“Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It was during spring break sometime in high school when youtube’s algorithm did actual magic and recommended me the music video of Overdose by EXO. I had heard of k-pop before, through friends in elementary school but I never really took the initiative to look it up or personally delve into it until the youtube coincidence happened. At first, I was dumbfounded because it sounded exactly like the pop I was familiar with, except it was sung in Korean. But over the past few years, I realized that the success of the largest instances of globalization ever recorded in music is not due to pure luck or an after effect of the Gangnam Style explosion, as some would say.
In fact, while the industry is heavily influenced by Western Pop, Hip-Hop and R&B, it still manages to stand out on its own due to the importance it places on film stylistics, art, architecture and visuals.
For this study, I’ll start with a relatively new group, but despite the short time they’ve been out in this industry, they have managed to create a sound of their own and have some of the most interesting and experimental music tracks K-Pop has to offer.
For their first full album “Empathy”, NCT came out with pre-releases for their respective sub-groups : one of them was BOSS by NCT U, a dynamic, electro-hip-hop track about being leaders that marked the first comeback of the unit in two years after The 7th Sense.
With lyrics written by members Taeyong and Mark, the song is a nod to the figurative battle they are fighting. And what better way to accompany their dark and powerful concept than to feature beautiful brutalist architecture?
“The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991 came not only with political, economic, and social implications but also left behind a distinctive style of architecture. This architecture, under the Soviet regime, was a system which relied on quantifiable targets, such as the Five Year Plan. These quotas forced architects to evaluate building projects in terms of material and labor costs, number of units, volume of skilled and unskilled labor, and so forth. As a result, architecture across these regions became an industrial commodity, an outward flex of power and technological innovation, and a collective of architects executing a Stalinist vision.” excerpt from an ArchDaily article by Kaley Overstreet.
Yes. The BOSS music video was filmed at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine in Kyev. VNLU is in fact the main academic library and main scientific information center in Ukraine, one of the world’s largest (Top 20) national libraries. Upon first look, the building immediately terrifies with its huge scale : the roof reaches 76.7 m and the antenna is 78.6 m above ground. Ukraine is known for its Soviet brutalist architecture : the brutalist structures with simple lines and strong shapes show a very powerful nature. It’s a statement about the dominance of the state over the city and the country.
Which makes us go back to BOSS, where NCT U are projecting their dominance through the lyrics :
“Don’t you know I’m a
Boss that leads you
Don’t you know I’m a
Player that moves you”
And through the music video visuals :
There has been a conversation going on for years about whether Ukraine should celebrate its Soviet-era brutalist heritage or forget about it especially since Brutalism as a whole is seen by many as the most disgraceful architectural style of the 20th century… so seeing NCT U going full utilitarian with military uniform and paying homage to such rich architecture in their music video and relaying it to their concept was just… awesome.
My favorite shots from the music video are the ones with the psychedelic mural “The Pains of the Earth”. It’s an artistic meditation on the theme of knowledge and its potential dangers and is the work of artists Volodymyr Pasyvenko and Volodymyr Pryadka.
Youngest member of the group SHINee, Taemin is also a successful solo artist. He is known for his dance skills and despite not being the main vocalist of his group, he can belt out high notes like no other. Originally took the solo jump in 2014 with Danger, he came back not long after with Press Your Number in 2016, produced by Bruno Mars and also the title track of his first full album “PRESS IT”.
What’s amazing about PYN is that not only it’s a good song, but it comes with a beautiful and intricate choreography that deserved TWO!!! performance videos in addition the original music video. They were all shot in L.A. but I’ll only talk about the VER.2 of the performance video and a few shots from the OG video because those two have the most interesting artistic elements.
The performance video VER.2 of PYN was shot in Villa Leon, also known as the “Southern Californian Seaside Dream” : named after its original builder, Austrian native Leon Kauffman, the Villa Leon was the result of a loving promise he made to his wife Clemence that, if he ever had the money, he would build for her a dream castle by the sea.
Los Angeles architect Kenneth A. Macdonald, JR. made the most of the site’s context by orienting the villa so that almost all of its thirty-five rooms had a beautiful panoramic view of the ocean, the surrounding mountains or both. The structure work is also clearly influenced by the classic Beaux Arts structure which is very reminiscent of the Italian coastline.
View of Castel of Pyrgi, Santa Severa – Italy
I did my research and found out that the intricately designed wrought-iron staircase was executed by craftsman James C. Kubic who added rams heads as a reference to the owner’s wool manufacturing business. How witty.
Most of the music video was shot in the living room that features a 35-Foot stenciled ceiling. It’s also the place where the couple spent most of their time and showcased all the sculptures and art they collected during their trips to Europe.
Press Your Number is evidently a love song where Taemin desperately longs for an ex-lover that won’t answer his calls, which makes the set very fitting and nostalgic especially with the knowledge that Clemence (the wife) died in 1933 followed by her husband just two years later. And for nearly twenty years, the grand villa and its numerous art treasures were unoccupied and deserted.
