x Cho Jaewon (principal, 0_1 Studio)
x Choi Doin (executive director, metaa)
x Hwang Doojin (principal, Doojin Hwang Architects)
x Hwang Jie-Eun (professor, University of Seoul)
Perceptions of Disasters
SPACE: While the situation continues to change every moment leading to this roundtable discussion, our present ‘non-contact’ situation forces us to raise existential questions of our lives and the environment. For this discussion, our aim is not to debate in order to arrive at solutions, but to observe, record, and develop necessary questions that we will have to ask ourselves. First, although we have come to terms with this pandemic situation as a ‘disaster’, it also seems that nowadays disasters occur quite frequently. For example, we have suffered hurricanes, heat waves, terrorist attacks, wild fires, earthquakes, and the current pandemic ?and in retrospect, I wonder if we can think about how disasters may have come to be normalised, and how the nature of such normalised disasters are changing?or will change?our lives. While many disasters are by their character events that cannot always be prevented, despite all efforts to predict and calculate, one question remains; how can we continue to respond if such events weave their way into the very fabric of our lives?
Hwang Doojin(HDJ): A significant period of time was required before society finally recognised the complex challenges facing those with disabilities and the necessity to implement more nuanced systems to cater to these people. In the past, there was less understanding of the diverse ways in which disabilities or health conditions present themselves, for instance it was often assumed that visually-impaired people were completely blind, and debates raged over why braille dots had to be yellow. However, we now understand that many visually-impaired people are capable of recognizing forms albeit in a blurred way. I think something similar is happening in our perceptions of disasters. Because there are numerous kinds and types of disasters, I’m skeptical of universal solutions. To continue my comparison with the public perception of disabilities; while many in our populations continue to live with numerous disabilities we have also developed certain universal design approaches such as barrier-free design and universal design? In relation to this, although there have been quite a number of what one might call major ‘social disasters’ in the past few years, such as the Sewol Ferry incident and Pohang earthquake?and while I’m also aware that no one disaster can be treated the same as any other ?the question ‘is there a solution that can be applied effectively to a range of disasters?’ persists, prompted by previous self-reflection.
Choi Doin(CDI): We can largely classify disasters as falling into two types. First, there are man-made disasters that we also term ‘social disasters’ or ‘human disasters’. Second, there are natural disasters that occur without any human intervention. This Coronavirus Disease-19(COVID-19)situation seems to fall within both brackets. Regardless of whether the disaster is natural or man-made, it can also be classified according to possible rate and effectiveness of response. The reaction towards Covid-19 has been different in each country. Korea recognised Covid-19 as something to which one can respond proactively and therefore implemented relevant policies. As such, I thought about the points of intersection between social and natural disasters with regard to the present pandemic.
Hwang Jie-Eun(HJE): Most often, disasters of whatever scale?whether concerning climate change or the depletion of natural resources?tend to be treated in a rather detached manner. It depends on whether the disaster has a direct impact on a given individual?and this present pandemic has had a momentous impact on all of our lives. Thinking upon this, and while tracing the source of the problem, I think it all ties back to the fundamental question of what the human race or civilization is and what it values ? for instance, the masks and gloves that we use to overcome this disaster return to the prevailing problem of waste. It makes one wonder if there is a kind of an ecosystem of disasters where one disaster always leads to another.
Cho Jaewon(CJW): I think that the notion of being personally involved is what makes this disaster unique. In the case of Covid-19, the entire world is in the same disastrous situation. Eula Biss once said that ‘we are each other’s environment’, and this strikes home with particular sharpness nowadays. We cannot divide ourselves from others in this situation. What I do actually affects everyone else. My decision to put on the mask, wash my hands, and take social distancing measures can either cause an ‘outbreak’ or keep the numbers down. In other disasters, in which I was merely a spectator, it was easier to excuse myself from feeling more deeply and to think of myself as uninvolved, but in this pandemic, I cannot but feel that ‘I am truly connected’. If my lamentations about the Sewol Ferry disaster and the Pohang earthquake were merely the observations of a spectator, then it is only through recent events that I have come to realise how connected I was to those incidents. I realised that I’m not only an affected party but also accountable for whatever future disasters that await us.
