In South Korea, Houses With a Sense of Whimsy

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SEOUL -- Kim Dae Sung, a 36-year-old computer programmer, his wife, Lee Ji Sun, 34, and their 4-year-old daughter, Kim Soo Min, look like a conventional family of three: a father who leaves for the office early each morning, a stay-at-home mother and a young daughter with cute pigtails.

But this family lives in an unconventional home, made all the more unusual by its striking contrast to the ranks of monotonous high rises that fill the Korean capital and spill out to the suburbs, including their town of Yong In.

The Lollipop House is a wood-frame structure covered in a swirl of red-and-white steel plates, designed to resemble the candy -- though local children call it the Snail for its rounded silhouette. But regardless of the name, the seven-level house glows at night, yellow light pouring through its large glass windows.

The two-bedroom, two-bathroom home, designed by the Korean architect Moon Hoon, is unusual in other ways, too.

It was completed in February after just three months' construction and cost a total of 170 million won, or $152,000.

And, perhaps most important, the Lollipop is part of a trend inspired by a 2011 book whose title in English is "Two Men's Journal of Building Their Homes," a story by Lee Hyun Wook and Goo Bon Joon about wooden construction that has intrigued homeowners here.

"Before, individual houses were for rich guys. It would cost you $100,000 for the architect alone plus $1 million for the house," said Mr. Moon, 44, who has a master's degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Then came the book, which explained how to build in wood, which is much cheaper."

His 11-year-old firm, moon_bal_sso, is based in Seoul and most of his projects, including several homes and a school, are in the capital region.

"Apartments used to be an investment, which is why people tolerated living in a concrete box, but now they aren't going up anymore," he said. Seoul's real estate market has never recovered from the 2008 global downturn, and prices fell 2.14 percent in the first six months of the year from a year earlier, according to Doctor Apt., an online real estate site in Korea.

Still, Mr. Moon's designs are not for the faint of heart. One of his recent homes, a quirky holiday house perched on the edge of a hill in Jeongseon, in the northernmost part of the country, features large gold horns on the roof.

"My professors would hate me for putting horns on a building," he said. "The client wanted something representative of a bullfight. Before and after the horns, it is a totally different building."

The Kim family first read online about Mr. Moon, who has gained a certain amount of fame in South Korea. "I loved his style and I thought my wife would love his design and that her taste is very similar to his," Mr. Kim said.

"We said to Moon, 'Do what you want,"' he said. "Some people try to change architects' designs. I didn't want to do that. Their ideas are essential and pure."

The house stands on just 200 square meters, or 2,150 square feet, of land. And some compromises were made to keep construction costs within limits: for example, the windows on the top floor do not open.

"It was a quickie," Mr. Moon said. "My clients said, 'I want crazy on a budget.' I said, 'I will try."'

While Mr. Moon's designs are somewhat unconventional -- "Our parents hate the home and ask how we will re-sell it," Mr. Kim said -- Mr. Moon says he ensures that all the interiors he designs are functional.

The Lollipop has a flow of simple, modern living spaces connected by a series of short staircases and built around a central atrium. The interior has light wood floors and white-papered walls with brightly colored furniture.

"I always ask people what they want in a house," Mr. Moon said. "I ask them about their secret desires. You want a secret room? I say, O.K. But I always make it practical because no one wants just a weird house."

In Ochang, a rural area two hours from the capital, stands another of Mr. Moon's creations: the Panorama House.

Outside, the angular facade was designed to maximize the views. Inside, the centerpiece is a broad wooden staircase that leads up from the ground floor, including bookshelves under each tread and a central slide that is the delight of the family's four children, ages 18 months to 11 years. Their bedrooms, each containing two small wooden beds, and a study area are tucked into the stairwell.

"The kids never use the stairs. People always ask about us not having a barrier in front of the staircase, but it has never been a problem," said Moon Sung Gwang, 42. He is a fine-arts teacher -- not related to the architect -- who owns the house with his wife, Lee Gae Eun, 38.

The Panorama House, also built of wood, was done on a budget of 300 million won. When the 300-square-meter, three-bedroom home was finished in November 2011, the family left their high-rise apartment and moved in.

"We wanted something with a view that was surrounded by nature," Mr. Moon said. "Deer come right up to the house at night."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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