In the work of stpmj Architecture, things reveal themselves incrementally. The familiar becomes surprising as you turn a corner or come back a month later. The simple becomes complex as you move around or through it. When one approaches Shear House from the west, it appears as a straightforward, gabled elevation, made somewhat intriguing by an asymmetrical roof and a trio of rectangular punched openings. Nicely done, but we’ve seen this before—in Herzog & de Meuron’s concrete House in Leymen, for example, and hundreds of imitations. Walk around it, though, and you discover a more sophisticated geometric game being played, as the roof slides over the south facade to form an angled eave that protects the glazed dining area below it and then shifts on the north side to create a second-story balcony. What seems at first to be monolithic turns out to be much more complex. A different kind of transformation happened this past summer on Jeju Island, where Seung Teak Lee and Mi Jung Lim, the husband-and-wife team behind stpmj, erected a freestanding barrel vault made of rock-salt bricks. In the warm and humid climate, the rock salt slowly dissolved, leaving just an arching framework of cement mortar.
Educated in both the U.S. and Korea, Lee, 40, and Lim, 37, split their time between New York and Seoul. Not surprisingly, they often aim to resolve seemingly contradictory forces in their work. “We are interested in pursuing two goals, both boldness and efficiency,” say the architects. They call this “Provocative Realism,” a term they coined to bring together the divergent demands of innovation and low budgets. Simple forms and everyday materials help them keep costs down, while a penchant for experimentation pushes them toward strong formal gestures—such as the roof displacement in Shear House.
The firm’s name comes from the first initials of Seung Teak and Mi Jung connected by a “p” for “plus.” It also stands for “five values that we pursue: speculative, trailblazing, playful, materialized, and judicious,” they explain.
For a firm that has been around for less than three years, time and history unexpectedly serve as critical elements in several projects. A few months before Dissolving Arch debuted, stpmj completed Stratum House, which grabs attention with its boldly striated concrete walls that look like geological layers formed over eons. The architects produced the irregular strata by varying the ratio of water to cement, the types of aggregates, and the amount of pigment in each pour. In Chail Renaissance, the architects reinterpreted an old Korean sunshade, or chail, attached to a recently built traditional house that serves as an exhibition and conference space for a nonprofit foundation. And in The Masonry, they slyly refer to Robert Venturi’s house for his mother, Vanna, while making the iconic gabled facade their own by using a striking combination of brick and concrete block meeting at a dramatic angle. Call it a Modern take on a Postmodern classic.
Studying and working in both the U.S. and Asia has pushed Lee and Lim to be “nimble and resilient in order to react quickly and properly to different contexts, economics, politics, and environmental conditions.” While the firm has built mostly in Korea, it is exploring notions of form, scale, materiality, and time that should resonate across borders.
DESIGN STAFF: 4-6
PRINCIPALS: Seung Teak Lee and Mi Jung Lim
EDUCATION: Lee: Harvard GSD, M.Arch., 2009; Korea University, B.Eng., 2004. Lim: Harvard GSD, M.Arch., 2009; Rhode Island School of Design, B.Arch., 2007; Yonsei University, B.S., 2003
WORK HISTORY: Lee: LevenBetts, 2011–14; nArchitects, 2009–11; Herzog & de Meuron, 2008; Systemlab, 2005–06 Lim: Andrew Berman Architect, 2009–15
KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS: The Masonry, Kwangkyo, 2017; Nara Cellar Office, Seoul, 2017; Stratum House, Icheon, 2017; Dissolving Arch, Jeju Island, 2017; Chail Renaissance, Seoul, 2017; Shear House, Yecheon, 2016; Invisible Barn, Truckee, California, 2015 (all in Korea, except as noted)
KEY CURRENT PROJECTS: Red Chimney, Jeju Island, Korea; Kkotbit (subway passage), Seoul; Brick Church, Gwangju; Arches, Seoul