The trope ‘Young Architect’ is placed under scrutiny in a new exhibition at The Cass, where the work of nine emerging Korean practices is on display
Steering an early career with all the determination, ingenuity and luck needed to emerge into architecture while still young is an endeavour fraught with trials and frustrations. But perhaps nowhere more so than in Korea, where a lingering Confucian ethic dictates that there is no honour in being young.
Compounding the problem, the western word ‘architect’ is too individualistic a term to have a linguistic equivalent in Korean. Associate Curator Junghyun Park cites the Korean subtitles for the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix Reloaded, where the word ‘architect’ could not be conveyed except by transliteration. More recently, Christopher Nolan’s Inception used the subtitle ‘draftsperson’ rather than ‘architect’ to describe its world-designing protagonists. Ultimately, the idea of the ‘architect’, and the role of design innovation (let alone disruptive social entrepreneurship) that the title denotes, remains outside the frame of reference for the majority of Koreans.
Even the term ‘Korean’ is problematic. Haewon Shin, founder of lokaldesign, one of the practices in the exhibition, explains that, for many of her peers, the idea of a culturally-informed or regionally distinct approach that might be called ‘Korean-ness’ carries little relevance to their discipline even if external commentators like to find trends and commonalities.
So what to make of an exhibition of young Korean architecture when all three terms are fraught with contradictions?
Inside The Cass’s ground-floor gallery, a former bank facing onto a major junction in east London, the large shop windows have been plastered with floor-to-ceiling demographic and financial infographics broadcasting inconvenient truths about the Korean economy and population with triumphant melodrama. Inside very little so slow as plans, sections or design development is on display – instead it is an emotionally charged exhibition, saturated with specially-commissioned atmospheric photography. Korean photographer Kyungsub Shin’s vast cityscapes situate exhibited projects like barnacles on the leviathan of their urban context, while Paris-based Thierry Sauvage’s fashion lens brings a gritty vulnerability to the street presence of these fledgling schemes. The commission is a brilliant pairing. In all, this architecture exhibition is war photography from a battle of ideologies no less explicit than Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
The heroes in this battle narrative are the Korean Young Architect Awardees. Doing energetically what the privilege of youth affords, they revel in a freedom to engage in prophetic acts of socially high-risk, financially low-return, intensive design and DIY, in contexts of rapid change with scarce resources. The resulting works are enchanting: sensitive responses to a diversity of human needs, deftly made with attention to detail, to material and particularly to context.
Lokaldesign’s work displays the fruit of ambitious architectural collaboration in the realisation of subtle, sensuous alterations to the Han Riverbank underpasses. Another project comprising poetic studies of informal rooftop dwellings is captivating, and their intriguing work to preserve and densify Baeksa village promises be similarly socially considered and materially delightful.
JOHO Architecture’s acrobatic steelwork and virtuoso bricklaying brings to the fore the architect’s relationship of trust with craftpersons; here digital fabrication used in conversation with local fabricators opens up radical new possibilities thanks to reduced costs. Likewise, Seocho-gu-based IAEO’s Happy School sees relationships made central to crafting children’s spaces for play through play, letting the kids loose in role-playing an architectural interrogation of their everyday spaces.
Elsewhere the small and the beautiful offerings from the group make extensive forays into articulating elusive Korean-ness set in contrast to the nation’s more famous monolithic modernity by revisiting older materialities and spatial devices. Wise Architecture’s dark brick museum is a slow essay studying historic means of economically achieving zones of ambiguous opacity and privacy. By contrast, JYA-Rchitects’ ‘Low Cost House 3 Hwasun’ frugally preserves exactly those accidents of historic Korean timber framing which would be uneconomic in regeneration at any scale other than this intimate work.
Throughout the exhibition, terminology’s conceptual barriers reflect and exacerbate the practical and political obstructions faced by these would-be precocious paradigm shifters, and a fight to defend and define architecture ensues in the boards and models on show. Vicky Richardson, director of architecture for the British Council who collaborated on the show, describes the exhibition’s motivation as a form of oppositional practice – the opposition in this case turning its guns on a mode of Korean urban design rooted in an failing ideology: Confucian filial piety, which stands accused of veiling the collusion and cronyism of their forefathers’ building industry. Kim Kyong-Il, while professor of Chinese literature at the University in Seoul, published a best-selling book summing up the discontent of an emerging generation, demanding that ‘Confucius Must Die if Korea is to Survive’. In this spirit, the exhibition is no mere pop-up promo scouting recent ‘oriental’ talent in the field of formal innovation; the curating is polemical and concerned for survival.
However, despite the pleasure of these projects, the show fails to satisfactorily answer the central question that it sets up: how to solve system failure and injustice at a metropolitan scale. The hysterical tone of the ‘financial crisis’ framing-device instills an expectation that these young architects are offering a viable, ameliorative and importantly, scaleable alternative. Where this is dubious, the virtue of being ‘young’, and using ‘ordinary’ means, also begins to unravel to reveal a self-serving show naively complicit in architecture’s social pathology.
Being young once is unavoidable, and retaining a child-like sense of wonder is important, however, the veneration of youth legitimates the limited ambition of architectural extended adolescence and perpetuates divisive demographic antagonism: the young vs the old. This show must be questioned as a caution to all 40-under-40s, the Assembles and the Studio Weaves, as to how their ‘young’ self-understanding allows an architectural press and wider culture to represent them, fetishising their novelty. ‘Out of the Ordinary’ celebrates a number of familiar hipster coffee bar tropes, chipboard and bare brick, shipping containers and filament bulbs, and it stands in grave danger of allowing the rhetoric of authenticity, connoisseurship and austerity to mask a lack of scalable social ambition.
UTAA’s Sugar Lump House is, however, one example of development at a more civic scale, suggesting a possible, but troubling, trajectory for the emerging cohort. The visual similarity to Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, or Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, is instructive. The Metabolists of a previous generation derived an organic, informal visual language and ideology from Bernard Rudorfsky’s Architecture without Architects. Conjuring a romantic vision of rustic and democratic production is a sleight-of-hand, however, calculated to deflect attention from the practice of an autonomous architectural auteur. It should be cautionary to observe that Kurokawa’s ideological early career laid the foundations for a bloated dynastic reign very much wedded to the establishment.
Curator Hyungmin Pai has astutely diagnosed our present moment of social, urban and financial crisis, acute in Korea, but applicable globally. With this dilemma in mind he has curated a display of exceptionally creative and humane works united by the youth of their architects. In order that we not perpetuate idealisations of fleeting youth, however, and form cliques to preserve the power of peers in our particular decade, the exhibition should demand that we identify and treasure those qualities of youth which come precisely from youth’s powerlessness: invention born of necessity and a generosity born of uncalloused wonder. By retaining that humility, and so investing in intergenerational collaboration, we might see the fruit of an architectural production that never grows old.
Out of the Ordinary
Where: The CASS, London Metropolitan University
When: Until 28 February