation, the building embraces its functional parts as they are, literally and figuratively. The entire ensemble is enmeshed in a pliable chainmaille of half a million stainless steel rings hand-welded together, revealing an emergent form.

Back at the Somerset Hotel, the screensaver of the Samsung TV cycles through the “Architecture of the Future”. Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Harbin Opera House, Oculus, Burj Khalifa, Disney Concert Hall… All these new celestial postures, laden with labour and all-too-human detail, distract us from seeing the true nature of an emergent form. That which must be strangely familiar and oddly banal at once. That which is up-close and imminent. Wrapped in the cold, crispy sheet, the traveller swaddles herself again. This time, with the mammoth next to her.


Jing Liu is an architect in practice; as co-founder of the New York-based architecture firm SO-IL, she has working on a wide range of projects both in the US and abroad for more than 15 years. Liu has led SO–IL in the engagement with the socio-political issues of contemporary cities. She brings an intellectually open, globally aware, and locally sensitive perspective to architecture; projects range from artistic collaborations with contemporary choreographers to masterplan and major public realm design. Liu believes strongly that design should and can be accessible to all, and that architecture offers us an open platform to nurture new forms of interaction. To that end, Liu sees community engagement and collaboration across disciplines as central to her role as the design lead.

1 The original Gyeongbokgung Palace was built at the end of the 14th century during the Joseon dynasty, and served as the home of the royal family and the seat of government until it was destroyed by fire during the Imjin War (1592–1598). In the 19th century during the reign of King Gojong, its entirety was restored but in the early 20th century, much of the palace was systematically destroyed again by Imperial Japan during its occupation of Korea. Since the 1990s, the walled palace complex has been gradually restored to its original form.
2 Hanok are traditional Korean houses developed in the fourteenth century during the Joseon dynasty. They are constructed from stone blocks and wooden beams. Hanok houses have raised floors with a smoke-based underfloor heating system for the harsh winter, and are shaded by curved tiled roofs and thick perimeter walls in the hot summer.
3 The Blind Men and the Elephant is an Indian parable that tells the story of a group of blind men who have never encountered an elephant before attempting to imagine what the elephant is like by touching it. Each man touches a different part of the body and describes the animal based on their limited experience. The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience.

05 Jun 2024
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