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Minsuk Cho's dramatic architecture

  • Cho is a contemporary architect from South Korea
  • Worked with Rem Koolhaas with firm OMA
  • Cho designed the South Korean pavilion at the Shanghai Expo

(CNN) -- Contemporary and often abstract, Minsuk Cho's buildings can baffle, delight and dazzle.

The 44 year-old South Korean is one of the world's foremost architects who is drawing upon different ideas while trying to convey a modern form of Korean architecture.

"Korea is a peninsula culture which contrasts from the big land culture of China, which is incredibly rich, and also the island culture of Japan," Cho told CNN.

"We've been very influenced; it's almost like a bridge country to observe the many other influences of the past. Also, there is some tough history."

Trying to distill amorphous concepts of Korean-ness into physical form was Cho's task when he designed the South Korean pavilion at the recent Shanghai Expo.

Minsuk Cho's abstract architecture
South Korea is almost like a bridge country to observe the many other influences of the past.
--Cho Minsuk, architect
  • Architecture
  • South Korea
  • Visual Arts
  • Design

For an architect who had spent a large part of his professional life outside of South Korea it was a unique experience.

"I'd been influenced by many other cultures, so that was a big challenge to address this Korean quality in a contemporary way," Cho said.

"We had a time challenge situation because they selected the design very late and most of the other pavilions had designs already. So -- bigger and faster -- and we had to deal with the economic situation. The combination of those three was tough -- a bigger, faster and cheaper situation -- which has become almost default situation in Asian cities."

Many of Cho's buildings are in South Korea, but some of his temporary structures, such as the "Air Forest" set up in Denver, U.S., in 2008 and "Ring Dome" seen in Milan and Yokohama, have made it abroad.

Cho grew up believing he would be an artist, but it was only after he picked out a book from his father's library that he was inspired to follow in his father's footsteps and become an architect as well.

That was when he was 12 years old and after he graduated from Yonsei University in South Korea he moved to the Graduate School of Architecture at Columbia, New York. From New York he moved to the Netherlands to work for OMA, an architecture firm led by Rem Koolhaas.

His time working with Koolhaas, who is often called a "starchitect" as one of the industry's best known names, had a great affect on Cho.

"I think that what I learnt from him is that sometimes you get impatient with limitations but limitations can be a leverage... it just takes more patience and intelligent investigation about these limits," he said.

"He's really a positive role model. But usually [the term "starchitect"] has a negative term for people that have plateaued at their creativity and start selling their brand name which is also happening a lot here. [Koolhaas] is constantly visiting and learning and observing from this country and enriching his own work."

It was not until 2003 that Cho made it back to South Korea to set up his firm, Mass Studies, so some questioned if he was the best candidate to design South Korea's pavilion at the Shanghai Expo.

But for Cho his time abroad and work in general is much more than just a national concern and forging a singular identity. "As an architect it's not about replacing one identity but more about enriching our work," he said.