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Seoul – A litmus test of culture

Though the Richard Parr Associates practice is split between town and country, much of my work and socialising takes place in the bucolic surroundings of the Cotswolds. In September however, I spent an energetic ten days in one of the most exciting urban environments in the world on a visit to Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, with Modern Art Oxford (MAO) where I am a member of the Director’s Circle. For a regional venture, MAO packs a punch and as a member of the Circle I was treated to an extraordinary schedule of exhibitions, studio visits and tours with curators and contemporary artists at the forefront of a booming creative scene. South Korea, and Seoul especially, is incredibly young and very dynamic. Strolling in the formerly industrial Seongsu-Dong neighbourhood I was reminded of the almost kinetic energy I felt on a visit to Williamsburg in New York City a decade ago.

Open a random doorway on a street of seemingly unused warehouses and stumble across a room of hundreds of immaculately dressed, young South Koreans eating cake and drinking coffee in a former industrial space now operating as one of the city’s thousands of modern cafes. Reuse aside, both the government and a number of private philanthropists are engaging some of the world’s leading architects to create public spaces.

The SongEun Art and Cultural Foundation opened in a new space designed by Herzog & de Meuron in 2021 and the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art contains buildings designed by Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel and OMA. These new museums and galleries are intrinsically modern but at the same deeply rooted in, and respectful of, the traditional culture of the country. This duality runs throughout culture and creativity in South Korea.

Two hours outside of Seoul, up in the mountains of Wonju and a world away, is the Museum SAN, by Tadao Ando, which opened in 2013. Home to a lively programme of contemporary art exhibitions and more traditional reflections, the space operates beyond the traditional museum context and is a building set within the landscape, forming part of the ritual of connection that South Koreans feel to nature. Within my visit I spent an hour in meditation in the contemplation space. I reconsidered how architecture links to ritual both sacred and secular – a topic that has long interested me and driven my practice. When we are instructed to create a new space at RPA, one of our earliest considerations is how clients want to live. Beyond the four walls, a house or home must respond to the cycles and rituals of life.
Definitely food for thought.



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