CDI: Observing the recent social distancing campaign, I came to reflect on what ‘social distance’ means. I feel like I have never really thought about social distance. This is especially true of Korea, where people continuously bump into each other like luggage in a packed train during rush hour. When will we see crowds come together again, to express communal feeling, in concerts, church events, and gatherings? As we hearhypotheses like the possibility of a new strain, or the three-year cycle, nothing can be said for sure about the future. In light of this, should we now simply adopt a newsocial distancing lifestyle? I wonder if it will be possible for us to throw away our innate human desireto gather, to converse,and sympathize with one another in intimate ways.
HDJ: Many media outlets claim that the norms of the past will disappear and give way to a new world, and in part, I agree. However, to consider all views, I also think that there is no need to so quickly disregard the resilience, recoverability, or adaptability of urban civilisation. In fact, this is not the first time we’ve experienced a pandemic. There was the plague in seventeenth-century Europe, and the Spanish flu in the twentieth-century. Even back then, we knew that ‘social distancing’ was important. We may not have known all the scientific facts, but by experience, we already knew that social distancing is the most effective method in limited the rate of transmission. A text that I’ve read recently with great interest is ‘How did Urban Civilization Recover After the Spanish Flu?’ At this point, there is no comparison in terms of the number of deaths. The number of deaths from the Spanish Flu was in the hundreds of millions, and the disaster is even recorded in Korean history as the ‘Muoh Flu Pandemic’. Still, civilisation managed to recover?and while it is yet early to say whether history will repeat itself or whether things will change permanently, I wonder if there is something to learn from history.
CJW: You raised the possibility of recovery, but we should also reflect on whether there is even a need to recover. The practices, regulations, and social behaviour patterns before Covid-19 must have played some part in bringing about the disaster?so while there may be things that we should try to recover, we should also use this as a chance to interrogate our past excesses and turn things around.
HJE: I can’t agree more. The fact that the recovery process requires my involvement distinguishes Covid-19 from other recent disasters. I keep asking myself whether the things that we lost were truly necessary, and how much importance I was placing upon the things that actually are. Once again, the word ‘sustainability’ and its meaning feels so close to heart, and I think it involves profound lifestyle changes for one to develop a desire to stay within its limits.
HDJ: ‘Online connection’ can also be something to reflect upon. With most offline interactions restricted, online replacements are taking over and are pictured as a kind of technological victory for humankind?but looking at the rate of carbon emissions and energy use from database centers, one cannot but question the ‘eco-friendliness’ of the internet. It makes one wonder: ‘is the internet really free?’ It is a fallacy that online tools are the solution to all our offline problems, but I realise that the alternative it is not altogether innocuous.
What Direction Should Architectural Education Take?
SPACE: Schools are one of the spaces and systems that have presented real issues during this crisis. Let us discuss what, alongside pre-existing issues ? has surfaced due to the current situation, and how this affects our view of architectural education.
HJE: There have been too many changes recently, and in our video calls between the professors new issues are arise every day. What we have been practicing as the norm until now?that is, our conventional form of architectural education?has begun to reveal itself as problematic. In the early semester, as we couldn’t continue to hold face-to-face meetings, the most immediate task was to overcome problems through media platforms. Then there were discussions on how we could grade and provide feedback on students’ submissions, and what platforms would permit us to view images and submissions together with the student. After some time, however, we have gradually adapted. The next issue was making models. We used to place much importance in creating models, and since the specialist environment for creating physical models provided by the school was no longer accessible to students, various obstacles have presented themselves. The students couldn’t make models because they couldn’t come to school?and as the software was installed only in the school computers, we couldn’t distribute it to the students. We realised that the school environment is something that cannot be dispensed with entirely. In this manner, it took about 2-3 weeks for us to come into agreement on how we should change the method of student assessment. What is most regrettable is that as of now, the studio culture?that is, the shared spatio-temporal environment where students come together to learn from one another?no longer exists. Ultimately, we think that we will come to objectify these issues that we’re facing and eventually use them to trace some architectural significance out of it all. Now that I think of it, it is critical for architectural education to create a reality with regards to our hypothetical future society via discussions?and since we are already living in a reality in which we are forced to tackle these immediate questions in a tentative [NF1]manner, perhaps it could be said that there’s something to be gained from it all. In that sense, I imagine that the data and experience that we accumulate during this time will eventually become established as new knowledge.
