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Korean Heritage Influences Architect’s Work

As architect C.W. Kim gazes out on a magnificent view of the downtown waterfront from his 12th-story office, two of his most distinctive creations loom in the distance: the Hotel Inter-Continental and Columbia Centre.

But the images Kim conjures up are vivid memories of his native Chung Buk Province in South Korea, where his parents and two brothers still live.

“Lately I’ve had many dreams of my boyhood in Korea. Maybe that’s a sign I will go back,” he said. “It is where I first recognized how beauty and harmony can exist between nature and man-made structures. In my hometown of Namwon that harmony is everywhere. Our Korean villages and towns are very attuned to nature, and the harmony between them unfolds in subtle, almost hidden ways.”

Namwon, like its surrounding villages, is an ancient place, and Kim’s family has lived there for centuries. He grew up in the same home as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

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“I don’t know how many years we’ve been there,” Kim said, “only that it’s been a long, long time.”

Kim felt compelled to come to the United States in the 1960s to pursue a career in architecture at the urging of his older brother, Chong Oh, who was already here earning a doctorate in nuclear physics at the University of Chicago. His other brother, Chong Ku, remained in Korea and became a businessman.

Ironically, Chong Oh returned to Korea after 10 years. And it was Kim who stayed.

“He tried it here but didn’t like it,” Kim said. “I never intended to stay but after awhile I finally got used to crazy American ways and I liked it. But I will never neglect being Korean. I was born and raised there and will always remain Korean.”

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The 47-year-old Kim is quick to point out that his cultural heritage plays an important role in the buildings he creates.

“Anyone who doesn’t recognize his origin and its influence is creatively dead,” he said. “It’s good for me to tap into my cultural background. I try to create from all different components and give a building its own identity, not mine. But my vision and sense of harmony are very much rooted in my Korean heritage.”

Part of that heritage for Kim and his brothers was being raised in typically strict but loving fashion by his father, a private businessman in Namwon.

Kim, who has no qualms about working seven days a week and keeping late hours at his office, attributes that trait to “good upbringing from my parents.”

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In addition to serving clients seven days a week, Kim teaches at Chula Vista’s New School of Architecture, and along with his wife designs furniture, sculpts and enjoys oil painting.

His parents, now in their 80s, still live in the family home. But contrary to the tradition of three generations living under the same roof, Kim’s two brothers live separately from his parents.

“But we are all still very, very close with my mother and father,” he emphasized. “That will never change.”

Twice in recent years, Kim has returned to visit his family home and found great pleasure in “renewing my boyhood fantasies in the house where I grew up.”

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Kim recalls being utterly fascinated as a child with details of everyday life in Namwon. Roofs, windows, doors, paths and roadways--all were subjected to careful scrutiny from every conceivable angle and direction by the young architect-to-be.

These youthful observations sparked “all sorts of dreams and fantasies in my mind,” he remembered. “The more simple and basic an object, the more excited I was to discover its special secrets.”

Lifelong Love of Hexagon

Kim began a lifelong affair with the hexagon, a six-sided figure that he calls “nature’s perfect design.”

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He strongly believes that when the shape of a hexagon is utilized correctly in designing buildings, users and visitors feel more natural and at ease.

Kim’s fascination with basic forms and shapes led him to start painting such objects and their intriguing relationships with each other at the age of 10.

His oil paintings of these childhood explorations regularly won him top district prizes in school competitions. They were so strikingly three-dimensional that his older brother, along with his teachers, urged him to seriously pursue architecture.

“It was a logical choice,” Kim said. “I was very good in math and fine arts, and I thought to myself, why not conquer both worlds instead of staying in only one and becoming frustrated?”

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Kim subsequently devoured every book on architecture he could afford with his weekly allowance. “And when that ran out my parents never hesitated to give me more money for books.”

After high school he wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps and come to the United States to continue his education.

