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Architecture by SPOA 

Photography by:
Jongyoun Jung

Hyeonki Yoon
Guillaume Meurice
Roméo A

Filmography by:

Danish design in South Korea: the meeting of tradition, craft and the modern aesthetic

At VOLA, we enjoy collaborating with designers who share our philosophy and values. We have a very Danish approach; everything we do is inspired by our design traditions and our great respect for using materials and processes responsibly and efficiently. That includes a built-in understanding of how to design for longevity, ensuring that our products last for generations.

Denmark and South Korea are very different places, but they share a deep appreciation for tradition and quality, whilst always constantly improving by embracing new thinking and techniques. Seoul has seen a fast-expanding architectural scene over recent years, ignited by rapidly changing infrastructure and the rising demand for innovative spatial solutions. But that hasn’t altered the culture’s innate philosophy of respect for age and wisdom, considerations that extend from its veneration of older generations to its love for its older buildings. Traditional Korean structures share space with iconic contemporary buildings, including one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, just as grandparents share living space with their children and grandchildren.

This is a culture that celebrates memory and the passing of time just as much as it looks to the future, making it an ideal place for an innovative VOLA showroom which skilfully blends old and new.

VOLA team in our new showroom in Gahoe-Dong, Seoul

SPOA (Shinpyong Organization for Architecture) were the perfect fit to take us on a journey through Seoul’s architectural world to create our new showroom in a very special location that we found together.

Joon Chae is an architect at SPOA, a design collective based in Seoul, with offices and designers in Cheonan (located south of Seoul) and San Francisco. SPOA’s work is wide-ranging, from apartment buildings, to bespoke private houses, public parks and cultural spaces. The team describes their approach as ‘challenging’, ‘constantly questioning existing practices and finding new ways to enhance positive urban and social change.’

We’ve learnt so much about this exciting culture and wanted to share Joon Chae’s thoughts on the differences and similarities of our two worlds. We explore Joon’s design inspiration, how his family environment shaped his passion as an architect and how he approaches his design work.

Images show recent SPOA projects in South Korea

Do you see any parallels between contemporary Danish design and contemporary Korean design?

After a lot of research, I explored the many differences between our two cultures. What brings us together is a fascination for quality and a willingness to look into the future. We are two very different cultures, which is why VOLA has been so intrigued by Seoul – it’s the same but different. VOLA is about minimalism and simplicity, like so much Danish design. It seems like a very simple and efficient way of building and creating. I would say that Korean architecture is more about an understanding with nature, how to become part of a particular context through making connections. The overall design doesn’t necessarily stand out, perhaps, but the details are very special. Our design approach is very understated, which is also something that’s similar to VOLA, just like how there’s common ground in how we approach material and texture. I love to use long-lasting natural materials that acknowledge the passing of time. I believe in things being aged and weathered – I don’t want to create designs that stay exactly the same after years of use. Instead they change and evolve with you in a beautiful, natural way. 

How has your background influenced the work you do at SPOA?

As a child I was exposed to drawings and models and I visited construction sites, as my grandfather ran a construction company, and my father was an architect who restored traditional Korean buildings. It wasn’t always my intention to work in such a similar field though!

I was born in Japan, and eventually studied architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and then urban design at Harvard university. After that, I worked in architecture offices in New York for eight years. My speciality is finding the client’s unique point of view. Having experienced a variety of cultures and approaches, I’ve been able to accept and understand the needs of different clients and their projects – we are all different and it is so important to get into their mindset at the very beginning. Our design team spends a lot of time researching, to understand the value of their thinking, such as what they do and their philosophy, before designing and presenting solutions. I believe this way of working is most suited to clients who are very clear about their philosophy and want tell their own stories in their new spaces.

How do you go about choosing a space and preserving its past?

We approach new projects in a unique way. We do a lot of exploring and research to find the perfect sites. For example, we recently spent three years trying to find the ideal location for a weekend house by the river. It’s a specialist approach and definitely isn’t the normal route over here! It takes a lot of work and dedication, but personally, I love it. That’s why we do it this way – we totally understand the client’s requirements and build real relationships with them over a long period of time. It takes a lot of patience.

We believe that the only way to restore the buildings in their best possible state is to use specialist techniques and traditional craftspeople who are able to preserve all the elements of traditional architecture in an authentic, original way. This is one of the things that VOLA were very excited about in the design process. We also use these traditional methods in our contemporary buildings. For example, the paper walls, using Korean Hanji paper, can be used instead of frosted glass to divide up spaces. I think the attitude is changing. The young generation is also looking to these methods, even though craftspeople like carpenters are often older and more experienced. But the young are now figuring out the value of craft.

