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Capital, City, Lifestyle and Café Architecture

edited by
Kim Jeoungeun, Park Jiyoun


SPACE May 2023 (No. 666)​ 


Phenomenon 1. Becoming the Purpose of the Visit 

Phenomenon 2. Connecting Residents and Communities

Phenomenon 3. Weaving an Experience 


participants Koh Youngsung co-principal, Formative architects, Seo Seungmo principal, Samuso Hyoja, Lee Jeonghoon principal, JOHO Architecture

edited by Kim Jeoungeun, Park Jiyoun


Why Cafés Are Increasing in Number and Size

Seo Seungmo (Seo): I’m used to spending my weekend mornings at a local café reading and drinking coffee. Nowadays, however, people seem to regard cafés from the viewpoint of a location scout looking for a place to shoot. More and more people are making so-called pilgrimages to cafés, considering them to be a vivid backdrop to their day. Cafés, that were simply part of everyday life, have become extraordinary places. There are also location-specific features. For example, in Seochon, in the centre of Seoul, one place where you can take a break from walking around is a café where you can post social media hashtags. For that reason, one by one, cafés have sprung up. Nowadays, as the whole city and the whole country are becoming potential tourist destinations, cafés are absorbing a demand for spectacle. 

Koh Youngsung (Koh): In the past, cafés were thought of as a place to study or work, in other words, to buy a certain amount of space and time for a fee, but now they are considered to be places to buy experiences. Cafés are also part of our travel plans. As Seo Seungmo says, it has become an extraordinary experience, not just a place for a pause in our everyday life. 

Lee Jeonghoon (Lee): From a client’s perspective, a bakery and coffee shop represent businesses with low barriers to entry. They don’t need a license like a lawyer or architect. To run a restaurant requires a lot of skill, even to make a single dish, but all you need to know about coffee is how to roast and brew beans. As the number of largescale cafés has increased, there is a good network of companies that supply various beans and doughs. All you need to do is buy the dough, bake it, and serve the treat. Of course, it’s a different story in restaurants that care about the quality of their food and drink. Cafés are often embarked upon as a sideline. Most people don’t think, ‘How about opening a motel?’, but cafés are different. You can start a café with as little as 5-pyeong (about 16.5m2 ), so it’s relatively easy to give it a go. If you have enough in the bank, you can build a café of 100-pyeong (about 330m2 ) or even more, and especially nowadays, many people seem to be trying to do it inspired by the successful cases of large cafés. For people with assets, it’s not difficult to think, ‘If I have land, I can build a café and make money.’ Cafés are good to hand down. Above all, the rise of large cafés is a capital-oriented phenomenon. Large cafés are usually on a cheap land with a good view. How much was this land before a café was constructed? In fact, the café business is a real estate business, and the café is a way to expand capital through real estate. Large café owners have the ambition to brand it by building another café on a similar piece of land in a similar setting. They understand the value of money they can make through economy of scale. So, the key factor behind the café industry is implementation. It’s about creating a programme on an undervalued piece of land and doing business through that programme, and the programme is just a café. 

Seo: We can’t find large cafés in Europe or Japan because the cities themselves are beautiful. The architecture of the café doesn’t have to be particularly good. In Paris, it’s normal and natural to sit on the terrace of a small café along the street and watch people pass by. In Korea, on the other hand, most people live in apartments which have stores that are not in good condition, and I think that’s why everyone wants to go outside on the weekends. If one goes out to enjoy nature by car, one will naturally look for a café with a good view rather than a motorway services. The fact that Korean cities are car-centred rather than rail-centred should be considered. Europe and Japan are basically railroad-centred, so they have a good walking environment and good connections between streets. The large size of cafés is a result of urban social conditions. 

