DJ Kim talks BIG
Restricted Access Only
New York City, USA

Words Ash Low
Photography Ash Low
Bjarke Ingels Group, BIG-ster DJ (Dong-Joo) Kim joins us for our second episode of Restricted Access Only. Born in South Korea, DJ immigrated to the US when she was 13. We caught up with DJ in her office to chat about things (not just BIG related) but her own ideas and how she's making a difference.

TLP: So how did architecture configure?

DJ: Well actually no one in my family is an architect or engineer. And during my childhood I didn’t have much exposure to architecture.

TLP: No lego?!

DJ: Nope. But I loved making things, like jewellery boxes and collecting boxes. I loved drawing as a child. We used to live right next to a small stationery factory that made sketchbooks. They used to give me free sketchbooks all the time, so sketchbooks naturally became my toy (I didn’t have any other toys!). Architecture didn’t cross my mind till I had to ask myself “what do I like?” Call me cliche but I saw stories of Gaudi in a magazine and the idea that designing buildings like sculptures could be realised at a building scale.

TLP: And then you decided to study architecture?

DJ: Yes, I always knew that I wanted to be in design but I wasn’t sure about which field. I like to be pragmatic, so at the time I thought architecture would be a good combination of practical and artistic skills.

So then I started at Pratt. The first week I was terrified, but after a few weeks I started to get fascinated by the whole studio culture, pin-ups and critiques. I believe my 5 years at Pratt really sculpted me into the kind of person I am now. It really stimulated the parts of me that were somewhat dormant or unchallenged.

TLP: Well it appears it all worked out! Tell us about how you got from A to B…

DJ: I graduated in 2009 at the worst possible time, it was the financial crisis and there were no jobs anywhere in the US. I started applying for jobs in Asia and Europe and got a response back from a German Landscape Architecture firm with an office in Singapore called Atelier Dreiseitl.

I was worried, but really excited about moving to a different country and new adventures! I think the financial crisis pushed people like myself to leave their comfort zones and become more entrepreneurial.

TLP: Haha that’s pretty gutsy. How did you find working in Singapore?

DJ: I worked in the capacity as an architectural designer, designing pavilions and parks. Since the company was German there were a lot of expat workers, on top of that Singapore is very international so there wasn’t a huge culture shock. I stayed in Singapore for 2 years and then came back to the US where I had a short stint in branding and interior renovations.

TLP: How do you think Columbia University (GSAPP – Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation) changed your perspective on architecture?

DJ: I was looking for more of a conceptual creative challenge after working in the professional world. I thought that GSAPP would help assist me in growing my dreams and creativity outside of that world. A lot of people had mixed feelings in my year but personally I had a great experience.

TLP: Did it assist you towards developing your personal design philosophy? Do you have one?

DJ: The concept of ‘philosophy’ for me is continually evolving. I enjoy the challenge of creating spaces; whether it’s for people, objects or contents and for them to be valued in that space. Space can give you a physical or emotional impact, however architecture is not as simple as that.

Carefully and thoughtfully crafted space can bring physical or emotional impact to its users and I think that is a very powerful thing that we architects can create. In parallel with this, I’m very interested in the ‘cross pollination’ of unfamiliar and unique things. It can spark different ideas and interactions. Part of this was present in my final project taught by Enrique Walker at GSAPP. It really made me ask myself; “what kind of designer do I want to be?


DJ: For me the timing worked out, the first project I worked on was 2 World Trade Center and at that time they really needed people for that project. BIG was also going through a significant expansion because of the influx of huge high-profile projects in North America.

TLP: And your skills! Have you been able to bring your own philosophy and ideas to BIG?

DJ: Yes, BIG is very open. The teams are structured somewhat but the design process is very organic. They try and value what each person can bring to the firm. They’re always open to hear what you have to say. Each person I’ve met or worked with I’ve been inspired or surprised by their talents, what they do outside work, or simply they’re just cool amazing people (no reasons needed)! The structure always evolves, a lot of projects are very short and teams shuffle around all the time. In saying that I have been working on Google HQ project for a long time.

TLP: So now you’ve worked in all the design stages?

DJ: I’ve worked on Design Development, Construction Documentation and Concept design. I’d like to be a part of Construction Documents and Construction Administration to get my licensure. However, working on a concept phase for a project at BIG is the most intense yet invigorating process to me personally. Iterations after iterations, you’re exhausted but by the end of concept you realize that process was totally worth the effort.

TLP: What trends do you think you’ve personally identified in architecture?

DJ: In the last semester at GSAPP with Enrique Walker we looked at the cliché in architecture. How we sometimes design without thinking and just based on what’s trending. We always look at what’s appealing to people and he taught us about how to move away from that and filter it. Overall it’s an exciting time for architecture, people seem to be paying more attention to it which is what Bjarke is trying to do.
It’s about being heard and seen, to bridge the gap between architects and people to communicate in an understandable language. Architecture shouldn’t be foreign to people.

TLP: Last burning question… which is the most interesting country you have travelled to and why?

DJ: I would say Cambodia – it was the most different country, in comparison with all the other places I’ve been to. Everyone there is so happy, it was as though people had no worries in the world. They are very close to nature, so maybe that’s part of it? Life in New York can be stressful so it’s refreshing to meet people who don’t have that level of stress and pressure.


Special thanks to DJ and Jesslyn from BIG New York. Check out her websites and

CMYK-space is made up of 3 GSAPP Alumni, Kamilla Csegzi, Nicole Mater and DJ Kim. The three share a similar design philosophy and the collective has just been accepted to the GSAPP Incubator and New Inc for the year of 2017-2018 They will be exploring and researching on the idea of Impermanence.

Published 2 August, 2017
Photography  Ash Low
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