“It was hard for my parents,” Kim said. “They wanted both of us to stay at home. In Korea, family life is most important. Parents literally live their lives for their children. But my mother and father knew we were doing the right thing and supported our decision.”

Kim enrolled at the University of Washington and earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1965. Along the way he met his wife, Jin, a fellow student, while both were attending services at a Korean Presbyterian Church.

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Like her husband, Jin left her close-knit family in Korea to pursue educational opportunities in the United States. After attending the University of Virginia on a scholarship to study interior design, she followed a cousin to Seattle. Her parents and three sisters subsequently followed her to the United States.

“When I first came here I had very mixed feelings about the United States,” Kim said. “Things happened too fast and American culture always seemed to be in a state of perpetual change. It was a big contrast to the stability and slow pace of life in Korea. But it offered incredible opportunity for a person in my profession.”

Now Kim and his wife, who have no children, feel very Americanized.

Leaving Family Was Difficult

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“The biggest culture shock for us was leaving our families,” Jin added. “In Korea there is so much interdependence between family members. Each relies on the other. But over here you’re totally on your own even if your family lives close by.

“I really think this change in environment had a beneficial effect on my husband, because he’s been compelled to develop a toughness and competitiveness in order to survive in the business world here.”

Laughing, Jin added, “Now he loves every minute of it, and he looks forward to competing for clients just like a good American businessman.”

Kim worked for five years as an architect in a Seattle firm but felt vaguely uneasy and was troubled by a gradually developing lack of confidence. He rocketed out of that slump by going back to school and earning two master’s degrees, one in architecture and another in city planning from UC Berkeley.

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“Going back to school and getting those additional degrees literally made me a new person,” he said, “especially the training in city planning. For me it was the missing link.”

After his Berkeley school days he also found his feelings about the United States changing.

“I came to the realization that I could really make a contribution in this society. And I thought to myself, hey, it’s not that bad, I actually like it here.”

The Hope Consulting Group nabbed Kim in 1978 and sent him to Saudi Arabia to design a variety of schools and commercial projects.

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After these assignments Hope brought him to San Diego where he helped alter the downtown skyline as director of design for the Hotel Inter-Continental and Columbia Centre.

Kim’s original hopes for the Columbia Centre have been dashed. He designed the 27-story office tower, with its distinctive slanted terraces, to be linked to the proposed San Diego Convention Center with elevated walkways. But the convention center is now to be located at Navy Field, 1 1/2 miles from what originally was to be its companion building. Kim, keenly aware of the relationships between structures, feels the Columbia Centre “does not sit comfortably on its site because it doesn’t have its brother.

Kim’s Korean influences are likely to be most noticeable in his next project--the futuristic Shapery Center, which will be the tallest structure in downtown San Diego when it is built next year.

The architect is especially excited because owner Sandy Shapery and developer Neal Hoopman share Kim’s vision of harmonizing the building with the surrounding cityscape and utilizing nature in every possible way.

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Back to the Hexagon

Once again digging deep into his cultural past, Kim will use the shape of a hexagon for Shapery Center’s unusual series of eight crystalline towers “designed to look like eight sunflowers from a distance.”

The office and hotel towers will be joined by an atrium. Inside lighting will make maximum use of existing sunlight via a “sunflower device.” This will be an automatic solar ray concentrating and transmitting system which will bring sunlight anywhere it is needed in the towers.

The system was created by the Mori Building Group of Japan and the Shapery Center will be the first in the United States to use it.

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Kim, who constantly uses a humidifier in his own office to combat dry office building air, is also exploring innovative ways to provide “fresh, healthy air” for users and visitors of the eight towers.

Kim’s solution is to use technology to work with nature, not against it. The Shapery Center, he believes, will come the closest of any of his projects to achieving that goal.

To Kim, the Shapery Center represents just the beginning of things to come.

“I feel I am just starting to really express my Korean subconsciousness,” he said. “My goal is to put Oriental elegance into each project I do. I want to move deeper and deeper into realizing total harmony and I look forward to that being an endless effort.”

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