Korean-American museum takes shape

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View of the museum’s entry, at the corner of 6th Street and Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood. Morphosis Architects.

A national museum celebrating Korean-American heritage is one step closer to reality, with new funding announced this week. The museum will sit in LA’s Koreatown, on what’s currently a city-owned parking lot at the southwest corner of 6th Street and Vermont Avenue.

Lawmakers cheered the news that $4 million in state funding has been secured for the creation of the Korean American National Museum, the first of its kind in the United States.

At a news conference Wednesday announcing the funding, architectural models and renderings for the building were also unveiled by Los Angeles-based Morphosis Architects.

View of galleries and grand stair to the mezzanine, roof garden, and terrace. Credit: Morphosis Architects

The museum will feature a two-story building wrapped around a traditional Korean Hanok, an open courtyard. The exterior of the building will be marked  by a patterned façade featuring a traditional Korean motif. In an architectural statement, Morphosis described the concept as "a lifted, displaced landscape -- a piece of Korea grafted onto Los Angeles -- containing the museum within." The idea was inspired by Korean-American architect Eulho Suh’s concept of ‘displaced memory’ and its embodiment in space, the architects said.

The building will be topped with a terrace and sculptural roof garden featuring California native flora as well as plant species common in Korea, such as maple, pine and bamboo.

“We thought about bringing over a piece of Korea, so to speak, a symbolic piece of Korea into L.A. and planting it with a primarily Korean landscape. But in the spirit of the Korean-American combination and in the spirit of the diaspora, and so actually also mix it with local plants in the idea that we're both mixing Korea and LA," said Eui-Sung Yi, the principal planner on the project and a partner at Morphosis. 

View of galleries and grand stair to the mezzanine, roof garden, and terrace. Credit: Morphosis Architects

The result will be a sense of oasis in the middle of a bustling city. That area of Koreatown is a mix of low-rise retail and residential buildings and high-rise skyscrapers, but there's little green space within sight.

"When you're in here, the sightlines are all controlled in a way where we will give you the perception and the experience of actually being away from a major metropolitan city," Yi said.

A previous iteration of the museum included a housing component with more than 100 rental units, of which 10 percent would be set aside as affordable housing. But that plan was dropped because of increasing costs of construction, museum officials said. 

California is home to about 450,000 Korean-Americans, constituting about half of all Korean-Americans. The museum is a testament to the growing influence of the Korean-American community, said Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, who represents Koreatown.

"The Korean-American presence in California is just going to get stronger. It's going to get bigger. They're playing a bigger role in the economics. They're playing a bigger role in the cultural investment of our neighborhoods and a bigger political role, as we've seen larger turnouts and voting," he said.

Only 22 percent of Koreatown's population is Korean; 58 percent is Hispanic. The neighborhood became a flashpoint during the 1992 riots, when Korean business owners armed themselves and defended their shops from looters. Over 2,300 Korean-owned shops were damaged in the riots. The neighborhood rebuilt, and now is home to luxury apartment buildings and shopping centers. Many residents spoke out last year against city efforts to place a temporary homeless shelter in the neighborhood's central business district.

View from the museum’s lobby to a central courtyard space, encircled by galleries, meeting spaces, and a multi-purpose event space. Credit: Morphosis Architects

The Korean American National Museum has existed at temporary sites since 1991, partnering with local cultural centers to produce satellite exhibitions and events. Museum officials say they've raised $15 million out of what they expect will be about $32 million in costs to finish the project.

This permanent home will feature galleries, meeting rooms, and offices. Below-ground parking will replace the 57 spots currently available on the city-owned lot. The museum is set to break ground next year and open in 2022.