Lastly, I wanted to point out the colour correction of the music video : it’s just mind-blowing. I call it the blend of the Victorian era with the 21st century.
Still with Taemin, except this time we’re in October 2017 for the release of his second full album “MOVE”. From the teasers alone, it’s clear that it was heavily influenced by Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” (2017), Oscar winning movie of Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects.
Blade Runner 2049 movie poster MOVE comeback teaser photo
I think that MOVE is an important part of Taemin’s career and also his own personal growth because he was able to comfortably present himself and his art in a more androgynous fashion after being belittled and made fun of for “looking like a girl” ever since his debut. He is without doubt one of the best K-Pop soloists right now and his art direction is unmatched.
3. Suzy’s Yes No Maybe / SEVENTEEN’s Check In and the architecture / cinema of Hong Kong
SUZY’s Yes No Maybe
This release marks her debut as a soloist after being active in Miss A for seven years. The music video is interesting because it’s a tribute to Hong Kong cinema and one of the most amazing and talented film directors : Wong Kar Wai.
Naturally, Suzy’s character in the MV is crafted around Michelle Reis’s character in Fallen Angels (1995). In the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote about the film:
“The acmé of neo-new-wavism, the ultimate in MTV alienation, the most visually voluptuous flick of the fin de siécle, a pyrotechnical wonder about mystery, solitude, and the irrational love of movies that pushes Wong’s style to the brink of self-parody.”
In the Yes No Maybe MV, we see Suzy fighting her indecision to call her lover, wanting not to but is unable to tear herself away from the thought of him. The incoherent/shaky movement of the camera gives the viewer an insight into Suzy’s sense of not being able to determine her own choices and being easily influenced by her lover, reminiscent of the effects of alcohol. This technique is very Wong War Kai-esque especially with the grainy film effect that also adds to this by blurring the vision which indicates the protagonist’s turbulent indistinct thoughts.
There are so many Wong Kar Wai film parallels in this MV that I lost count. I love how they didn’t shy away from the influence at all. And it’s very well excuted too :
Lastly, the MV ends with a traditional Buddhist saying :
“The flag does not move, the wind is not blowing, it is just your heart that is beating.”
This quote provokes the idea that maybe the love wasn’t as dangerous as Suzy thought it to be, that maybe she misinterpreted her own feelings and couldn’t accept her own attachment.
SEVENTEEN’s Check In
While not necessarily set in Hong Kong like Suzy’s Yes No Maybe, Check In still does an amazing job at showcasing Hong Kong and its architecture. As a gift to their fans after finishing their Asia-Pac Tour in 2016, SEVENTEEN’s Hip Hop team released Check In. The song and music video highlight all the stops during their tour :
Yik Cheong Building and Montane Mansion in Hong Kong, also known as the “Monster Building” are a perfect reflection of city’s urban density, the architecture has been featured in Hollywood blockbusters like Ghost in the Shell and Transformers: Age of Extinction.
MING HUA is the theological college of the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui, the Province of Hong Kong and Macau. The College has been serving the Church for more than sixty-five years, first starting as an institution dedicated to supporting the education of poor and under-privileged members of Hong Kong’s lay Chinese communities.
The Hong Kong Cultural Centre is a multipurpose performance facility. This shot from the MV is taken in the stroll along the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade. In South, there’s a dramatic topographical and architectural spectacle that is the Hong Kong Island Skyline.
Choi Hung Estate (Chinese: 彩虹邨; literally: “Rainbow Estate”) is one of the oldest public housing estates in Hong Kong. Accommodating nearly 43,000 people, it also contains 11 blocks of residential buildings, one car park and five schools, with various shops and restaurants on the ground floor of each block. Roads in the estate connect the blocks to each other and to major roads.
Lastly, one of the first public housing developments in Hong Kong built in 1975 : Lai Tak Tsuen. This building has a very unique design with four of the eight buildings built in bicylindrical shape and its staircases are in triangle shape. The open space of the cylindrical structure allows natural light to fall into the inner structure of the building. It’s literally called “The light at the end of the tunnel“.
4. VM Project Architecture
VM Project Architecture is a creative video creation group based in Seoul. They specialize in Music Videos, Commercials, Motion Graphics and Short Films. They’re the masterminds behind a lot of K-Pop music videos : their stylistic choices and use of color are amazing and it’s not something I see a lot outside of K-Pop.
A. The use of negative space and color:
B. The inspiration from art pieces
Girl with a pearl earring, 1665, by Johannes Vermeer
Rooms by the Sea, 1951 by Edward Hopper
C. The inspiration from cinema:
Twin Peaks, 1999, dir. by David Lynch
2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, dir. by Stanley Kubrick
The Truman Show, 1998, dir. by Peter Weir