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Everyday Architect(ure) in the Era of the New Normal

written by
Lee Jongkeun (professor, Kyonggi Univ.)

Introduction

The aim of this text can be summarised in the following question: how do we define architects in Korea who were born in the 1980s (hereinafter ‘80’s architects’)?▼1 This is a question concerning 

the architecture (and architects) of our past. It would be difficult to argue against the fact that Korea is one of the most rapidly evolving and adaptive countries in the world. For that reason, the ‘generation theory’ of literary circles is particularly effective and appropriate when leading discussions regarding the societal changes. Clearly, economic motivations have an undeniable influence over people’s lives in a capitalist society. As such, economy acts as the central constant in generation theory. However, cultural change does not coincide chronologically with the economic cycles that occur approximately every decade.▼2 This is not only because culture is a kind of a habitus▼3 that an individual or a community creates, maintains, and alters in a complex way, according to the psychological, social, and economic strategies of that time, but because it can be attributed to conservative architecture—that is, an architecture that creates results through the significant investment of capital, material, labour, and time—that is fundamental to everyday space. The distinctive change to ‘quality’ in the architecture of our society has coincided with this generational difference.▼4 As I’m about a generation away from the ‘80s architects’, to me, they are architects of a different era.▼5

 

Everyday Architect(ure) in the Era of the ‘New Normal’

As the established sociologist Zygmunt Bauman explained in his Liquid Modernity, firm operational principles such as structures, institutions, customs, morals, and others have been dismantled 

by everyday life, thus leaving behind only a prevailing sense of uncertainty. To speak in Heideggerian terms, with technology achieving a monopolistic metaphysical position, ours is a world founded on a sense of astonishment at the lack of a ‘sites’, and this is especially true of people born in the 1980s who now belong to the ‘N-po generation’.▼6 The financial crisis brought about by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers a decade ago, bound up with the IMF Crisis that took place a decade before it, coupled with the tructuralization and internalization of a sense of insecurity that emerged from uncertain attitudes towards the ​land (parent’s economic status) where the past is sedimented as well as the future. This prompted the era of the ‘New Normal’.▼7 Low growth, worsening economic inequality, and a dormant economic crisis waiting to happen, as part of everyday life, characterise a way of life that is completely separate from the conditions endured by previous generations, as one is now forced to face questions regarding self-sustainability on a daily basis. 

The ‘80’s architects’ who have lived through the era of the ‘New Normal’ since their college years, now own certain characteristics. They are as follows: they start a business early, they don’t start 

a business by themselves, they try to expand their business area,▼8 and they pay particular attention to daily activities – these are all strategies to 

promote and secure a sustainable career as an architect. Viewing this from afar, however, it seems that the problem of maintaining a living as an architect arises as a primary concern for every 

kind of architect (whether past or present). Is this particularly true in a place devoid of architectural culture? The difference between the ‘80’s architect’ and the architects of past generations 

lies in the way they pursue their changing livelihood in a changing world. In this situation, where an environment conducive to developing architectural experience is no longer available in 

the way it was in the past, the popular maxim that ‘architecture should begin at 50’▼9 is difficult for today’s young adults (who lack sufficient hands-on experience) to bear the burden of living as an architect by themselves. Considering recent circumstances, one cannot easily sympathise with the strategies they are pursuing while also perceiving them as unavoidable. In that sense, 

instead of criticising the life choices of the ‘80’s architects’, one should instead interpret them as necessary measures and focus on the unique architectural properties integral to them.

The ‘80’s architect’ is an architect of the everyday. 

As part of the masses, they seek in their current lives their ‘bread and roses’▼10—meaning their basic necessities for human existence. They start businesses for their bread and wishes for roses 

from the small but genuinely fulfilling and pleasant work/life balance. Instead of searching for sublime beauty, they look for something graspable in architecture; instead of a random coincidental programme, they look for practical functional space; instead of tectonic, they look for images—in other words, instead of looking for a deep and profound rose (truth, good, and beauty) that can 

only be anticipated to be fulfilled via a fortuitous turn of events, they look for a different and a light-hearted rose of the ‘now’ that they can find without needing to rely on a rigorous theoretical investigation. This is not that rose of life towards which Andy Warhol had a deep adversity—the rose that grows after an extended period of care, only to wither soon after—but a light paper rose that 

Warhol could simply enjoy, a rose that is everlasting as one can always create a new one according to one’s whims and discard it whenever one wishes. Also, as the rose is created primarily to satisfy the client, because the ‘80’s architect’ is now a part of the prosumer goods society where the boundary between producer and consumer is blurred, it is also created for the benefit of the architect. The sensitivities and knowledge behind these architects are often native to the masses, and only a small part comes from direct experience. The rose (architecture) of the ‘80’s architect’ is created from the desires of masses (and their endless desire for the new) and flickers away (is consumed) into the masses.The decisive fate that a ‘80’s architect’ is forced to face is the meaning (or lack of meaning) of the everyday. What meaning is there to my architecture of the everyday? As Heraclitus said, the everyday is a paradox. ‘We are excluded from what is most familiar’.▼11 Everyday is convenient and pleasant like a well-worn pair of jeans, but precisely because of that, it makes one lose the ability to question ‘the unnatural and sense of awe that lies right below the surface of everyday life and amplifies our interest towards the world’.▼12 If meaning is ‘a certain method of focusing what one has experienced’,▼12 reflection on what one has experienced must be the foundation for meaning. 

This is only activated when one’s method of existing in one’s everyday life—one’s way of participating in the daily sphere—is stopped. This does not occur until one encounters a sense of contradiction, unfamiliarity, and disappointment. Until we turn our attention towards the abrupt negative interruptions (such as death, nihilism, meaninglessness) in our everyday lives, then the cause to reflect upon the everyday and the meaning of everyday life does not surface as a concern.