How did you approach the showroom project with VOLA?

What’s very important to us is our research. I was familiar with Arne Jacobson and knew VOLA’s iconic designs, but I didn’t really know very much about philosophy, design approach and manufacturing processes until we started the delving deep into their heritage and ethos. We found the location together. When I met the team from VOLA in Denmark, we talked a lot to discover what they wanted from a showroom – it was a very interesting process. Gahoe-dong is an area that’s mainly known for luxury retail stores and high-end furniture, so it’s a bit different to a conventional showroom. It’s in the heart of a traditional Korean village, close to the historic 14th century Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty.  We had a great opportunity to combine contemporary design with historic restoration on a site that combined two family houses from different eras - a traditional Korean wood-built Hanok dwelling and a conventional late 20th century house. We wanted to use the space to bridge the worlds of contemporary Danish and Korean design.

For those that are not familiar with the Hanok, it is a house characterised by its wooden structure and traditional curved roof. It was popular until the 1940s but has decreased dramatically; now they’re a very rare sight in the city. There are a few more in the countryside, but in 2016 it was estimated that there were only 210,000 Hanok remaining across the whole of South Korea, accounting for just 2.8% of the total number of buildings. We were very excited to find such a fantastic original location.

We were fascinated with the idea of blurring the line between urban design, architecture, interior and landscape design. This project really has been an exercise in trying to understand how each of those elements contributes to crafting a sense of space.

What was the design process?

The two buildings had been abandoned for 30 years or so. When we did our research, we wanted to understand how the site had been used and the context, so we could see which walls and windows needed to be kept in order to tell the story of the building. It’s a showroom with office space, and that needs to be a bit more enclosed. This helped us create a plan that referenced the original domestic typology – the main bedroom became the conference room, and the old kitchen and dining room became offices. We’re not redesigning but replacing functions. It’s all about understanding the original characteristics of the space.  It integrates the old and the new.

We wanted to combine the idea of creating a cultural space as well as an office space within the two different houses – but it was a challenge to design two distinct spaces that were inherently separate. We also wanted to make the showroom feel spacious and open and enhance the sense of space around it, with the south-facing courtyard that floods it with light. It’s not like a high-end fashion store or typical showroom – it was about creating the spaces and the lines that exist between them, with different layers of material and age to provide a contrast.


VOLA Denmark team in our new showroom in Gahoe-Dong, Seoul

Would you say that SPOA has a signature style or material?

I love using wood. Most of our projects use materials like wooden cladding and untreated copper on the roof, so it weathers and ages. We also use stone floors as a foundation for many buildings, even though much of our architecture is wooden. At college, we were very inspired by Mies van der Rohe – he designed the main campus at the Illinois Institute of Technology. His famous dictum, ‘Less is More’, was apparent in every single class. I also love the minimal design of the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Mies is still quite influential in Korea – you see his Barcelona chair widely used in offices and homes.

How do you decide on furniture design and specifications in an interior like this?

It’s about finding a balance between things we like while also accommodating the clients’ taste, which is sometimes weird and sometimes good! For a recent project with Taikaka, we worked with the Dutch furniture designer Valentin Loellmann to create the main gate and cladding for the building. We really enjoyed the collaboration – it was the first time his studio had built gates like this. We also worked closely with the Swiss window manufacturer Vitrocsa.


How did you integrate the existing courtyard into the design?

The brief for the showroom was to allow visitors to be inspired by pure, elemental forms that could become part of their daily lives. The garden is treated as if it is an event space, an outdoor area for everything from weddings to meetings. It’s deliberately left empty and not planted, although we kept the three existing pine trees as a symbol of endurance and tradition. We wanted everyone to see the materiality of the beautiful walls and how they had aged and weathered. When people visit the building, they can also experience the seasons and time of day – the big windows change the feeling of the spaces and make nature very pronounced and visible.


How would you specify VOLA in your projects?

I love the simplicity of VOLA – its pure forms mean it can be specified anywhere, from the most contemporary of projects to renovations like this. There are so many colours that it goes well with every kind of design. The products are also very simple, so they don’t stand out if you don’t want them to – they feel as if they have grown into a space. Of course, you can have bold colours if you like, but from my perspective it’s not about drawing attention to such things. Our design approach is subtle, not eye-catching. VOLA embodies this, which is what I love most about these products, and why they go so well with everything. I’ve met so many different people through this job and I really enjoyed experiencing the Danish culture and approach to design and craftsmanship.


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