HDJ: Are the students adapting to the situation?
HJE: While it is too early to say, I think the situation is quite different for design classes. The situation is still quite difficult in design classes, and there is a high possibility that assignments originally given to the design classes won’t fit with the newly introduced assessment methods. The results and approaches are being modified with the professors’ cooperation, and I think the primary issue shouldn’t be about reducing the range of the assignment itself but about a thoughtful approach. To give a somewhat passive assessment of this period of adapting to new measures, I’d say that there has been some positive feedback such as an increased focus in the classroom due to the fact that the professor is watching the media channel together with the students. As a more active means of assessment, however, I’d say that there are some hopeful expectations that this experience will generate new ideas. For example, since the interface is equal for all parties, there is now a sense of homogeneity in terms of roles. In a classroom setting, the roles of the lecturer and the student are clearly distinguished. In an online setting, however, while the professor continues to lead the class, the method and approach of setting assignments and sharing opinions is much more lateral. Moreover, it became possible to invite professionals in the field across geographical limits. I think that schools will overcome their more conventional aims of providing training according to a curriculum, and instead revamp the form of education for students to a new social experience and experiment. After observing how a guest lecturer participated in an online class, I got the impression that professionals, like students, are in a way sharing the same grid system and producing knowledge together.
HDJ: That is the most exciting element of an online class. On screen, it feels as if there is no distinction between the professor and the student. Other than the fact that it’s usually just one person speaking and the rest listening, practically anyone at any time can speak, thus creating an impression of equality. While one might attribute it to the technology, this feeling of spontaneity induced by the ability of a one-to-many structure to change at any time into a many-to-many structure comes to me as aesthetically intriguing. If things that we couldn’t experience before in the physical space can be experienced now?and if those things are pleasant, meaningful, and significant?then I wonder whether there would be a need to return to how things were.
HJE: This affects communication.
CJW: Every participant becomes significant. One may choose to turn off the screen, or pause it to take a break. Originally, the lecturer used to be someone with a complete view, but in an online class, the position is switched. Now, the viewer watches the lecturer via his/her personal screen, changing the central stage. In this kind of setting, it’s no longer a matter of ‘I teach you and you learn from me’, but a matter of whether the person listening is willing to learn or not. Basic learning materials can be provided beforehand for self-study. The class can be conducted in a discussion format, with the students having read the materials by themselves. From the student’s perspective, this class format is then compared to the vast amount of content available on YouTube. In other words, school content now has to compete with entertaining YouTube content. A school used to be about establishing an (conducive) environment and exercising monopolistic authority in terms of education. However, now that the school isadopting similar formatsto other educational channels, it becomes a subject of comparison. Then the question is: what is the more favourable concept for a school? The consumer as well as the supplier have to evaluatewhether the provided contentis important or not. If what is at stake is that schools now have to provide educational contentin competition with other educational sources, then I think it’d be better for the school instead of having it remain uncompetitive in its safe physical boundaries. I think the students themselves would want that as well. In that sense, I see this change as positive.
HJE: It has only been two short months, but my pedagogical method is still evolving. I have material in the digital media class recorded as videos, and as I was making them, I wondered: ‘why didn’t I do this earlier? If I had all these lectures provided to the students as videos for self-review, it could have allowed them more options in terms of studying’. On the other hand, at an online setting, effective delivery and clear mission goals are crucial for students so that they may fulfill those tasks without needing additional information. This simplified the assessments a great deal. I feel that this situation has brought about a total overhaul in our learning approaches and I personally see some of these changes as a huge gain. I’m sure there are other professors who would agree as well.
