Architecture and Urbanism in an Era of Economic Uncertainty
International Symposium, “Who will the Architect be in 2025?”
Korea National University of Arts, December 21, 2012
The Korean word for ‘modern,’ keundae, was borrowed from Japanese and as such is conceived by Koreans as something ambiguous. While it represents enlightenment, civilization and urbanity, it also brings to mind subordination and unfulfilled hopes under atrocious colonizers. Modernism was understood more as the classical revivalism that the Japanese adopted and experimented with in its occupied territories than the European modernist movement which culminated in the 1920s. All this accentuates the distinctive rupture in the architectural history of Korea between the pre-colonial and post-Korean war period. The latter period saw for the first time the notion of ‘architect’ distinguished from carpenter, mason and artisan subordinate to Confucian aristocrats, who looked at building-making as simply a matter of technique. Modernism in post-war Korean architecture began on the twofold path of pursuing an emphatic break from any legacy of Japanese architecture, and an attempt to absorb the doctrines of the European modernist movement. Soon after, in the 1960s and 1970s, the plea to reinterpret ‘tradition’ identified as the pre-colonial heritage and to infuse it into modern structures gained momentum.
Considering these circumstances, I will use the term “contemporary” as opposed to “modern” in this article. Contemporary Korean architecture from the 1960s to the present can be divided into three periods from political and socio-economic perspectives. The first period is from the 1960s to 1987, which is characterized by the rule of a military regime after the coup, and the onset of industrialization and urbanization. The second period is from 1988 to 1997, which ushered in a pro-democracy movement and the establishment of civilian government. It also featured the construction boom, rampant real estate speculation, and the ostentation of economic growth through the hosting of international events such as the Olympic Games. The third period runs from the IMF financial crisis in 1997 to the present. During this period, the socio-economic conditions in Korea drastically changed. The construction and architectural industries became polarized due to the spatial intensification, amplification and verticalization of buildings. This polarization permeated the spheres of everyday life.
While the accomplishments of the leading architects of the first and second periods are not to be understated, these architects were not able to fully absorb the dual impact of industrialization and urbanization that contemporary architecture confronted. The structure of education brought about the separation of two lines of inquiry, the micro-scale architectural disciplines and the macro-scale urban planning disciplines. This left the next generation of architects to confront the deep schism between architecture and urbanism
After the financial crisis in 1997, the new generation of architects began to develop an alternative form of practice. Although there was a reaction against the paternalistic, individual and heroic model of the
previous generations, the new generation recognized the power of the ‘star system’ in architecture. The predominantly younger faction of this generation, who were educated in European and American institutions, came to understand how intellectual and academic activities were strongly linked to media celebrity and had an impact on cultural capital. They tended to maintain small-scale studios and experiment with new ideas in the classrooms. The older faction gravitated more towards the large corporate offices. In association with emerging housing and real estate development, these architectural firms continually expanded by maximizing money, man-power, and marketing strategies.
As these two domains of architectural practice became polarized, the separation between architecture and urbanism widened. Urban planning strategies could boast some success during a high economic growth period, where rising land prices led to a construction boom and produced stable economic profits. By 2007, however, signs of a real-estate market bubble and the oversupply of residential and commercial spaces started to surface. When the global recession of 2008 served a deadly blow to the construction market, a fundamental question emerged as to whether an alternative paradigm for architecture and urbanism was needed for Korea in an era of economic uncertainty.
What will be the next transition period? When will the next generation of architects emerge and move in a different direction? This is not easy to predict, but I would modestly propose that along with spatial, formal, and tectonic challenges, Korean architects will be constrained by five external variables between now and 2025.
- Possible confrontation and disagreement on the policies of architecture and urbanism between the central and municipal government. Between 2012 and 2025, three new presidents and three new mayors of Seoul will be elected. The variability in the seats of power will have a significant impact on the economic and cultural conditions felt by architects.
- Changes in the construction industry. Just before the global economic crisis of 2008, the ratio of construction investment to the total GDP was nearly 18%, about 6-8% higher than that of other OECD developed countries. It is predicted this ratio will drop to 11% in 2020, wherein the paradigm of architecture and urbanism will have shifted from development to regeneration.
- Demographic transition. This includes low birth rates, a decrease in population, an increase in the number of single households, and an increase in the number of elderly. These changes will require the restructuring of urban and architectural spaces in completely new ways.
- The fossil fuel energy crisis. Both the horizontal expansion of urban areas and vertical expansion of buildings will no longer be sustainable. As Peter Droege once said in Renewable City, “the suburb is a technological legacy of the fossil fuel age in human settlement form.”
- The desire for a new life style, particularly from the new working class. Statistics show that Korea will be one of the ten wealthiest nations in the world by 2020, and top five in 2030. The growing spatial inequality within urban areas will intensify with the emergence of new elite urban class.
How will architects be able to impose themselves on the formulation and implementation of urban architecture under these circumstances? I would argue that it might depend on how comprehensively we—the third generation architects, planners, and researchers—are able to recognize the new urban realities and explore innovations within them.
This incomplete draft is only for presentation at the symposium organized by Korea National University of Arts in December 21, 2011. The ideas presented here were adopted, modified and merged from "Korean Architects Standing in the Middle," In New Horizon in Korean Architecture, Seoul: USD Publishing Co. pp.6-11; and Megacity Network, Contemporary Korean Architecture, Jovis, 2007, pp.42-59.