One of the founding members of the Korean Institute of Architects, Ra Sang-jin, whose active professional career spanned over two decades immediately following the Korean War, left an indelible imprint on the history of modern architecture in Korea. As most of the research so far on modern architecture in Korea have focused mainly on the two canons—Kim Swoo-geun and Kim Joong-up, the works of minor figures such as Ra Sang-jin have been largely overlooked or ignored. A recent adaptive-reuse project, the Kkum-maru at the Seoul Children’s Grand Park, which was completed in 2011, attracted a surprising amount of media attention, thus placing a sudden spotlight on the career of its original designer, Ra Sang-jin. An overview of the brief but prolific career of Ra Sangjin, who reportedly completed over 150 projects, provides us with a glimpse on the exhilarating first years of contemporary architecture in Korea, when a small group of young men, often through forging privileged or dubious relationships with the dictatorial regime, carried out ambitious projects, on par with the prevailing architectural trends in the West. Coincidentally brutalist, but with a romantic flair, the architecture of Ra Sang-jin illustrates how sociological, or ethical basis of the New Brutalism was seamlessly and creatively adapted into the historical and economic context of Korea in the 1960s.
Key words Ra Sang-jin, Walker Hill, Seoul Country Club, Kkum-maru, New Brutalism
An Accidental Brutalist
One of the 14 founding members of the Korean Institute of Architects, Ra Sang-jin (1923-1973) was born in Gimje in the southwestern province of Jeonbuk. After completing his studies at the Jeonju Technical High School in 1940, he was trained under a Japanese sub-contractor in Seoul, later formally becoming an employee of the Kajima Corporation where he stayed until 1945. Reportedly, he started his independent design practice in Myeongdong, Seoul in 1952 at the age of 29, but it was not until 1957 that he was recorded as part of the design teams for important public projects, such as the United States Operations Mission to Korea and the Grand Hotel in 1957, and the Mapo Apt in 1958.
Many of the projects in the post-war decade were undertaken by a group of loosely affiliated architects as there were only a handful of qualified practitioners at that time. The Jonghap Gunchuk (Total Architecture), founded in 1953 by Kim Jung-soo and Lee Chun-seung, was the first prominent architectural practice, followed by Shingunchuk Munwha Yeonguso (Laboratory for the New Architecture Culture), founded in 1954 by Kim Hi-choon, Jung In-gook, Kim Chang-jib, Hahm Sung-gwon, Aum Duck-moon, and others. It was also during these years when Kim Joong-up returned to Seoul in 1956. The most high-profile project of the decade, the competition for the National Assembly in 1959 provided a reason for Kim Swoo-geun to return from Japan. It was a period when many of the architects began forming partnerships and establishing professional associations, but only few projects of significance could be found. (Between 1950 and 1960, only 88 projects were published in Architecture—a design journal of the Architectural Institute of Korea.)
In the 1960s, the industrialization of Korea began in earnest under the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, and a burst of construction activities followed. Ra Sang-jin immediately became involved in the process, based now at his new Euljiro office, by designing the factory for the Saenara Autos, a company founded under the government initiative to foster a new industry, where Nissan Bluebirds were to be assembled. It appears Ra Sang-jin quickly became a trustworthy architect of choice for the new regime, as his projects during the 1960s were almost exclusively for the presidential or governmental use, such as president’s an-gas(boudoirs) or the Central Intelligence Agency in 1965.
The Walker Hill Resort Project of 1962, for which Ra Sang-jin designed the master plan and the main building, became a turning point in his professional career. Completed in 1964, the Walker Hill was one of the first ambitious construction project undertaken by the Park Chung-hee regime. Sited on the riverside retreat frequented by the former president Syngman Rhee, the resort was originally intended as a luxury destination to lure American soldiers who mostly vacationed in Japan. In addition to earning much needed foreign currency, the military regime also wanted to appease the American displeasure with the violent process of political transition. As the project was initially undertaken confidentially by the Intelligence Agency, Ra was the sole designer in charge, until he was replaced by Kim Swoo-geun and a team of other prominent architects including Kim Hi-choon, Aum Duck-moon, and others. The most striking project on the resort was the Hilltop Bar, credited to Kim Swoo-geun. The structural engineer for the project, Hahm Sung-gwon, who studied at Waseda University, credits Kim Chang-jip for its design. (Science and Technology, 1996) The engineer Hahm later became a close collaborator for Ra Sang-jin, and it was through this collaboraton that Ra’s architecture took an unmistakably Brutalist direction.
