A couple pushes the boundaries of local materials and methodologies to create a new design language.
“The way we work together is like a ping-pong game,” says Sojung Lee, 36, about her partnership with Sangjoon Kwak, 35, in the Seoul-based OBBA (Office for Beyond Boundaries Architecture). “Instead of saying, ‘This is my work, and this is yours,’ one person will have an idea, then bounce it to the other. By doing that, we develop the idea and make it more concrete.” Unlike other architectural duos, where each partner brings his or her expertise to the union— the aesthete and the engineer, the designer and the businessman, the theorist and the realist—Lee and Kwak’s strength is in their cooperation.
The couple’s collaboration began at MASS Studies, a firm founded by Minsuk Cho in Seoul. (Cho’s former firm, Cho Slade Architecture of New York, was a Design Vanguard winner in 2000.) The two worked together on several MASS Studies projects and shared their frustration when those projects did not get built. In 2012, Lee was offered a commission while still working at MASS Studies. She asked Kwak, who had recently left the firm, to join her on the job, and OBBA was founded. The partners set up an office space in a soon-to-be-demolished building adjacent to the project site.
Lee and Kwak’s business partnership soon morphed into a romantic partnership. This was a risky move, Lee admits, as the end to one relationship might mean the end to the other. That didn’t happen, and one year after OBBA was founded, the workmates got married.
OBBA’s work in and around Seoul exhibits its local influence. Residential projects with austere brick walls and minimal fenestration may appear to Americans as severe, but, more accurately, this housing is a reflection of both the commonness of brick construction in Korea and local residents’ specific sense of privacy. Lee contrasts Korean housing with what she saw in the Netherlands, where she worked for OMA. There, houses had big openings onto the street, and the Dutch didn’t seem to care if people looked inside. In Korea, people do care, and OBBA’s work reflects this.
But it would be simplistic to say that OBBA merely responds to local precedents. Instead, the partners push themselves to work with new materials and new methodologies. Take, for example, OBBA’s first project, Beyond the Screen, a multifamily apartment building in a dense urban neighborhood. The architects used an openwork brick wall to screen a circulation/activity space from onlookers. But this element also serves as an attraction and a light source when viewed from the interior, and as camouflage for air-conditioning units when seen from the street.
In its first three years, OBBA has focused on housing. Lee says she would like to add cultural buildings and other programs to her firm’s repertoire, yet she does not want to expand the office to do so. OBBA now has two fresh-out-of-school employees who join the two partners in the conversations that drive the work. But the firm has no immediate plans to grow any larger. There are only so many places at the ping-pong table.
DESIGN STAFF: 4
PRINCIPALS: Sojung Lee, Sangjoon Kwak
EDUCATION: Lee: University of Pennsylvania, M.Arch., 2008; Ewha Womans University, B.A., 2002; Kwak: Yonsei University, B.S., 2006
WORK HISTORY: Lee: MASS Studies, 2009–12; OMA (Rotterdam), 2008–09; OMA (Rotterdam), 2006–07; Kwak: MASS Studies, 2010–12; Space YEON Architects, 2006–10
KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS: The Oasis, Yongin-si, Korea, 2015; Open & Closed, Seoul, 2015; 50m2 House, Seoul, 2015; Beyond the Screen, Seoul, 2013
Key Current PROJECTS: The Layers, Ganghwa-do, Korea, 2015; G House, Gyeonggi-do, Korea, 2016; HWN HQ, Seoul, 2016; Four Little Houses, Seoul, 2016; RK Tower, Seoul, 2017.