Intern of the month: I was still a student when my first building was already under construction

Alisa Silantyeva told Strelka Magazine why architectural inspiration should be sought in food rather than in buildings, what it felt like working at the South Korean avant-garde practice Moon Hoon and how one can work for three months without understanding the language of the workplace.

Photo: personal archive

BACKGROUND

Alisa studied at the Kazan State University of Architecture and Engineering. In 2014 she participated in the “Advanced Architecture Workshop: Functionless” in Athens and the International Festival of Art and Construction (IFAC) summer master’s program in Spain. During her fifth and sixth years of study Alisa was a member of TIArch studio led by Ilnar and Reseda Akhtyamov. In 2015, before the start of her sixth year, she decided to do an internship abroad.

Portfolio project: Hybrid city: urban development center
Portfolio project: Hybrid city: urban development center
Portfolio project: Hybrid city: urban development center
Portfolio project: Hybrid city: urban development center
Portfolio project: Hybrid city: urban development center
Portfolio project: Hybrid city: urban development center
Portfolio project: Mediateca
Portfolio project: Mediateca
Portfolio project: Mediateca
Portfolio project: Hybrid city: urban development center

During her fifth year Alisa sent her portfolio to the leading architectural practices around the globe. She received invitations from CRAB (London), Architecture Studio (Paris), Dominique Perrault Architecture (Paris), BIG (New York), but every one of these offers contained at least one condition which made them unfit for her. Some internships were unpaid, the others were too long. Then Alisa remembered Moon Hoon, a small practice in South Korea, whose works were featured at the 2014 Venice Biennale. Alisa sent her portfolio and got an invitation from the studio the very next day.


INTERNSHIP TERMS

The eponymous practice was founded by South Korean architect Moon Hoon in 2001. The Korea-born architect spent most of his childhood in Australia and studied in the US. His Seoul practice, known for its experimentation with forms, quickly gained recognition. The list of Moon Hoon’s most prominent works includes the Rock it Suda pension in Gangwon Province, the Sangsang Museum residence in Seoul, and the S Mahal House residence and Two Moon cultural center in Gyeonggi Province. The studio employs a non-standard approach towards unveiling its projects: its Wind House video presentation is great example of this.

Moon Hoon studio / photo: personal archive

Duration: 3 months
Application deadlines: open year round
Internship compensation: 400,000 Won / 350 USD (Bachelor’s Degree), 700,000 Won / 620 USD (CIS Specialist’s Degree), 800,000 Won / 700 USD (Master’s Degree)


WORKFLOW AT MOON HOON

As soon as I stepped through the red door of the studio, I realized that I made the right choice. There were only seven of us in the two-room office: five architects, including Moon Hoon himself; and two interns:Jade from the US and me. Inside the main office, a golden wall was covered with framed pictures, while another, black wall was stacked with models. Moon Hoon finds inspiration in cars and speed, so the office had a collection of RC cars gathered from around the world.

I worked from 9am to 6pm each day, five days a week. Each morning Moon Hoon discussed the daily agenda with us before departing to a construction site, where he spent most of the day. For the interns, the days were quite calm. They told me: “You will have to work nine hours each day, no more and no less. No extra hours.” The architects, however, took no breaks except for lunch: there were too many projects and too little time.

Koreans value their mealtime very high. They usually dine at a café; although the lunch break is one hour long, they manage to finish a several-course meal in 15-20 minutes and spend the rest drinking coffee. Each time after we presented a project, studio customers paid for a meal for the entire team: noodles, kimchi, pizza. Everything was very salty, hot or fried. It was the way they expressed their thanks, measuring their gratitude with the amount and richness of the food. The team was quite happy with that tasty tradition, which also happened to cut the workday by an hour.

RULES THEY FOLLOW

There are always a limited number of interns and architects in the studio. Moon Hoon pays attention to everyone and spends time each day meeting with every team member in person. The studio does not grow and turn into a corporation because of his efforts to maintain it the way it is. Company meetings and general discussions took place in Korean and I missed a lot of what was being said. Moon Hoon is quite hot-tempered and emotional, and uses a ton of exclamation marks in his messages. His goal is always to achieve the results quickly. If an architect picks up a project, they have to stick with it from start to finish and have to handle every task, from setting things up with the construction company to ordering concrete and dealing with the builders.

Moon Hoon studio / photo: personal archive
Moon Hoon studio / photo: personal archive
Moon Hoon studio / photo: personal archive
Moon Hoon studio / photo: personal archive
Moon Hoon studio / photo: personal archive
Moon Hoon studio / photo: personal archive
Moon Hoon studio / photo: personal archive
Moon Hoon studio / photo: personal archive
Moon Hoon studio / photo: personal archive
Moon Hoon studio / photo: personal archive
Moon Hoon studio / photo: personal archive
Moon Hoon studio / photo: personal archive
Moon Hoon studio / photo: personal archive

Despite the fact that the clients usually come to Moon Hoon to get an unusual solution, the budgets are always limited and the architects have to seek cheap solutions for the set goals. Moon Hoon has a relaxed attitude towards everything: he has full confidence that a project will not spiral out of control. If there are any problems, he is always there to provide advice and then leave again. With his mindset, the projects always proceed with ease and confidence. Moon Hoon talks to the clients and presents the results himself. His way of dealing with the customers and pitching his ideas is truly an art form.

ON MOON HOON’S PHILOSOPHY

Korea has a lot of large companies that work with conventional architecture. Among the smaller companies, a studio with an artistic approach like Moon Hoon is a rare find. In Korea architecture practices pay little attention to the conceptual side of things, which makes Moon Hoon’s approach an alternative. Moon Hoon always tries to figure out the personal desires of the client and make the project cater to them. Talking to Moon Hoon is very memorable. He is a smart man, a strongly committed personality, and he is always open to new things. Moon Hoon has been drawing diary sketches his entire life. He sketches food, people, buildings; these are his small day-to-day notes. His diaries are jewelry-boxes full of fairytales that he is about to make true.