The Raw Beauty of Reality
The beginning of the architectural profession in the newly independent Korea coincided with the rising popularity of the Brutalist aesthetic in the West. Reyner Banham’s seminal article “The New Brutalism,” published in the Architectural Reviewin 1955, provided a new theoretical platform for the younger generation of architects who were growing increasingly suspicious of the Modernist project, which had become an authoritative but hollow refrains promoted by aging masters. For the Korean architects returning from their studies in Japan and the US, the ethos of the New Brutalism provided legitimately avant-gardedesign principles, and proved to be fortuitously appropriate for the economic and technical reality of the post-war decade.
If the precision-based aesthetic of the International Style seemed impossible to achieve, not to mention its unwanted association with some of the buildings constructed during Japanese occupation, the bold and unprecedented imagery of the Brutalist buildings clearly signaled a clean break from the painful past. Following the lead of Le Corbusier, who had “abandoned the pre-war fiction that reinforced concrete was a precise, ‘machine-age’ material” (Banham, 1966) the young Korean architects enthusiastically embraced the brute materials roughly put together by hand.
“Beton brut” was born at the Unite d’Habitation, Marseilles, where there were eighty contractors and such a massacre of concrete that there was no way of imagining how to construct useful relationships through rendering. I had decided: leave everything “brut.” I called it “beton brut.” The English immediately jumped on the band wagon and dubbed me (Ronchamp and the convent of La Tourette) “Brutal”—“beton brutal,” and that the end of the day, the brute is Corbu. They called it “the new brutality.” My friends and admirers thinking of me as the “brute” of “brutal concrete” (beton brutal)! (Quoted in Eduard F. Sekler, William Curtis, 1978)
The practical challenge that Le Corbusier faced at Marseilles was an everyday reality for the first generation of Korean architects, and a violent break from the past symbolized by the most unfamiliar building materials and forms was favored not only by the designers and the political leaders but also the general public yearning for a new beginning.
Raw concrete, a primary material of choice for the Brutalism, was also one of the few available building materials in the post-war Korea. The first phases of the Economic Development Plan under the Park Chung-hee regime actively promoted the cement industry as an engine of growth, and at the end of the second phase of the 5-year plan in 1971, the number of cement manufacturers in Korea increased to 8 from 2 in 1961. In fact, the cement became one of the first exported products in 1964, making Korea the 11th largest exporter in the world by 1971.
The ethical attitude toward reality and the atmosphere of social responsibility also appealed to the young Korean architects, who sought to reconcile their discomfort with the political reality with their architectural ambitions. “The New Brutalism,” was, in the words of Reyner Banham, “an ethic, not an aesthetic”(Banham, 1966), and whereas the movement quickly became overly stylized, or brutalized, in other Western countries, the Korean followers remained faithful to its core principles, partly due to the visceral reality that they had to deal with on a daily basis. While the West and Japan were enjoying the post-war euphoria of accelerated economic expansion, Korea was still trapped in the war-stricken reality.
A Rough Poetry
No other project better illustrates the principles of the Brutalism, as faithfully and imaginatively interpreted by Korean architects, than Ra Sang-jin’s Seoul Country Clubhouse, designed in 1968 and completed in 1970. (Fig. 1) The project was commissioned by a private golf club, but the initial intent, as ordered by the president Park Chung-hee, was to create an intermediate point of interest along the new road leading to the Walker Hill Resort. Collaborating with Hahm Sung-gwon, structural engineer and professor at Hanyang University, Ra Sangjin designed the clubhouse as a structural tour-de-force, with four pairs of rectangular columns supporting the 18m x 50m restaurant floating 10 meters above the ground. Delicate glass-and-steel curtain-wall facades filled the voids below the heroic concrete structure, and two 50-meter horizontal bars on the ground floor, covered entirely in prefabricated concrete, further stretched the building along the landscape. The Wrightian horizontality of the building was perhaps meant to be enjoyed by passing automobiles. The bush-hammered concrete surfaces dominated the exterior above, while curving brick walls and natural stone-clad cylinders on the lower floors connected the building to the ground, forming a mineral plinth that merged organically with the landscape. (Fig. 2) Ra Sang-jin’s project was overall a textbook illustration of the three characteristics of the Brutalism as summarized by Reyner Banham: “1. Memorability as an image; 2. Clear exhibition of Structure; 3. Valuation of Materials ‘as found’.”(Banham, 1966)
Inside the main lobby, the continuous loop of varied circulation paths culminated on the suspended stair, the cantilevering weight of which was precariously supported by steel wires attached to a welded plate. (Fig. 3) Visitors walked up this sculptural stair to reach the locker rooms, and later descended down the long sinuous ramp, with a golf cart in tow. The image of a Cadillac driving toward the driveway, with golfers standing at the foot of the pedestrian ramp in the background, conjured up an image of an idyllic lifestyle mostly witnessed in those days only inside the US army bases. A simple palette of natural materials, softly illuminated by cylindrical skylights above, provided an atmospheric counterpoint to the light-filled spaces above, for the basement bars and saunas which were cavernous spaces embedded into the ground. The sublime atmosphere overall was an achievement rarely witnessed in the Brutalist buildings, and the ultimate aim of a new architecture as described by Le Corbusier in Vers une architecture: “L’Architecture, c’est, avec des matieres brutes etablir des rapports emouvants.”