CJW: Let’s say for example that the course has conductedan annual series of design classes. What if the student was allowed to view all of the sessions that had taken placeover the past 10 years instead of learningsomething solely from the lecturer in their year? Running these classes over video, each student would then have the choice of learning and picking up things that they want to learn or when in the best possible conditions to learn. Perhaps a school of the future would be a kind of an educational environment that caters to personal preference; likechoosing a colour from a palette, students should be allowed easy access to things they want?a liberty which the classroom environment does not provide except for the individual freedom of scheduling one’s own timetable.
HDJ: If we were to express what we are talking about now in different words, it would be a deconstructive process of a school?which is the most representative model of a time-space symmetry?into a time-space asymmetry. In that sense, what is the unique property of time-space symmetry? I think this provides an opportunity to focus on that issue.
CDI: I’m not lecturing these days, only observing. University education in Korean society has a 70-80 year history, and in some ways I feel a sense of despair. These kinds of aberrantsituations within an institutionalized educational system are simply passed on to the individual professors to resolve on their own. The guidelines provided by the school or the educational department are not much help when deciding how each class should be conducted. If we were to group educational models by era, traditional university education would belong to the first era, while‘cyber universities’such as the Open University, where online classes are provided to anyone who signs up as a student,belong to the second era. The current situation is something of a clash between these first and second eras, but I think we should also expect the rise of a third era. In reference to the time-space asymmetry that Hwang Doojin just mentioned, what is at stake is the efficacy of mutual learning between professor and student. Despite the institutionalised setting of a school community, people with educational credentials can still motivate and compete with one another and gain from it. I think this is a task that cannot yet be achieved with online communication tools like Zoom.
CJW: Isn’t it true to say that the physical and non-physical worlds are deeply connected systematically? I suspect that students in this transitional period have come to realise that. For architecture to realise its true value, it has to go beyond the physical aspects (whether it be the tectonic, structural, or engineering aspects in terms of design) to use them as parts of its organisation, but it seems it is something that has not yet been realised. Therefore, there is hope that this crisis could become a catalyst. In her book Who Can You Trust, Rachel Botsmannoted that in the midst of decentring events ?that is, in a crucial point in history that involves a change in perspective and self-awareness ? weenteran era of ‘onlife’ where our online and offline activities begin to merge. In that sense, I hope that this crisis also brings about an opportunity for architecture to expand seamlessly into this new realm of an ‘onlife’ world.
HDJ: I think this will also be a chance for us to question what areas of architecture can be distinguished from other kinds of work. Are we truly done with our work once the functional problems are resolved and people are satisfied? Questions like this should be raised. Regardless of how varied and complex the demands of contemporary society can be in daily situations, there are still too many cases in which elements beyond the functional solutions are overlooked.
CJW: The ability to cooperate and crossbetween areas of competence is becoming a necessity for professionals across fields. I think that problems can be resolved only when they are handled by people who go beyond their field of expertise and responsibility to consider the branching effects of their actions. There will always be areas that remain uncertain and indefinite. In times of crisis, ambiguous and sharp new problems can only be resolved by seeking cooperation from people beyond one’s field of expertise. Perhaps education should take this approach. I think that it is important to be aware of what we don’t know and to know where to seek help for it.
HDJ: Ultimately, schools are built on the premise that we are all the instructors and pupils of one another. Teachers may be distinguished from students on the outside, but I think it is a key point for any educational institution to take on board that students can teach and learn from one another, andI wonder how much online, non-contact classrooms can accommodate this. Information and knowledge can be found anywhere, be it on YouTube or on answer sheets, but how much can this online, non-contact classroom do in terms of mutual affection and symbiotic growth. This is what I think of as the main issue. I think the same will apply to the urban city.
Sense of Sustainability
SPACE: I think that this situation is an opportunity for us to rethink suitable industries for urban settings.