Lee: Large cafés are more attractive because they are car-centred spaces. People enjoy the transition of 20 minutes or 30 minutes in the car, taking in the scenery. Then they pass pleasurable hours in the café. Therefore, café owners are mainly keen about the lack of parking capacity. In project EL 16.52, additional land for parking lots was acquired. I think the development of the car rental industry and market has also influenced on this phenomenon. To visit Waveon in Gijang, you don’t have to drive a car from Seoul, but you can just get off at Busan Station and rent a car. In Europe, it’s hard to find a large café, people don’t like them and there are no reasons to go there. They spend their time after work and on weekends in a different way to us. They have a well-developed leisure culture and spend a lot of time playing or watching sport and in leisure centres and gyms, so it’s hard for cafés to achieve the same level of commercial success as in Korea. The fact that cafés are getting larger demonstrates the hardening aspects of our lives; we have nowhere to go. In Europe, if one must buy a place to meet someone, there is no reason to go to a café because the quality of public spaces is so high. They don’t have to take a car to visit a place about an hour’s drive because the city is so well organised, and most things can be done within that context. While we regard going to a café as an event, in Europe it’s an everyday thing. Starbucks has their own design manual. The manuals for coffee, product, and space are so clear that you’ll have. The same experience at any store. Starbucks started strategically in a two-storey building on a corner with a good view. The same​ goes for their stores in London and Paris. When a building owner enters the café industry and wants to build a large café, it’s hard to invest in a location similar to Starbucks. It’s not easy to create a brand and make it successful. I think they feel like they have to compete in places where Starbucks has not yet arrived, and try to do things that Starbucks can’t do. 

Seo: Cafés that don’t have a brand identity like Starbucks seem to rely on other elements, such as architects, interior designers, or specialty beans. 

Lee: Nowadays, cafés play the role of complex cultural spaces. In fact, the café didn’t set out to become a complex cultural space. While running the café, there was some space left over, and the owner added other uses to the space, so becoming a complex cultural space. I think it’s an act of rhetoric to call a café a complex cultural space. In the case of Waveon, there is no need to call it a multicultural space because the coffee shop alone occupies the whole space. The essential function of a café is a coffee shop. 

Koh: Cafés were originally a space for consumption, but at some point, people began to regard themselves as spaces in which they can encounter cultural elements. Anthracite Coffee Hapjeong is a café which renovated an old factory, and it reveals the traces of the factory like an exhibition. Preserving and unearthing the memory of the past place have made visitors recognise the space as a permanent exhibition. Nowadays, displaying the past has become a common practice, but at that time, cafés were just places to spend time, and displaying something was an event that caused a lot of perceptual changes. I think that’s why people think of cafés as complex cultural spaces.



Waveon / (left) ⓒLee Jeonghoon (right) ⓒKim Jeoungeun 


Features of Café Design 

Koh: I’ve been working on about five café projects recently, including Café Everyday. One of the unique features of café architecture is branding. Professionals in various fields, such as branding and landscaping, work together from the beginning of the design. The architect acts as a conductor to lead the various specialists as they lead the design of the biggest mass, space. Café Everyday is surrounded by a retaining wall, with a good front view but a terrible near view. So, I thought ‘The café itself should be the reason to visit.’ In that sense, I made a lot of attempts to figure out what kind of café can be the purpose of visit. Throughout the design process, I assumed that people would come by car because it is a remote place, and that they would not come alone because they would come by car. 

Lee: The essence of a café is to sell the unexpected. People enjoy a little bit of hustle and bustle in a strange space and proper distance from other people. They can drink a coffee at home, but they decide to go out. In conclusion, cafés sell the space of a café. So, from an architect’s point of view, it is necessary to think about how to bring in the surrounding landscape and create a sense of unexpectedness. 

Seo: Nevertheless, I don’t think there is a specific design method required for café architecture. The basics of architecture are placeness, functionality, and aesthetics. There may be differences in how you deal with a place, but it doesn’t change the fact that you create a sense of place in some small way. In the case of large cafés, additional factors may be considered as the architecture itself becomes a work of branding. But that doesn’t take away from the basic attitude of ‘This place requires this kind of architecture.’ If architects are asked if they think about photogenic spaces when designing a café, it’s something that all architects think about across all kinds of architectural projects. When we design, we construct the exterior, and make 3D modeling of the space to confirm it. Architects go through that process because we think, in a sense, a good space is a photogenic one. A photogenic space should have good two-dimensional proportions, but sometimes we can’t capture it in two dimensions even though we design a space with front, back, and side view in three-dimensional way. I think some may start to become more photogenic after finishing the design. In any case, no architect can be free from creating a photogenic space, and the client may ask, ‘Where should I take the photo?’ Nevertheless, I try to exclude two-dimensional design because I am not familiar with that architectural methodology. 