According to Henri Lefebvre, ‘the quintessential critical theorist on everyday life’,▼14 the reason why we are excluded from living in the everyday is due to the hidden motivating structures of contemporary capitalism. It is because of this false promise of a better lifestyle and the drive to continuously consume new products, that a structure that not only makes us repeatedly fall into cycles of boredom and fear of being left behind, but also makes us live a life where one’s individual style becomes wholly replaced by the adoption of brands. It is difficult to find theorists who have offered a fundamental or a specific practical solution to tackling this problem. They, myself included, can only offer vague or abstract concepts. Other than the significance of this motive to reflect and ruminate on the everyday, there is nothing else much to think about. Therefore, my immediate advice to the ‘80’s architects’ is this: although the option of further education—which does not bring immediate 

monetary relief in this situation when one is already running a business and concerned about financial viability▼15—cannot but be pushed down as a lower priority, they need to nurture the ability 

to reflect upon the everyday while living in the blur of everydayness by pushing themselves to study. This is because once we become solely concerned with the everyday, it is only a matter of time before we degenerate into a mere architectural businessperson.

 

Remarks

Under the framework of market capitalism, each day makes our daily bread. And bread is necessary to live. The remaining gaps are filled by roses. An architect makes roses either through or for bread. What is important is the architectural meaning behind those roses. The rose, in the name of architecture, needs to adopt a certain oppositional or contradictory distance from what is general, 

while simultaneously identifying itself with the masses in order for it to avoid dismissal as a meaningless product. Hence, for the ‘everyday architect’, what is overriding is both its thesis as well as its anti-thesis. They are the material for the excess that is to be produced. As a member of the masses, the ‘80’s architect’ is positioned at a crossroads, between a role that strengthens reality and a role that revolutionises reality. The architectural path that they take splits to create new spaces, as well as everyday spaces via repetition. The possibility of ‘creating everyday life into an artwork’, that Lefebvre dreamt of, is now no longer in the hands of the previous generations but in the hands of these ‘80’s architects’.

 

 

Lee Jongkeun received his PhD in History, Theory, and Critique from the School of Architecture in Georgia Tech University. Since 1998, he has been teaching as a professor at Kyonggi University, and is currently oversees and edits the architecture journal Architectural Critics Association. which he founded in 2015. He has published various critical books on architecture including Empty Fullness, Issues, Country without Architecture, and has also written an essay Life Mirror and a novel Trap of Architecture.  

 

1. The early tentative title for the commission from SPACE was ‘The Appearance of Architectural Groups in the 1980s’.

2. Clément Juglar’s theory of Juglar cycles (written in 1862), which refers to the fixed investment cycles that occur every 7–11 years, was confirmed in a 2010 study using 

spectral analysis on the world GDP dynamics. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juglar_cycle.

3. Coined by a well-known French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, the concept habitus refers to a principle of cultural practice and its reenactment (dispositional system) that is produced according to the conditions that compose a certain type of environment that is essentially persistent but also alterable in face of regulations by living conditions.

4. NAVER dictionary defines generation as ‘a period of about 30 years required for a child to mature and take over the work of his/her parents’.

5. This text is based on my view toward the architect (or architecture) from the perspective of someone who is one generation apart.

6. This is a neologism coined by the special interview team in the project series ‘Speaking of the Welfare State’ in Kyunghyang Shinmun. (Literally translated: a generation that has given up number of things – editor)

7. As a term that refers to the new world economic order that arose after the global financial crisis in 2008, it was first used by the American venture investor Roger McNamee after the collapse of the IT bubble in 2003. In the ‘New Normal’ era, as the world economy enters a low￾growth trend, a 3 ‘low’ phenomena—i.e., low-growth, low￾income, and low-profit—becomes established as a new 

standard as families lower their debts and businesses decrease their expenditure and investment. As a consequence, the financial market inclines towards saving and sustainable growth over greed and quick growth as their main interest.

8. Despite the lack of data, according to information collected by SPACE the business area explored by the ‘80’s architects’ is not significantly larger than that of the previous generation. 

9. According to the insight of Renzo Piano, who claimed that an architect should live to the age of 150 as an architect should be learning until the age of 75, an architect’s career should begin somewhere in their mid 70s.

10. Bread and Roses is both a political slogan and a title of a film and its related poem and song, and it is often linked with the successful strike held by the textile factory workers in Massachusetts, USA in 1912, which was named as the ‘Bread and Roses strike’.

11. Charles Olson, The Special View of History, Oyez, 1970, p. 3.

12. Gareth Matthews, Philosophy and the Young Child, Harvard University Press, 1980, p. 2.

13. Alfred Schutz, The Phenomenology of Social World, translated by G. Walsh and F. Lehnert, Northwestern University Press, 1967, p. 42.

14. Michael Gardiner, Critiques of Everyday Life, Routledge, 2000, p. 71. 

15. Considering how the individuals that SPACE has tends to cover in their feature articles are architects, often who have received sufficient exposure in the media, i.e., those who have established some sense of authority, this would be more intense for the ‘80’s architects’ who haven’t been able to do so.​

 

 

 

 

 

 


Lee Jongkeun
Lee Jongkeun received his PhD in History, Theory, and Critique from the School of Architecture in Georgia Tech University. Since 1998, he has been teaching as a professor at Kyonggi University, and is currently oversees and edits the architecture journal Architectural Critics Association. which he founded in 2015. He has published various critical books on architecture including Empty Fullness, Issues, Country without Architecture, and has also written an essay Life Mirror and a novel Trap of Architecture.

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