From Perfect Order to the Age of Plural Voices
Seo Hyun(professor, Hanyang University)
Seo Hyun is a Professor of Architecture at Hanyang University. After majoring in architecture at Seoul National University and the graduate school of Columbia University, he completed field work in Korea and the United States. He has authored six books and designed the Hyohyung Publications office, the Haeshimhun, the Munchuhun, the Geonwonjae, among others.
Feature article, SPACE 500th issue
To. Architectural field in Korea
At the end of summer of 2017 a complaint could be heard. It came from the architectural world and the discontent was rising regarding the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, Seoul Architecture Festival, the UIA 2017 Seoul World Architects Congress, and the Seoul International Architecture Film Festival claiming that were all too excessive and complicated. Grievances were voiced that it was confusing, from the initial plans to finishing to the venue. The title of Seoul Architecture Week was introduced to encompass all of these events, but this worsened the situation because it was often mistakenly taken as an add-on. This autumn gave us a rare chance to hold architectural exhibitions both at the Seoul Museum of Art and at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Some people have criticized this as disorderly, chaotic, and disorganised. Aside from their quantity, the quality of the exhibitions was also reproached. The complaints were towards an architectural world that has been divided to such an extent that it obscures displays of our united power. Some mumbled a couple of alternatives, mentioning control towers, big bosses, and teamwork.
However, I believe that this reveals an architectural world that has become healthier than ever. This demonstrates a maturity to architecture, a maturity that has developed in tandem with the democratisation of our society. This society does not refer to a group that rushes to a single topic with a unified opinion. It is the image of an architectural world and a society witnessed by SPACE, which now celebrates its 600th anniversary.
I can remember the period of financial difficulty experienced by SPACE a few years ago. The architectural world, appearing aloof, was obsessed with who would buy and revive the company. I was one of them because I belong to the inside personnel of the circle. When I asked for the opinion of a rich businessman who was also an insider in architecture, he replied in the negative though he understood the situation well. He said that SPACE has failed to establish the agenda of the architectural world at all. He cited the innovative and radical journals that transformed the architecture of Europe in the early 20th century. Compared to them, he said, SPACE is nothing more than a visual medium for introducing new architectural works.
I am afraid that the person who made such an assessment still possesses the values and critical criteria that belongs to the previous generation. This society walks a path that does not require a slogan to lead or a single discourse requiring unanimous agreement. I think this well demonstrates a democratic society and a society that contains SPACE. The architecture and architectural world covered by it cannot move in perfect order.
The era of grand discourse has passed. I think that the biggest discourse in Korean contemporary architecture was ‘tradition’. This will also remain pertinent and of record as the longest controversial discourse. In my opinion, this topic began with the Buyeo National Museum and finished with Sujoldang. I can’t tell whether a topic that has lasted for 25 years has concluded or vanished, but it is now off the agenda.
Socially, grander discourses dominated in the 1970s and 1980s. The issues of democracy, reunification, and of the Korean race were discussed across the spectrum, from political circles to family dinner tables. In the 1990s, individuals emerged to replace the group. The attack of the financial crisis highlighted survival of the individual more than ever before, and this changed the direction of architecture.
A society made up of individuals may change, but individuals do not change that easily. Architects educated in the previous generation still try to explain architecture by means of grand discourses. That generation find it difficult to express their work without quoting European philosophers. The quotations may seem appropriate and learned, but it makes difficult to communicate with the younger generations. It doesn’t matter whether they quote Heidegger, Deleuze or Kant.
I don’t usually accept invitations to screen design competitions. However, I was not reluctant to accept an invitation to the young architect's award. To witness and analyse the emergence of a new generation gives me pleasure, though it is not my duty. The 600th issue of SPACE views the emergence of the first generation who have begun school after urbanization was complete, who have their own rooms for the first time, and who have spent their childhood without feeling inferior to peers in Europe and America.
The generation I have met do not try to embellish architecture with grand discourses. As literature began to take an interest in the body, since the 1990s, architects became much more interested in materials and structures. They started to face architecture not just an object of materialization of western philosophy, but as architecture itself. This is not a unique cultural phenomenon to architecture but a phenomenon that shows architecture as a part of broader social change.
I believed that architecture should play the role of a witness to the times. Although I am getting closer to the tendencies of the former generation, I would like to quote an old Western philosopher, who says that a city is an old library. I found this touching phrase by Wittgenstein in the library. New books and old books are mingled together on the shelves of the library. A city should be filled with buildings which can report upon the story of its old and new society. Then, the buildings can become eyewitnesses to an era composed of the stages that this society has experienced. And SPACE is a witness to those buildings.
A witness must first become an active observer. If it just keeps recording events every month, SPACE is nothing more than a magazine. It will be supplied to the waiting seats of banks and beauty salons, and collected as waste paper soon enough. However, if it is a means of documenting critical observations, it would be more pertinent to call it a journal. This identity will readily depend on SPACE itself.