CDI: Among the many things that Covid-19 has affected, I think that the economy has got the biggest hit. At a macroscopic level, the dream of a global value chain?that is, globalisation and capital liquidation?has suddenly been suspended. Even when discussing the economic impact, culture, or the space that this paralysis in functional movement has brought about, it is impossible to talk about sustainability without considering the basic economic structure. Public sustainability is also something that can only run when there a secure stream of tax revenue?likewise, corporates and private companies can only achieve economic sustainability when they have secured sufficient space to cater to the situation at hand.But before we talk of space, how should our cities and spacesrespond to the economic impact that this international crisis has sparked? From a macroscopic view, the economic damage sums up to 12 trillion won for our country, and it is said that the US has spent 13% of its GDP, but in a microscopic view, it could prove devastating for the individual or the company. Since there are issues that can be reduced to economic problems, should our society simply downsize in response? Can a bakery with 3 billion won of sales downsize to just half a billion and still be economically sustainable? These are pressing questions for our times. It is the same with co-working spaces.
HDJ: We don’t have all the answers, but with regards to what you’ve just said, I think it is a matter of personal worldview and philosophy. We use this word ‘sustainability’ quite often, but not many words are interpreted as freely as this;some use it to mean sustainingthe status quo, and some see it as the sustainability of a growth rate. These two things are completely different. In my perspective, I think I’d be grateful as long as the status quo is maintained. As I hear news about improvements in the air quality due to the reduction in number of visitors in famous tourist spots, it makes me wonder whether we should ever go back to that earlier time of crowded spaces. It makes me question if these trips were really necessary at all. It’s not that one’squality of life would be reduced just because one travels less than before?unless of course, if travel is essential to one’s job. Frankly speaking, how much trash are we creating in the name of art and architecture? I mean, starting from student submissions, for example. Maybe we should have a model archive in a city like Seoul, where one may go to pick up a 5-6 year old site model made by others to reuse for the present semester. Created works have limited lives as well, and this is something that I’ve also been pondering. As common practice, people tend to treat exhibitions lightly, and once these exhibitions have ended, they discard them after merely having them recorded. I wonder if this practice is something that we should maintain.
CJW: Until now, our society has treated consumption as a virtue. I now realise that we were extravagant in our expenditure on goods, services, and networks, and how insatiable we were in terms of privileging connection ? the process of reducing these things will be painful. As with the crisiswe find ourselves in, the suffering will be that of my neighbor as much as it will be mine. In the past, under the belief that greater consumption in times of a dwindling economy can help to stimulate growth in the public and the private sectors, architecture was used as a tool to boost economic production. In answer to the question ‘should we return to our previous habits of consumption to avoid the pain that is to come and thus put ourselves in danger of this crisis again’, I’m thinking no, because the crisis seems like a red warning sign against turning back to excessive consumption and movement. What is important now is that we have collected so much data on architecture and the city that it is hard to know what to do with it. Can we go back to architecture and create places for people to connect with reduced energy cost and appropriate resources? It is time to think about what would be a suitable measure of investment. Aesthetic achievements do not exist separately from architectural achievements. We often speak about cost efficiency in other fields as well?so when we talk about the achievements of architecture/space, we should also consider the efficient use of resources as one of our measures of quality. What does it mean to be appropriate? Shouldn’t there be themore deliberate collection of data regarding the appropriate urban index to maintain life satisfaction for regions and capitals respectively? This would thereby establishthe regulations for new communities. Now that we are all going through this situation together, I think that it’ll be easier for society to find agreement when we discuss sustainability in the future.
HJE: The situation also makes me rethink industrial and economic distancing. We saw how global trade routes and import/export relationships have become affected, and how masks were being distributed publicly. In a way that differs from that of the original market economy system, distribution was made possible due to participation and altruistic efforts of citizens themselves. I think this can become a useful reference model. There is also great controversy over data privacy. As soon as data regarding the movements of individuals was revealed, we learned how much information is generated from it, and we saw how the level of data security can be loosened or tightened according to how we choose to perceive it. I think these are all thought-provoking phenomena.
What are the Possible New Directions for Public Space?
SPACE: Along with public space, values like community, communication, platforms, and shared space have been brought into focus recently, and it seems that there will not only bedeliberation regarding the direction of physical space, in terms of such exchanges or other kinds of exchanges appropriate for this era,but also contemplationof how and what kinds of physical environments should be built. From this point on, I think we can also discuss the matter of a system that will produce such developments.
