The rapid growth of Seoul over the past three decades has led to a majority of high-rise apartment dwellers in the South Korean capital. Few of its 10 million residents consider living in single-family houses, since such abodes—old and new—are now scarce in the redeveloped city.
A striking exception is a year-old enclave of 12 contemporary homes in Seongbuk-dong, an affluent neighborhood north of the Han River. Designed by Joel Sanders Architect, the hillside development is meant to attract a younger clientele to one of the oldest areas of Seoul. “The client wanted an alternative to the high-rise norm that was global and cutting-edge,” the New York architect says.
Sanders undertook the project with Taeman Kim, president and CEO of Seoul-based Haeahn Architecture, who served as executive architect for the LIG Engineering & Construction Co., a division of Korean electronics giant LG Corp. The two architects met during a student design review at Yale, where Sanders has taught architecture for the past 10 years, and together they won a limited competition in 2007 for the Seongbuk-dong commission.
In developing the design, Sanders confronted a rare commodity in Seoul: unspoiled terrain sloping in two directions. The two-acre site abuts Samcheong Park on the outskirts of Mount Bukak, a peak rising behind the South Korean presidential residence. Sanders took advantage of the steeply sloping site by providing ample private outdoor space and panoramas of the park for all residences.
Divided into two rows flanking an internal street, the L-shaped houses sit close together, like townhouses, but achieve separation through different positions on the hillsides. Sanders staggered the dwellings in the upper and lower tiers so each fronts unobstructed vistas of the wooded park. He drew on the time-honored Asian principle of borrowed scenery by framing the natural features in the distance with the green roofs of neighboring houses. This integration of background and foreground elements makes the views seem more expansive.
Rooftops are planted with different species of sedum, so the colors of the plants change with the seasons. They are meant to create an ever-shifting display for residents as well as visitors looking down at the houses from the park across the valley. “We wanted to respect the integrity of this special place, from the outside-in and the inside-out,” says Sanders.
While crisply modern, the residences pay homage to Seoul’s disappearing indigenous architecture. Continuous stone walls at ground level, internal courtyards, and hovering rooflines pay homage to the city’s few surviving historic homes, known as han-oak.
This nod to the past is hardly sentimental but interpreted through imported materials and fixtures, including limestone cladding from Portugal, flooring from Italy and Spain, and German kitchen appliances.
“We attempted to combine the best of both worlds,” says Sanders. “Each home combines the sense of privacy and outdoor living of the traditional Korean house with the open plan, glazed window walls, and minimalist detailing associated with contemporary residential design.”
Elevated for privacy, the main living level of each 3,500-square-foot house is accessed from the garage or by an outdoor staircase. A kitchen, den, and utility room are positioned along the largely windowless northern perimeter, while the living and dining spaces open to the south-facing garden courtyard through sliding glass doors. This merging of indoors and outdoors is repeated upstairs, where a recessed terrace is accessible from the master suite. Steel louvers extend across portions of the glass to screen the interiors from the sun.
While Sanders designed the houses before the economic downturn, the commission helped him to expand his work into the global market. Currently, the architect is again embarking on a collaboration with Haeahn Architecture, along with the international firm RMJM, for another residential development in Seoul. This project is focused on the most common type of housing in this congested city: high-rise apartments.