Any discussion of Brutalism will miss the point if it does not take into account Brutalism’s attempt to be objective about ‘reality’—the cultural objectives of society, its urges, its techniques and so on. Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work. (Banham, 1966)
For over 40 years, the building was reincarnated three times, first as a cultural exhibition hall for the new Children’s Grand Park and later as the park management office, while enduring severe neglect for decades. The patchwork of temporary remedies further deformed its appearance into a monstrous oddity. It was an obvious decision for people without an intimate appreciation for its vicissitude of fate to declare the building dead, and make way for something new. The building was saved through hard work and dedication of many people involved, and its final reincarnation as ‘Kkum-maru’ ultimately restored its original grandeur, and at the same time Ra Sang-jin’s place in history. (Fig. 4) The building now stands as a repository of forgotten memories, still capable of inspiring our minds and restoring our ties to our heritage.
A Resilient Survivor: An Epilogue
Toward the end of his career, after yielding the design leadership for the Walker Hill to Kim Swoo-geun, Ra Sang-jin absorbed another blow to his pride with the competition for the National Government Complex in Seoul. Ra Sang-jin’s entry won the competition in 1966, but the government ultimately replaced the scheme with another, undertaken by the Pacific Architects & Engineers (PAE), a US government affiliate that was also responsible for the US Embassy building across the street as well. Ra’s relatively early death at the age of 50 were attributed by some of his acquaintances to the frustration experienced during this process.
Regardless, there is no doubt that Ra Sang-jin was a resilient survivor just like his Kkum-maru project, deftly maneuvering the political networks to achieve a considerable fame and professional success despite the lack of elite academic credentials of his peers. The recent resurgence of interest in his work, due to the successful rehabilitation project completed in 2011, has brought him back into the historical discourse, and his unique place in the history of modern architecture in Korea has been reclaimed.
References and Citations
Reyner Banham, The New Brutalism: Ethics or Aesthetic?London, The Architectural Press, 1966
Eduard F. Sekler, William Curtis, Le Corbusier at Work. The Genesis of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 1978.
Choon Choi, “Show Off Your Age: Interpretive Restoration of the Cultural Hall at the Children’s Grand Park”, Space, Nov. 2011
Gwang-rak Lee, “A Conversation with an Elder”, Science and Technology, March 1996
Chang-mo Ahn, 50 Years of Korean Modern Architecture: Episodes of Distorted Modernism in Korea, Seoul, Jaewon Press, 1996.
Gwang-hyun Kim, et al., 100 Years, Architecture of Korea, Seoul, National Museum of Modern Art, 1999.
Gil-ryong Park, Genes of Korean Modern Architecture, Seoul, Space Publications, 2005.
“Ra Sangjin”, Space, vol. 74, 1973
Figure 1. Ra Sang-jin, Seoul Country Clubhouse, Seoul, Korea, 1971, copyright Space
Figure 2. Ra Sang-jin, Seoul Country Clubhouse, Seoul, Korea, 1971, ground floor plan, copyright Space
Figure 3. Ra Sang-jin, Seoul Country Clubhouse, Seoul, Korea, 1971, lobby stair, copyright Kim Jae-kyoung
Figure 4. Choon Choi, Joh Sung-yong, Kkum-maru, Seoul, Korea, 2011, copyright Kim Yong-gwan