by Jincy IypeJun 19, 2021
Our minds are programmed to follow the preconceived notions set by society. Whatever defies the convention seems 'anomalous.'
Seoul-based architect Saul Kim is of the opinion that design should not have rules—his most well-received series is one-of-a-kind, a developing hit on Instagram— Architecture Anomaly, which he describes as a ‘creative architectural autobiography,’ one that “demonstrates how my collective memory set a direction for architectural discourse. I ask ontological questions to whatever parts that make up architecture. This is done through ‘anthropomorphism,’ an attempt to give life to objects in hopes to discover new ways of assembling and inhabiting,” says Kim. Pleasingly geometric and rendered in black and white, the experimental, fictional architecture series is replete with a clinically clean, minimal design approach, and hints at a creative architectural evolution of sorts, where the author writes and inspires other creatives to see, and go beyond the conventional.
Born in South Korea and brought up in Singapore, Kim moved to the United States to study architecture, attending SCI-Arc (The Southern California Institute of Architecture, a private architecture school in Los Angeles, California) for his bachelor’s, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design for his master’s. Post graduation, the Korean architect has been a sole practitioner, working towards building his own brand and practice that focuses on schematic design, exhibitions, and the Metaverse. His interest in teaching led him to become an instructor at Domestika, an online education platform with millions of users, apart from giving lectures at major universities such as the Pratt Institute and TED University, as well as scheduled lectures at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and the University of Johannesburg.
"All of the thoughts garnered from previous projects have influenced me greatly, and the manifestation of those learnings and the development of those ideas are displayed clearly in this series,” explains the architectural designer. ‘They were supposed to be sketches in a notebook, but there was a part of me that wanted to resolve and execute each idea with the right dimension and proportion. It is why they are kept so simple and direct. I don’t spend more than an hour making each design, because the more developed it becomes, the more specific and predefined it becomes. I needed them to remain abstract because it wasn’t a matter of practicality—I don’t care if it works or not as a building product. These works have no context, no site, no program, and no scale,” Kim continues.
In an exclusive, detailed interview with STIR, Kim sheds light on Architecture Anomaly, a series manifesting the juxtaposition of ordinary architectural elements, manipulating and misappropriating them on purpose, and how intriguing, imaginary architecture, regardless of its potential of realisation, can open up new possibilities of thinking and design approaches.
Jincy Iype: How did Architecture Anomaly begin, and what informed the series’ moniker and core concept?
Saul Kim: Architecture Anomaly is a design study series initiated by me, to experiment with architectural elements in unconventional ways, to discover newer paths of assembling and inhabiting. Inspiration comes from anything that is design-related, but not strictly architecture. This allows me to avoid doing what has already been done before.
I see them as architectural objects that are meant to be studied from afar, only thinking about the thing and the meaning of their existence. The only thing that matters to me is the fact that I thought about it, and the thoughts are translated and represented through architectural expressions. That way, each work becomes a record of ideas along the timeline of my career as an architect. They are juxtapositions of ordinary architectural elements, made with recognisable parts such as a wall, floor, column, beam, stair, roof, railing, and so on.
By asking ontological questions about architectural elements, we can break free from their initial purpose of existence, to discover new meanings. Sometimes, ordinary and banal elements can turn into spectacles with appropriate transposition and manipulation. – Saul Kim
The familiarity of these elements serves as the set-up for juxtaposition and contradiction. When we see these familiar parts, they trigger the preconceived notion of how they normally look like and how they’re normally used, and what they’re normally used for. The manipulation and the misappropriation of these elements create something that is almost surrealistic and anomalous, that defies the convention of architecture, whether it is spatial or formal. So, I’m trying to make a point that sometimes these ordinary and banal elements can turn into spectacles with appropriate transposition and manipulation. And I don’t have to come up with aesthetically pleasing geometry that looks good, and say ‘Hey, look at me, this is beautiful and interesting architecture.’ Here, I’m not too interested in aesthetics. They just exist, to convey deeply personal ideas and experimental thoughts.
I ask the same question that architect Louis I. Kahn asked his brick. “I ask my wall, ‘Hey, Mr. Wall, what do you wanna be?’ And the wall replies, ‘I want to be a floor today.’ And I said, “Okay, just bend yourself 90 degrees and you’ll become a floor.” Sometimes, it is as simple as that. I ask the same question to the rest of the architectural elements, creating more and more architectural anomalies. So far, I have made 164 of them. The more I create, the clearer it becomes, that there are three overarching concepts to the digital architecture series. They are of 'singularity, conformity, and ruination.’