Moon Hoon’s philosophy is “hesitate less, work faster”, because hesitating means drifting away from what is integral to the project. This is how Moon Hoon achieved mass-produced creativity in his projects without any extensive discussions about the form and the meaning of life. Only then does the object come alive. At the studio, seven people share 15 projects at a time. The practice pays special attention to the models: every single one, from an early draft to a final version, is archived and preserved. Moon Hoon used to say that working on a model is like making love without a condom: “You feel that much more intimate.” Besides, he insists that architectural inspiration should be sought not in buildings, but in food, books and cars – in anything other than architecture for that matter. That is how new ideas get born. When I told him that I was planning to go see a building designed by Zaha Hadid, he replied: “Why would you? Better to go get a meal at some nice restaurant.”

WHAT I WORKED ON

Moon Hoon respects his interns. I was nervous when I first arrived, as it was my first full-time job. He told me: “Play around, look at the models, have some fun.” When he learned that I was from Kazan, he started talking about Russian composers, and made a few jokes. He managed to create a cozy atmosphere which sparked the desire to work. That was quite unusual compared to the experience my friends had in Kazan and Moscow studios. Interns are often considered useless there and are not properly utilized: they are usually given trivial tasks completed in little to no time, and have nothing to do for the rest of their day.

Dodok House&Office
Dodok House&Office
Dodok House&Office
Dodok House&Office
Pinocchio childrens' museum / courtesy of Moon Hoon
Dodok House&Office

I was afraid that I would be assigned to draw building blueprints right away. However, the first task that I was entrusted with was conceptual and unusual: I had to copy Moon Hoon’s personal idea that he had already sketched. He told me that in addition to the work projects, he also implements his own conceptual ideas, and this was one of them. I was working on a roof of a mobile architectural object, which Moon Hoon envisioned both as a house and as a car. I worked on this task together with Jade, the other intern. Our task was so daring that I felt like it could be an object of envy for other architects. It felt incredible to work on this project. There were no limits or restrictions and we could propose anything we came up with. Jade and I worked on it for two weeks straight, and I was fully committed to it. If I didn’t know something, I browsed YouTube for guidance. I was a bit afraid that if I failed I would have to leave and return to Russia. But when Jade and I presented our solution to Moon Hoon, he liked it, and I realized that all my fears were in vain.

Later I got to work on a residence project that revolved around an idea with the code name, “The Cloud”. Moon Hoon told me: “The concept was lost during the construction. Your goal is to save it, give it a proper appearance.” I arranged the windows in a cloud-like fashion along the walls and also worked on the wall coating choices. The project has since been frozen, but I left the results of my work to Moon Hoon. After these two projects he explained that this was merely an adaptation period, a taste of things to come. And there was a hearty meal of things to come.

I was brought to the construction site of a Pinocchio museum. One of the buildings had already been completed. I received an assignment to design a model for the second building in the shape of a whale. I had to render a 3D model ready for construction from a raw sketch. I worked out every detail of the cross sections while doing my best to preserve the concept, decrease the cost of the project and simplify its implementation. Moon Hoon, who was directing my work, jokingly said: “Discover your Zaha Hadid inside, build a whale.” I made calculations for curved lines and merging. There was lot of math to do:most of it would have been done automatically in a larger company.

Then I worked on the Museum interiors. I raised the idea of making the outline of the second floor the same shape as the first floor, as if a little baby whale lived in its mama’s belly. I developed the spatial solutions, defined the tail angle, the head placement, the connection between the body and the flat boundary wall. The Pinocchio Museum project took up two months of my internship.

ON KOREA AND LIVING IN SEOUL

Seoul is divided into a number of business, historic and residential districts. At the start I lived in a hostel in Songpa District, a one-hour bicycle ride from the office location in the Gangnam District. Later I moved to a Korean hostel five minutes away from the studio and that was the best decision I made during my stay in the country. I was the only foreigner living there; the rest of the guests were Korean men. I started each day with some exercise, then went to the studio where I stayed until 18:00. After that I jogged for a while and either went back to the studio to work on my university-related activities or met with somebody. I socialized with Koreans who spoke English. Meeting couchsurfers, travelers and expats was my remedy. We were familiar with each other’s situations: Seoul was a place which gathered the most daring ones.

Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive

Korea is an isolated piece of land with a self-sufficient and developed culture. Education and living standards are high here, and people are very responsible when it comes to their attitude to work. South Korea has its unique social rules: how to sit, where to eat, what to wear. So it happened that I often felt social pressure. For example, Koreans did not understand why I was doing yoga in the park or why I was eating veggies on a bench. These things were perceived as outlandish, because in Korea every activity has to be done in its own proper place. Everyone abides by the rules, and it is safe outside even very late at night. Most Koreans do not talk to foreigners, mostly because many locals don’t speak English.

My internship gave me confidence in my ability to develop a working project. I had never felt like that before. I was still a student when my first building was already under construction. Moon Hoon used to say: “Careful: if it has been modeled, it will be built.” That is definitely so. In Korea, I found inspiration every day. I saw how the worldview of a single person can be expressed in numerous projects. Our TIArch studio in Kazan is often criticized for spending more time fantasizing rather than learning practical architecture. The internship at Moon Hoon made me realize that all that it takes to learn practical architecture is three months of hard work.

Author: Alexandra Sivtsova
Translation: Philipp Kachalin