Spotlight: Jinhee Park

School News

Spotlight: Jinhee Park

June 01, 2017

Jinhee Park received her Master’s in Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a B.F.A. in Industrial Design from Seoul National University. Her work at SsD has been celebrated through numerous awards including a 2015 Best in Competition Award from AIANY, a 2012 Architecture Vanguard from Architectural Record, the 2009 AIA Young Architects Award, and the 2007 Young Architects Forum Award from the Architectural League of New York. Park is currently Adjunct Professor at Columbia GSAPP and from 2009-13 she has served as Design Critic in Architecture at the Harvard GSD. Previous appointments include Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture CCNY in 2014, the Morgenstern Chair Professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2008, and the Sasaki Distinguished Visiting Critic at the Boston Architectural College in 2007.


How did you get into architecture?

I was an industrial designer so when I decided to enter architecture I didn’t feel like I made such a drastic change. But I compare the two types of design in terms of approach, outcomes, and impact on society. This gave me the basis of a prototypical design approach based on prototyping in industrial design. We want to come up with prototypes that can work in Korea, China, or the US. This is an interesting challenge.


In architectural design the client-architect relationship is limited because you usually come up with a solution that specifically addresses one client. But if we research more into the needs that are driving a project, if we research the basis of those specific needs more broadly, then we can solve their specific issues but we can also apply them to other situations. One-of-a-kind design is too limited so we want to do the opposite.


What types of projects do you most like to pursue?

Any kind, because type is not so important. We design from very small scale, like furniture, to houses, commercial interiors, museums, and libraries. As long as we can address urban issues, which is a big thing for us, and lifestyle issues. These days, lifestyles are more varied so the conventions can be challenged more frequently. We want to address these changes and look for the next-generation school or library, for example.


The environment contains parts that have already been created but we’re still also creating more things. We need a different approach because we don’t have tabula rasa conditions, nor is it desirable to have such conditions. There’s a hierarchy of desirable elements and that can be rethought through micro elements. We try to identify those micro elements and challenge people’s perceptions.


What is your process for working this way?

We start with the client’s specific conditions and listen to what they have to say. But, for example, if they say they need a white wall, it can mean an opaque wall, a non-descriptive space, or a non-colorful wall. It can be many different things. So if a client says something like that, instead of simply providing a white wall in different options, we try to understand what they think a white wall means and then we can actually come up with a more cohesive design solution.


Budget is of course an issue. To increase design efficiency, we try to understand their background, their generation, lifestyle, things we can research to help give more definition to their needs, even though these might be unarticulated.


Once we address this we can gain their trust because they realize that we’ve identified elements they themselves may not have identified. This makes the process easier because we avoid all the tension of trying to convince clients about things.


How did you start your firm?

I started it the year before I graduated. I had a project and took a year off to work on it. The client was a neighbor who had bought a building from a developer and wanted a new design. So he wanted a better design but they had a very limited budget. So we could have done a pretty drawing and then had someone else go with it, but instead we decided to stick with it.


It sounds like a smooth start, but we had to pay for it later because we didn’t know what we were doing.  We wanted to do well and there are just some things you have to learn through experience. If you’re working for someone else, you don’t pay for your own mistakes. But when you work for yourself, you have to pay for all the mistakes.


After five years of having our own firm, I talked with a very famous architect who is a friend about the vicissitudes of the business. When I asked her for advice she said that she was experiencing the same thing. I realized that despite the scale or experience of a firm, the issues can be the same. Creating office culture, mentoring employees, developing designs are all the same and it doesn’t necessarily get any easier.


Where do you want your firm to go in the future?

We’re building our work and portfolio and we want to build architecturally meaningful buildings regardless of scale. So it’s not about how big the firm is or the scale of the projects or how many employees we have. Even small projects can address significant issues.


We intentionally kept our firm small, with two offices in New York and Seoul. The projects we get are smaller, but regardless of the project’s scale, we try to come up with a prototypical solution that isn’t just for one specific context or client’s need. The design can address the broader range of people and conditions so it can be modified in different ways.


Who or what are your inspirations?

The city is the main influence. I get a lot of inspiration and ideas by watching how people behave on the street, at big events, or on the corner.


Climate conditions are also a big focus. It’s not about making a big showy piece but it’s making an environment. It’s not just particular elements, it’s about atmosphere, temperature, humidity, light, and sound. We try to bring these environmental conditions into our design solutions.


We’re very interested in thermal dynamics, the invisible environmental factors that effect people’s psychology and transfer to physical conditions. The psychological approach of the relationship between the elements is important. Many architectural elements relate to temperature and humidity. HVAC for example. It’s almost hidden behind the wall and you can make it an element of space making. So you don’t make space with just walls, but with different temperatures, light, and sound. This all requires technical knowledge so we work with climate engineers.


If you know the basic principles, you can work with that knowledge. It doesn’t require very specific expertise. Architects understand basic principles and then work with a structural engineer to make the specific calculations. But in the beginning, it’s the architect’s job is to apply the principle of climate, structure, and thermal dynamics and then you bring in the technical experts.


Do you have an ideal project?

We try to make each project the ideal project. We had a good experience coming up with an inventive solution with a client who didn’t have any interest in design. That was interesting. So now we know how to work with clients who don’t have any design agendas. It’s so important to understand the client’s needs to come up with an inventive solution.


What advice do you have for students?

Don’t try to start too early. And don’t be afraid. When I was young, I would just try things and if they didn’t work out, I could just work for someone else. When you’re young, you have less responsibility and you can take risks. But you don’t have to do that. If you want to learn more and you feel that’s necessary, you should do that.


It’s important to understand yourself, your own strengths and weaknesses. And when you’re in school, it’s the best time to test this out. You can push your boundaries and really explore. It’s also important to measure and evaluate the critiques you receive. They can be insightful and useful, but sometimes it’s just noise.


Jinhee Park's Spring 2017 lecture at USC Architecture can be seen on YouTube.