Koh: But I think architects don’t feel the need to create one-dimensional photogenic spaces. 

Seo: I don’t think so. (laugh)

Lee: I think it’s natural for architects to create photogenic spaces, whether they intend to or not. When people go to Ando Tadao’s architecture, they take pictures of course. The key is to create a good space, and once a good space is created, it will be photogenic. That’s why clients hire architects. We, architects work with three-dimensional forms and specialise in light and shadow, so we can create spaces that are a little more maximal in relation to the sense of place. A café design doesn’t necessarily create a particularly photogenic space. It applies to hotels and museums as well. When we visit a good café, you might say, ‘This building could be an art gallery or museum.’ In a space like Ando Tadao’s Chichu Art Museum, we may say, ‘This could be a café.’ In fact, photogenic spaces are necessary regardless of the programme.


The Public Potential of the Café 

Seo: The publicness of cafés in terms of community is probably modeled after TSUTAYA in Japan. TSUTAYA was originally a rental store of videos, CDs, DVDs, and books, but when it extended its market from the suburbs to the city centre, it brought in art books and Starbucks in the Roppongi store, and dog-related content and brands like Leica in the Daikanyama store. Books and coffee have been combined to reflect local behaviours. It’s a way of blending the neighbourhood with TSUTAYA instead of creating a separate local library. As Japan’s population is shrinking and aging, it is also sensitive to the country’s compact city policy, which gathers infrastructure that was once scattered across regions to create regional hubs. Along with Starbucks and TSUTAYA, a health centre is also located in the same building. In Korea, when a community centre is built in a neighbourhood, the first consideration is the creation of health-related facilities, medical facilities, and reading spaces. Cafés have the potential to bring people together through coffee and books, so I think they can play a wider role in the community. 

Lee: When I visited TSUTAYA, I got the impression that they work with the concept of blending, not development. That’s what makes a good space. 

Seo: I recently worked on Aesop Seochon, and Aesop has a manual for where to open a store. For example, it says, ‘There should be a bookstore within a few metres around.’ TSUTAYA probably has its own manual. 

Lee: I also think that the rise of large cafés is partly the result of the low-quality public space in Korea.



Starbucks Reserve Roastery Tokyo / ​©Lee Jeonghoon


The Future of Café Architecture or the Café Industry 

Lee: Apartment complexes have been at the core of urbanisation in Korea, so the more they are developed, the more they become isolated like islands, which leaves no streets or places to go. From a macro perspective, I think there is a connection between urban development and large cafés. I think the café industry will continue to flourish as long as public spaces in a city fail to revitalise their structures. In the future, cafés may become even larger. I recently visited Kuma Kengo’s Starbucks Reserve Roastery Tokyo (hereinafter Starbucks Tokyo). I went there as it’s known as the largest Starbucks store in the world, but I found it’s doing very well. Starbucks is now offering unique experiences. They also sell merchandise and the sales are huge. I was doubtful about the future of café industry before, but the Japanese example convinced me that it will survive. Of course, Starbucks is a brand, so it may be difficult for individual cafés catch up the growth to that level. However, there is a market for it. Once the right place is secured, the bigger the size, the faster you can make money. P.ARK in Busan, which is famous as a large café, seems a bit transitional. I think cafés will also become polarized. In Japan, even the smallest café will attract a lot of people if it is run by a master barista. Coffee is already popular, but there are also certain elements that can be more unique. The rise of the social stakes will increase people who seek their own tastes and preferences. 

Seo: Actually, cafés are places that sell coffee, but people don’t talk about coffee flavours that much. Nowadays, cafés seem to play the role of a movie set. I think the requirements for cafés will change in the future, and will be in the direction of finding greater comfort. In the end, people will seek the flavour of coffee, and they will visit a place where the barista stays and treat them to a decent cup of coffee. The growing size of cafés is also linked to the globalisation of cities. Abe Shinzo, former Prime Minister of Japan. aimed to keep Japan’s sojourn population over 120 million. What maintains the aging European cities is the money spent by tourists. Korea has also seen a huge increase in the number of tourists, perhaps due to the Korean Wave. It’s hard to find a hotel in some places like Mapo as many Chinese visit. Cafe Onion Ankuk is a famous as a place to eat breakfast among foreigners on a sightseeing tour. 

