Andrea Caputo Studio transforms a historic villa in Samcheong-dong, Seoul, into a contemporary meeting place

In Seoul, the capital of South Korea, a metropolis of 10 million inhabitants, the neighborhood of Samcheong-dong is part of the ancient fabric of the city, north of the river which, like an axis, it separates the more modern developed area to the south.

It is in this context, still remote from international tourist flows, but undergoing great transformation, where citizens often take refuge to escape the frenzy, noise and traffic, that the intervention of the Italian studio led by Andrea Caputo and completed this year: the conversion of a late nineteenth-century villa, created as a private residence, in an avant-garde café, designed for a young and informal local audience.

A receptive space where you can also work smart, organize meetings and meetings or just post on Instagram the strong and seductive contrasts that design its 'postcard 2.0' identity.

In fact, architecture is still linked to the figure of the Hanok, the historic Korean village, which in the Western imagination can be traced back to the traditional typology of the stone and wood construction characterized by the vaulted roof pagoda and in the morphology of the courtyard layout.

But his new character tells another story.

“We are witnessing a gradual but constant reconversion of this model of historical typologies into new forms of use, especially as temporary residences or accommodation facilities”, says architect Caputo .

Based in Milan and Shanghai, in the last nine years his studio has developed around twenty projects in Seoul at different scales, including four multifunctional buildings and some dedicated to retail, gaining confidence and trust in the Korean market.

“It may be the fact that we express ourselves with a contemporary language also in our approach to the theme of heritage, which is highly appreciated here, making what is new truly explicit,” he reflects.

"But it is never easy everywhere to combine renovation with the will to intervene not only in a philological or conservative way, on the contrary by working on signs that are clearly recognizable and peculiar in their temporality".

Sharing the search for a different point of balance convinced the client to embrace even the most radical proposal of the project. That of subtracting a historical element from the pre-existing one: the enclosure wall that protected the villa from the road.

“But it was necessary to demolish it,” acknowledges Caputo. “Once the limit has been eliminated, a very direct osmotic relationship has been created between the external and internal, public and private spheres. So much so that in the evening, when the place closes, people stop on the steps which form a sort of podium and meeting space, finding the incentive to return to this place which for us should have evoked the great creative concentration of the island of Jeju."

Thus, from the street, the somewhat lanky configuration of the volumes is also immediately evident which, in a loose and fluid concatenation around the central courtyard, outline loops, recesses and protuberances of the building bordering the park of the imperial villa.

"We have kept the skeleton intact, from the foundations to the roof, from the patio to the classic internal garden, up to some partitions that contribute to the stability of the construction". The structural apparatus, the hardware of the project.

“The development therefore focused on the epidermal connotations of the new elements. We worked with materials that were contrasting with each other and very different from traditional ones. Metal and not wood, concrete and not stone.

Deliberately, an almost industrial type of writing that goes in the opposite direction of the house,” he continues. “Then, to exasperate this concept, we imagined the creation of an air conditioning duct inside the historic exoskeleton. A maxi habitable duct on a human scale three meters high, which became our design guide and the common thread between the various spaces.

In exploring the theme, we were inspired by the research of Charlotte Posenenske, the conceptual artist who at the end of the 1960s worked extensively with industrially manufactured and decontextualized steel tubes".

Posenenske made abstract sculptures with off-the-shelf modular components, similar in appearance to air conditioning shafts. In the architectural interpretation of the Caputo studio, the connections of the curved elements take up the exterior/inside shape of the air conditioning ducts, but brought back to an urban scale.

In fact, everything is linked to this almost provocative aspect of the system, which exits, re-enters, turns, becomes a manifesto of the project and generator of further declinations in the spatial relationship between the parts: comparison with the openings on the long sides, insertion of a series of layers of sheet metal and glass in the wall facing, exfoliation of the wall, carvings in the metal boxes, a bit Kubrick-style, intended for services.

There is another very interesting aspect of this story. Andrea Caputo says: "In Korea, when you intervene on a small scale, there remains a margin of freedom and improvisation.

Everything is builtin situ. The joinery and carpentry is assembled on the construction site, and the project becomes an almost entirely artisanal work, extraordinary every time precisely because it is homemade. Not only. By choice, our studio does not deal with product design and, also in this case, we worked with young Korean designers.

We asked Jeongseob Kim, for example, to design the seats and tables, then made of metal processed with certain types of galvanic and hand-sanded to obtain a sensorial effect consistent with the character of the place.

It is our modus operandi in approaching the territory: not generating tax mechanisms", reflects the designer, adding: "For many years I have tried to act as a bridge between Milan and South Korea as a promoter of initiatives that they are linked to local architects and designers.

DropCity is a great driver of this. But the Korean scene is worth it: it is truly unique for Asia."