Real Estate

His Architect Said the Site Was No Good, So He Built the Project Himself

Anyone who has an urge to design a house but lacks architectural training should take courage from Hun-Chung Lee.

Two decades ago, Mr. Lee, a South Korean ceramics artist, spent about $200,000 on a tilted piece of land in Yangpyeong County, an hour east of Seoul, with the intention of building a studio there.

He began in an orthodox fashion, asking an architect friend to design the structure. But when the friend saw the 1.6-acre wooded site, he advised Mr. Lee to unload­­ it immediately. The slope was too steep, and the orientation — facing away from the sun — too chilly.

No hard feelings, Mr. Lee told him. He would do the job himself.

Hun-Chung Lee built a mountain home for himself in Yangpyeong County, east of Seoul.Credit…Joe Kramm, courtesy of the artist and R & Company

“I knew how to use a table saw,” he said, speaking in a recent video call from Yangpyeong. “I knew about the welding from when I studied sculpture.”

Dry wall? He would figure out how to install it and would study the intricacies of poured concrete while he was at it. “I built clay sculptures, so I understood about gravity,” he said.

What evolved over several years was a trio of buildings — a small house, a studio and a gallery — assembled with an ornery passion for challenging materials and a respect for the unpredictability of process. The mountain refuge is architecture, yes, but put together in a way that few architects or builders could tolerate.

When designing it, Mr. Lee, now 56, had less regard for efficiency than for the perfection of window positions, which he changed several times, to the despair of his workers. He insisted on using a metal post that had originally propped up a freeway sign as a column in his studio. (More groaning.) He was not concerned with comfort so much as the beauty of naked concrete, insulating the house only from the exterior and relying heavily on a wood stove and heated floors in winter.

A (very) close look at the concrete wall in the dining area reveals a ceramic flower stuck into a crack.Credit…Chris Mottalini/Clarkson Potter

The buildings, in other words, are glorified artworks, substantially bigger than the oversize ceramic pieces for which he is known — based on Korean Buncheong ware, in which dark clay is exposed under a coat of thin slip — but assembled in a similar spirit of frank materiality.

They “aren’t painted brown or covered in moss, but somehow they have a dialogue with the trees and the surrounding area that is stunning,” said Nina Freudenberger, who included the project in her new book, “Mountain House: Studies in Elevated Design.”

Ms. Freudenberger, a German-born interior designer, set out to document mountain retreats that were packed with more interest than afancy ski house in Colorado with a flokati rug,” as she put it.

“I have always been fascinated when people choose locations that are a challenge,” she said, adding that she understood the attractions of beautiful views and immersion in nature, but that there was something about the way “creativity blossoms” when one builds and lives at high altitudes.

Mr. Lee made the ceramic dining table. The seats on the left are George Nakashima’s Conoid chairs.Credit…Chris Mottalini/Clarkson Potter

The Lee chapter concentrates on the residential part of the artist’s compound, which he named Bada Camp A. (“Bada,” which means ocean, refers to childhood trips to the seaside Mr. Lee made with his father, who died after a long illness when the artist was in his teens. Bada Camp B is the artist’s primary residence in Seoul.)

The house is 1,000 square feet on three levels. At the top are two bedrooms. At the base is a private area where Mr. Lee reads, listens to music and draws. Sandwiched between them is a kitchen and dining area with perforated-concrete walls, knotty-wood floor planks, and exposed wood and steel beams.

This main-level space opens to a glass-walled addition, exploiting the mountain scenery. The furnishings include George Nakashima chairs mixed with a ceramic table and seats that were pulled out of Mr. Lee’s own kiln.

“Every corner where we looked was something incredibly beautiful,” Ms. Freudenberger said, prizing the “handmade nature” of the furnishings, although noting that “to be honest these chairs and stools were not comfortable.”

Mr. Lee’s ceramic paintings are mounted on a studio wall. To the right are a spherical chandelier made from glazed clay and wire mesh and “Souvenir,” a beaded ceramic piece. On the floor is an “Accumulation” lamp.Credit…Chris Mottalini/Clarkson Potter

Rustic touches like unevenly spaced floorboards that had obviously been nailed down by hand reduced the concrete’s austerity and made it “feel so much more natural,” she said.

Evan Snyderman, a founder of the New York design gallery R & Company, which represents Mr. Lee, has visited the house more than once. He, too, was surprised by its intimacy and warmth: “When you think of concrete, you think of this cold, hard material,” he said, but it is offset by “this imperfection built into the way the house is made.”

Mr. Lee, who also has a studio in Los Angeles, said the design and construction of the mountain complex was the work of a young and financially straitened ceramist, who turned out cups and bowls for hotels to pay the bills. Now that he can produce large art pieces with the help of assistants, he said, he has effectively become an orchestra conductor rather than a soloist.

Which is why he is turning more to painting. “With clay and concrete and wood, that is like arguing with the material; we need to use our muscle,” he said. Because painting involves less exertion, the relationship with the medium is more intimate.

He would like to add one more building to the complex, a high-ceilinged painting studio.

“My wife hates that idea,” he said.

Living Small is a biweekly column exploring what it takes to lead a simpler, more sustainable or more compact life.

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