CJW: I have an interest in shared properties and common space. According to the definition of an urban, shared space on Wikipedia, not all shared space is common space. A shared space becomes a common space when it is used as a platform for citizen’s social or political activities. As such, the commons is defined by whether there is citizenaccess to resource management or not. So if there were various kinds of urban, shared spaces, where citizens have rights to governance, they would have been used to tackle this kind of situation. To establish an agreeable long-term sustainability as a new standard of life, the role of an urban shared space that will function as a platform for community is essential. We talk often of shared offices and similar platforms, but such shared spaces where users actually come to share opinions actively in a democratic setting and establish upon them in communities are quite rare. Just counting from Jongno-gu, there are already 239 public facilities that have had to close due to Covid-19. Countrywide, an even greater number of public facilities are now closed, and it is hard to conceiveof a time in which this crisismay recur. If these facilities were not merely physical places that provide a public service function, like a gym or an art museum, but a platform on which people can connect and catch their breath, they might have found some other way of fulfilling their roles instead of simply having to close doors. Neighboursthat help one another in times of crisis, and urban shared spaces that connect people to available resources?how many of these things can I find in my daily surroundings? We don’t need social overhead capital from a supplier’s perspective but we do need to establishan urban shared space that can still function in times of crisis.
HDJ: Through this experience, the communicative method has been revealed to be the most effective. The appropriate size of communities will depend on various factors, but during this time of urban living in extreme distancing and mapping, I think it is fair to say that almost everyone would find it hard to talk about the nature of personal community. While it might sound a little grandiose, something like the restoration of community has become an actual need. It is also something I’ve been recently considering as a public good?and by a public good, we mean that which we often associate with public property. However, no matter how great the public is in number, the rate of consumption by the private sector is always greater. In that sense, it cannot mean thatthe private sector is simply free from any responsibilities now that it is up to the public. Rather, it should be followed by discussion on how privately-owned resources can be used by the community.
HJE: When Hwang Doojin participated in the movement for the protection of the neighbouring park (Tongui-dong Maul Madang), I remember him saying that ‘I will clean this place if it turns into a park’. And I thought park maintenance was the responsibility of Jongno district. Even from the perspective of the consumer, aren’t public goods producedbyshared responsibilities and earn rights from individuals? I think that the scale of a public good depends on how much we are willing to share. If that starts to add up, I wonder if we can also hold similar expectations of the private sector.
CJW: Seeing that ‘zero-hours-pay’ was being used, I thought perhaps public resources could be added via urban shared space to create a platform for a third flow in terms of spatial demand and supply. The idea is still yet vague, but it makes me wonder if shared spaces introduced in the cities can be designed not merely as individual spaces but as part of a broader network to function as auxiliary tools for the public in times of crisis.
CDI: Nowadays, we often make use of expressions like the public and private sectors to contrast the public from the private. Among these labels, I think another key expression that we could use is public nature. For there to be a social consensus the role of public nature in the private sector as well as public nature in the public sector are equally important. I hope that this public nature will be realised as the foundation for a contemporary ethics of labour. Not merely the kind of social value that tells us what is good and generous, but a public nature that is realised in a ethics of labour?that is what I wish for. Also, since many problems in our society cannot be resolved simply through one’s own field of expertise, I hope that we will beginseek help from others in a more rigorous and directed way. The hope is thatgeneralities rising from new norms will sustain themselves within their respective bounds of ethical reflections on work.
HDJ: To speak from the perspective of the architectural scene and itssocial implications, I don’t think I’ve ever discussed such a wide range of themes across sectors in allmy years as an architectas I dotoday. Considering the fact that thearchitectural scene remains one of the most exclusive fields, the change I hope for is simply a change tothe field’sself-awarenessand therealisation that ‘we are a part of civic society’.I wish that we couldsee that there’s nothing special aboutthe architectural scene, and that we are all human beings whomust come together to contemplate and solve common problems.