Simone Carena runs MOTOElastico, which has offices in Torino and Seoul. He graduated from the Torino Polytechnic University and received a master's degree from Los Angeles’ SCI-arc.

Architecture & Design spoke to Carena about Korea’s architectural identity, how comfort dictates Seoul’s uniform apartment buildings and the impact of Confucianism on design.

You have an office in South Korea. What do you think are the positive and negative aspects of the Korean approach to design?

Korea is looking for its identity, its recent economic development produced fast results that are now going through the test of quality. Until now it was mainly quantity based – a manufacturing country that didn’t have time to stop and look at the big picture.

Globalisation is now making the globe dull and repetitive. Brands of shopping malls, food courts and celebrities are the same all over, so the counter trend is to look for something unique that is worth sharing with the world and consistent.

The Korean approach to design is feeling this positive trend; it is a balance of self-confidence and self irony, away from blind nationalisms and global marketing stunts.

Architects like Moon Hoon and alike Choi Jeongwha and designers like Eun Byungsoo are leading this colourful revolution and we are honoured to able to join them in the effort.

What is one aspect you would like to change in Korea that you think hinders good design?

Nepotism, as it is in Italy (and in most places around the world), and the status of people make any motion and emotion hard to achieve. Status is giving up on gravity. It prevents our playful nature from challenging the forces of attraction and trying to jump, fly, orbit and spin off.

If we approach gravity without any effort, we lose youth and we get pulled closer and closer to the center of gravity, deeper into the core and gravity becomes a grave.

Korea’s Confucian practices, with respect of the tradition - the elderly and men over women - has many effects on the possibilities of innovation. It is an asset that gives a strong tone of scholarly depth to the design inspiration, but, at the same time, it limits and frustrates all departures from the rule.

Nepotism is the static structure of universities and politics (often overlapping) and novelty is often dismissed as “not part of the family”. But again, it is a very common weakness wherever there are titles and uniforms.

Why did you decide to establish an office in Korea?

Because it is very difficult, it is a powerful spaceship with massive and mixed ballast. Losing the ballast would mean to take off very fast, but the risk is to throw away valuables among the junk.

This potential and this ballast are the power and the weakness of this stage. Losing ‘weight’ would mean losing relevance and history. Keeping too much weight would slow the competition with the other ships.

As Italians we know how to navigate. We look at flavours, spices and aim for the heart of the ship. We are exotic, but more builders than merchants.

Do you find clients less or more open-minded about trying something different in Korea?

Our clients are the new breed of Korean clients. They are usually fed up by the standard design of mass production. They require a lot of support because Korea is a blending society and to be singled out is usually bad. Luxury comes in clubs and with very strict pre-defined styles that are not understood, but simply applied as formulas.

The minds we engage are only half opened. We work hard to enlarge the opening and look inside. 

We are stubborn too and we try to open our mind at the same time as our clients. It is often a clash of hard headed individuals (we are from Torino in Italy, a land at the foot of the Alps, with a tradition of stubbornness). Italian clients are very different, but everywhere in the world you can find the full range of minds,  from smart to dull, soft to stone.

Seoul is known for its uniform apartment buildings that look exactly the same. Do you think this is a good model for a city with so many people?

Korean apartments look horrible. Most Korean citizens would agree, but they are comfortable. This is the same trend that cars follow that a lot of design is following. If it is comfortable we just give up any attempt for beauty. But the repetition of thousands of similar blocks can make the cityscape so bizarre and the ‘domino-style’ that it becomes fascinating.

Something too ugly becomes interesting. Korean apartments are not ugly, but they are many and quantity and repetition makes the scene incredible, therefore memorable.

The practical layout with limited social interaction and maximised services solve density issues, but produce clusters of commuters. Cities like Hong Kong produce a much more slender model, and just by proportion its towers are elegant and appealing.

I think proportion is the main problem. Recent apartment towers or 80 floors, are substituting the 12 or 30 storied blocks of 10 years ago. They simply look nicer.

I am afraid to say that skinny is much more attractive also in apartments. The top models of this house have limited surface area coverage and vertiginous heights. They also wear a trendy helipad hat (even if Seoul, due to the North Korean threat, is a no-fly zone).

What aspects of the Italian approach do you incorporate into your designs in Korea?

Italy is a peninsula of overly mixed cultures and small cities competing with each other since the Roman Empire collapsed. The mix of cultures made Italians aware of the absence of one individual truth, questioning authority and applying irony.

This goes against the Confucian blend of South Korea. The contrast, that we keep on a very polite and engaging level, is the Italian approach. It is flirting with mutual attraction and mystery. It is a sincere appreciation of the host and the availability of the guest. 

What is your favourite building in Seoul and why?

I love my house and our office because with these two spaces we show our host culture that we are serious about our work. We live and work in spaces we design, organising history and current comfort. We call it DUB architecture – remixing spaces as it happened with the Jamaican technic of dub music.

We look for challenging Korean spaces, whether it is a hanok (the traditional Korean wooden home) or a 1970 rough concrete building inside Seoul’s oldest market (our office site). Then we strip the structure to its drum and bass rhythm to understand it and restore it. Then we add new effects, sounds and echoes.