Lee: EL 16.52 is said to be visited by more outsiders than people from Busan. After all, the survival of a large café cannot rely on the locals alone, but it has to attract foreigners as well as strangers. Starbucks Tokyo attracts foreigners with marketing such as ‘The world’s largest Starbucks store’. They look at large cafés as tourist destinations. This means that architects shouldn’t finish café project with only the interior design in mind. If the number of strangers and foreign tourists is secured, to a certain extent, then the large café industry is not a structure that will decline. 

Koh: I also feel that cafés stratify their customers, especially the large cafés in the suburbs, where people are taught that coming to a café is an act of buying space. In the past, cafés were freely open to visitors who want to have a look around, but now they are organised so that you can’t look inside the space without paying. People are forced to go through a very long process to order and get a seat. I think this is because cafés have gotten bigger. 

Seo: In Korea, trends change quickly, so it’s hard to predict when a trend will change. The city centre and surrounding areas used to be full of barbecue restaurants and motels. There are a lot of empty motels now. Cafés seem to have replaced restaurants. It's hard to predict what will follow the café. The café-goers are usually young people or families—you should think about whether young people will still go to the outskirts ten years later, and whether the family unit will be the same as the current one. Just as Lee said that a café can be an art museum or something else, if architects create a clear sense of place, even if the café closes, it can be used for other purposes afterward. Café Everyday is also the example of architecture that can respond to any function, even if the café trend passes. 

Koh: Most of motels in Yangju area have now been transformed into nursing hospitals. This is probably due to their proximity to nature. Cafés will also be affected by their location when they should alter their use. I think a site of good location can accommodate other programmes that require a good environment, like a stay or a highend restaurant. I’ve been to P.ARK before because I’m from Busan, and I thought it is a good space to use as an office if it is filled with office furniture. I also thought it could be used as a high-end restaurant because it has a nice view of the sea. So, I guessed that P.ARK may be the result of consideration of most appropriate uses following café. In architecture, all programmes are bound to be transformed according to changes in time or shifts in certain paradigms, and cafés, unlike houses and other programmes, have a lot of potential for change because they have a large interior space and are not partitioned in a complex way. If the characteristics of the place are well considered, a café can be used for other purposes as well as for a café.


P.ARK​ / ⓒKim Jeoungeun


Cafe Onion Ankuk / Image courtesy of Cafe Onion


You can see more information on the SPACE No. 666 (May 2023).​

Koh Youngsung
Koh Youngsung graduated from the Graduate School of Architecture, Hanyang University, worked for Solto architecture, and then established the design lab, EXA. In 2013, after changing the office name to Formative architects, many emotional, experimental projects developed. He aims to create architectural projects that pay attention to the sincerity of an essence rather than the surfaces of a space.
Seo Seungmo
Seo Seungmo born in Kyoto in 1971, graduated from Kyungwon University and soon received his master’s in art studies from the department of architecture in Tokyo University of the Arts. Seo then worked as part-time lecturer at the same university for two years before opening his office at Seoul in 2004. Currently, Seo has worked the spectrum of design across various works including residence, hotel, and business facility. His major works include SJ Hanok renovation, Hyundai Card Vinyl and Plastic façade renovation, C House renovation, and ‘Ryuichi Sakamoto: LIFE, LIFE’ exhibition design.
Lee Jeonghoon
Lee Jeonghoon majored in architecture and philosophy and earned a master’s degree in architectural materials from the Nancy School of Architecture and a DPLG degree from Paris La Villette School of Architecture. He worked at Shigeru Ban Architects and Zaha Hadid Architects, before founding JOHO Architecture in Seoul in 2009. He has received a number of awards including the Young Architects Award (Korea, 2010), the Design Vanguard Award, the Fritz Höger Award, the International Architecture Award by the Chicago Athenaeum Museum, the ICONIC Award, the Korean Institute of Architects Award, the Korean Architecture Award, and the Kim Jong Seong Architecture Award. He served as a Seoul Public Architect and a Chungcheongnamdo Chief Public Architect.