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In a preview from The Touch—the new book from Kinfolk and Norm Architects, published by gestalten—we take a tour of the light-filled Seoul headquarters of Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation, where five millennia of Korea’s cultural heritage has been distilled and reinterpreted for modern life.

The latter part of the 20th century was a period of rapid transformation in South Korea—one during which the preservation of cultural traditions took a backseat to economic growth. But this began to change as the new millennium dawned. “Many people thought about what they had lost during the nation’s period of such intense and dramatic growth and  realized that they needed to revive their culture and traditions,” says Yun Gyun S. Hong, chair of the Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation—a non-profit, private foundation that was established in 2001 to preserve 5,000 years of Korean culture and tradition and pass it on to future generations.

It attempts this mission from a discreet building in Seoul, completed by Kim Jong-kyu and Kim Bong-ryol of architecture practice M.A.R.U. in 2013. An unassuming low-rise, it seamlessly blends old and new and merges into its surroundings both in form and substance. From the outside, it’s a muted symphony of light-colored wood, concrete, and glass, layered to hint at the functional divisions inside—spaces for exhibitions, social gatherings, and offices.

Inside, an elevated courtyard featuring an ornamental pitch-roofed pavilion nods to the configuration of traditional Korean houses, in which the main home and other buildings were organized around an open space. The natural flow between spaces, white walls, plain wood, and clean lines is almost meditative, echoing the simple yet splendid aesthetic of the Joseon Dynasty, which built the nearby Gyeongbokgung Palace.

  • Words:
    Debika Ray
  • Photography:
    Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen

“It’s wonderful to see how such traditional and modern spaces have been made to blend together so smoothly, without any sense of incongruity,” Yun Gyun S. Hong says. “People who have lived and worked in traditional Korean houses say how relaxed they feel in them, and how their movements tend to slow down while they’re in them. It makes us realize anew the huge impact that traditional spaces have on us.”

The public and exhibition spaces occupy the more sociable lower floors and the offices are situated above. Sliding panels in the walls of the courtyard can be opened to look out onto the street below. Such gestures are important because community is at the heart of this project. To fulfill its purpose as a temple to the past, the foundation holds frequent exhibitions on food, architecture, fashion, and more. The purpose of this welcoming architecture is to draw people inside: the local community from nearby Seochon Village—historically known for its artists and artisans—as well as Seoul more broadly and, increasingly, the wider world.

By all accounts, it’s succeeding. “The people living in the neighborhood love being here,” says Yun Gyun S. Hong. “I’m sure the building will continue to inspire people for a long time.”

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