The System Lab founder Chanjoong Kim on style and evolution

The System Lab founder Chanjoong Kim on style and evolution

The Wallpaper* Architects Directory has turned 20. Conceived in 2000 as our index of emerging architectural talent, this annual listing of promising practices, has, over the years, spanned styles and continents; yet always championing the best and most exciting young studios and showcasing inspiring work with an emphasis on the residential realm. To mark the occasion, this summer, we’re looking back at some of our over-500 alumni, to catch up about life and work since their participation and exclusively launch some of their latest completions. South Korean Architects Directory alumnus The System Lab has gone from strength to strength since its 2016 inclusion, with work expanding from private homes to masterplanning, housing and impressive commercial work. Here, we speak to founder Chanjoong Kim to explore the studio’s evolution and latest work. 



Now one of South Korea’s most prominent contemporary architecture practices, The System Lab was founded in Seoul by Chanjoong Kim, a mere eight years ago. The dynamic and, arguably, still fairly young studio quickly made a mark through its eye-catching creations that started off from private housing and smaller scale retail interiors, and quickly evolved to today’s growing portfolio that encompasses prestigious commissions, such as a series of office buildings for Hana Banks and larger scale commercial work. We caught up with Kim to discuss the studio’s approach to architecture, how it developed since its inception in 2012, and its recent completions, such as Garo Alleys, a shopping destination in the country’s capital.

W*: Who is The System Lab? What does your studio stand for?
CK: We believe that a particular language or a style shouldn’t be the focus of our work, as architects. Instead, each project should have a system of its own. We strive to find ‘the system’ which optimises the conditions of each project. We see ourselves as a laboratory that finds that system, which is how we named our studio. Innovation is the most important value in what we do. Whether it is about coming up with the best construction cost or designing a tiny door knob, innovation should always be present in our projects.

W*: You were featured in the Wallpaper* Architects Directory in 2016 as an emerging firm. How has your practice changed since then?
We have been most interested in improving how we work. In order to do innovative work, the way we work should also be innovative. Our staff number has been growing (we are over 50 people now), but I don’t feel that it should mean the size of the office must grow. We try to free people from the physical office. We have been hot-desking for almost two years now, and every week, 20 per cent of our staff work from home, and people take turns coming in.

Our work is now more task-focused and community-based. The office becomes an access point, not a place where everyone needs to show up. Our new practice nurtures collective intelligence, and people operate under their own responsibility. We might also send our staff to work in a plastics factory or furniture maker’s studio for a couple of months. We are considering opening a cafe where creatives, such as carpenters or animators, can come to work alongside us. We believe this way of working creates great synergy. 

jeju exterior
KEB Hanabank Jeju

W*: What motivates you in your designs?
Understanding the challenges and limitations of each project and trying to find the best way to address them (the system). 

W*: One could argue that your work has a distinctive visual style. Would you agree? And if so, where does it stem from?  
Yes, that’s what people often feel, but a distinctive visual style isn’t an objective in itself. Instead, aesthetics are the result of the system we identified as the best fit for each individual project. For instance, for Hana Bank Place One, our client told us they wanted to be totally redefined, and not to look like a bank at all. For Healing Stay Kosmos in Ulleungdo, we needed a visually striking building to tell a story and attract people to this remote island, so I came up with a very unusual design. 

W*: Your work appears contemporary, perhaps futuristic even, at first glance. What role does tradition and your country’s heritage play in your designs?
If you look at our forms, you might feel that we don’t have deep relations with Korea’s heritage or tradition. However, I believe how we think and how we communicate reflect the Korean way of thinking. Koreans might look rational, but we are actually quite emotional and sensitive. 

W*: What role does context play in your designs?
Considering visible context, such as the adjacent building, the physical conditions of the land we are given [is important]. On top of it, I care about the invisible context. I focus on social relations and the community surrounding the site. Who lives nearby, who passes by every day, what kind of jobs these people have, all these things are important.    

W*: What can you tell us about the design and concept of two of your biggest recent works, the designs for Hana Bank in Jeju and Busan?
Both sites in Busan and Jeju are in the old centre of the town, neighbourhoods with high density and no public or green space. Hana Bank wanted to create a fresh image and connect with the community, so they decided to offer rooftop gardens for people to come and rest. So I focused on elevators in the middle of the building to give easy access to impressive rooftop gardens. For Hana Bank Jeju, the perforated structure is used to reflect the image of local rocks, which are formed by volcanoes. Hana Bank Busan features a motif inspired from the Jack and the Beanstalk fairytale. The roads surrounding the building are very narrow, and visuals of green stalks climbing up the building to reach the rooftop garden add wit and fun.    

W*: Garo Alleys was another key recent project, please could you tell us more about it?
Garosu-ghil, a popular shopping area for young people, has high density and very narrow alleys with no public space or parks. We wanted to create a relaxing route to a rooftop garden, so we built a ramp surrounding the building like a new alleyway. We also persuaded the client to empty the ground floor completely from retail. It has now become a public space that acts as a shaded meeting place for people. Giving up the ground floor’s high rental revenue wasn’t an easy decision for the client, but it bears a symbolic meaning for what they are trying to do. 

W*: What are you working on at the moment, what’s coming up from The System Lab?
We are working on a series of collective housing (co-living) projects targeting young professionals for SK D&D, a large Korean developer. For this housing concept, we developed a large trunk, which is easy to assemble and move. If you want to try out living in different neighbourhoods in Seoul, you can pack your belongings in your trunk in the morning, and it will be delivered to your new home when you come back from work in the evening. Each floor has a communal floating balcony lounge. I’m also working on a few resorts and hotels, including a Hyatt in Jeju. And I just finished designing Gentlemonster’s new headquarters in Seoul. §

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