Jincy: Could you elaborate on the three overarching concepts?
Saul: The concept of ‘Singularity’ relates to the idea of reduction, where I am trying to achieve architectural versatility through the formal manipulation of a single entity.
‘Conformity’ is the study of ways in which disparate or similar parts come together. It is a moment of interaction of at least two pieces and the only rule is to not follow the rule of conventional assembly of architecture.
‘Ruination’—this whole concept of ageing can be divided into two categories—textural and formal. The former describes the change in the look and feel of the tissue, an outer-surface phenomenon. For humans, we observe the whitening of hair, and wrinkles on the skin as we age. In the same lieu, for objects, we observe the decaying of wood, rusting of steel, and cracking of stone with time. Alternatively, formal ageing describes the change in the overall posture or composition. For humans, we would observe hunched-back, slow-walking elderlies. For objects, we would observe the imperceptible collapse of structures. I was especially interested in the idea of formal aging which was applied to anthropomorphic objects.
It is because of the limits of pragmatism that usually prevent us from being outstandingly creative and unhindered in our approach. Both built architecture and architecture on paper should continue to evolve. – Saul Kim
Jincy: “I ask ontological questions to whatever parts that make up architecture. This is done through ‘anthropomorphism,’ an attempt to give life to objects in hopes to discover new ways of assembling and inhabiting.” Please explain in the context of Architecture Anomaly.
Saul: Design should not have rules. We tend to set up our own rules when we learn something and start to believe that it is wrong to do things the other way. For instance, we are taught in architecture school that a floor slab should be placed horizontally, have a certain thickness, and be placed above structural beams to provide habitable space. This is the understanding of a ‘floor slab’ from a structural and human ergonomic perspective because it was learned, through hundreds of years of evolution, that it is the most practical and efficient way to provide habitable space. But if we were to step back, and lose the preconceived notion of what it is, what it was made for, and how it should be used in a building, we start to see the thing within a floor slab. Essentially, it is a thin piece of surface that we can now morph into something different. Maybe this surface wants to fold, crumble, or get sliced, to become something else. By asking ontological questions about these architectural elements, we can freely break away from their initial purpose of existence to discover new meanings.
Jincy: Please take us behind your creative process of creating the renders (some shown in this photo essay)—how do you think of an idea, do you proceed to sketch it by hand and then translate it onto software, or create physical models to see how it looks?
Saul: Most works in the conceptual design series are first sketched in a notebook, usually multiple variations of the same idea. This is to find the best iteration that can convey the idea in the most coherent way possible. Then the design is tested with proper dimensions and thicknesses in the 3D modelling software Rhino7. Sometimes the idea only works on paper and fails as a 3D model.
Jincy: “These works have no context, no site, no program and no scale.” What are some messages, key issues, and inquiries you address with the series?
Saul: The fact that there is no context, site, or program, is the only reason why the series can be (or is) successful. It is because of these limits of pragmatism that usually prevent us from being outstandingly creative and unhindered in our approach. Both built architecture and architecture on paper should continue to evolve. About 95 per cent of my works can actually be built into real buildings, it is just a matter of money in today's context if we are to talk about the practicality or legality of these concepts. Buildable or illegal, it is imperative that these ideas are expressed through my series and are shared with the world to be inspired, simply.
Jincy: When did this series begin, and when do you see it culminating?
Saul: I created the first in the series, ‘AA1’ back in May 2020. I honestly did not expect to continue for the next three years, but it has come into its own so organically, and it has continued to inspire me as well. Now, I intend to keep the series going till the end of my career as an architect.
Jincy: Who are your architectural inspirations? What is NEXT for you?
Saul: Some of my favourite architects are Kazuo Shinohara, Herzog&de Meuron, and Rem Koolhaas. As mentioned earlier, I lectured at RISD and the University of Johannesburg in May and will continue lecturing and visiting reviews at architecture schools to stay connected with the world of architecture in academia. I also have some of my Architecture Anomaly designs in development to look forward to keenly, to be realised in collaboration with other architects globally.