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[Critique] Narrative Architecture in the Era of YOLO

written by
Jeon Younghoon
photographed by
Namgoong Sun (unless otherwise indicated)

Uncomfortable Genius

These days, where the absoluteness of aesthetic standards in design is often in doubt, I feel it increasingly difficult to critique architecture. This is particularly true when I’m asked to speak about a newly-built work, which I only visited for a few hours, and where I often desire a chance to meet the inhabitant who might share his/her own living experience—but this is almost impossible. It is also not easy to fully comprehend an architectural drawing that contains a manifestation of the architect’s inner thoughts. Robin Evans, a British architect and historian, once depicted the nature of both the architect and his/her architectural drawings in an indirect way: referring to Gustave Flaubert, he conceives of an architect as ‘travelling on strange seas of thought-alone’, and also referring to the novel of Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, his/her drawing as the ‘coruscating whirl of circles that by their tangled multitude of repeated curves […] the symbolism of a mad art attempting the inconceivable’ drawn by the ‘earnest but mentally retarded youth Stevie’. This metaphor may be relevant when describing the majority of architects; however, I felt that it is the most fitting description of Choi Moongyu.

The method of architectural design typical of Choi, of course, is not something like l’écriture automatique, a method of art-making of a Surrealist. In his works, which are based on the sedimentation of deliberations occurring in the black box-like brain of the architect, certain rational and normative principles are discovered, which hardly be found in those of Surrealist. Perhaps Choi’s strength lies in his ability to traverse across the two extremes – the logical and the seemingly irrational – and to find a balance between them, resulting in heterogeneous buildings which seem unlikely to have emanated from the same architect. This multifaceted property could also be somewhat located in his way of thinking and use of language: when conversing with him, one is met simultaneously with a mixture of multiple periods that consist of Vitruvius’ normative classicality, Claude Perrault’s cognitive modernity, and Robert Venturi’s postmodernity. This is why it is difficult to grasp a specific methodology or an overarching style despite the rather simplistic-looking principle.

The multifaceted property does not always guarantee an architectural value in the work, and our city is also already filled with countless eclectic buildings that are mass produced with a lack of aesthetic prudence. This is also why there is a need for a discussion on ‘quality’ in terms of architectural appreciation. I think that there are certain things that go beyond the virtues of being multifaceted in Choi’s works—the suggestion of an alternative type of architecture while remaining close to the basics, the demonstration of power of the narrative architecture, and the reflections on existential spatial experience of modern people.


An Alternative Type

I once listened to Choi’s account of the three architectural concepts that he foregrounds in his practice: a review of the site circumstances, an honest interpretation of the building’s programme, and a detailed investigation of tectonics. The three ideas may seem distinct from one another but compose an orderly sequence that is created to discover the optimal results from the given conditions. Choi expresses the outcome as ‘One of Solution’ in contrast to ‘Solution of One’, which is not a wholly novel concept but something similar to Kenneth Frampton’s discussion of ‘Typos on Topos’. An interesting point, however, lies in the process by which his unique solution gains normativity as a newly-invented alternative. This arises most prominently when the specific site and conditions form stronger ties with the urban context.

Most architects would probably contemplate the contact point between the land and the building. This is meticulously attended to in Choi’s approach, which brings about a significant influence over the entire work, even said to set the working direction at the early design phase. One might exemplify the Ssamziegil (2004), a vertical extension of the street in Insa-dong; the Hyundai Card Music Library (2015), a frame-shaped building that secure an open external space by using the level difference of the site; the SSU Student Union (2011), a large viewing stand which connects to the external spaces of the adjacent campus buildings at various levels; actually, all of his works present this process of contemplation and are varied in terms of execution. Choi begin his work with a review of the site conditions, and then assigned the specific programmes to the process of relating the city to the site and the site to the building. Diverse alternatives are also reviewed to find the optimal tectonics.

This approach is not new and is something systematically enforced in Europe. However, there are not many such cases in Korean architecture scene in which only a few architects, consistently and manifestly, uphold this approach as central to his/her practice. Even if suggests they have had a similar spatial experience at Omotesando Hills in Tokyo or La Grande Arche in Paris, one must also take into account the difference in the ground of urbanarchitecture production between theirs and ours. Over the years it has also became possible to find works performed by upcoming generations in Korean architecture that share similarities with Choi’s architectural types, and this also speaks for his sense of architectural pioneership.


SSU Student Union


Narrativity in Architecture

Louis Kahn’s ‘A Fairy Tale of Walls’, a story depicting ‘the moment when an individual, who admire the wonderful scenery outside, cuts an opening in the wall which had kept him/her safe all this while. The moment at which the wall experiences the pain of being torn apart and the column is birthed into being’, is an illustration of the ‘lineamentum’ which had been discussed in De re aedificatoria libri decem of Leon Battista Alberti. Unlike the original volume, which refers to façade aesthetics, two different points are hidden in Louis Kahn’s tale. While Alberti’s view towards a façade is oriented from the exterior to the interior, the viewing direction in the story goes from the interior to the exterior; and the projection of the design issue as an interaction between an anthropomorphic wall and a human being.

The deciding process of the outer layer which acts as the contact point between the city and building in Choi’s architecture resembles this story. The façade in his work, which is usually designed with the purpose of having people admire its external look, lacks such appeal — Choi, indeed, takes a negative stance towards putting too much effort into the façade design, and often found the reasons for the material selection and window positioning decisions in unexpected places: in the case of Yonsei International Campus Wisdom Hall (Y Study House), bricks were used simply because ‘there was a very large red brick building in front of it’, and in the case of UOS Centennial Memorial Hall, regular square windows were selected simply because ‘there was no reason to look for other forms’. Sometimes, this makes his architecture feel unpolished, but this attitude is taken only to approach the design not from an aesthetic perspective; instead, Choi seems to pour his attention elsewhere in the working process. In his works, the façade is decided spontaneously – sometimes even randomly – during the process of trying to embody the minute details of the relationships between the architecture and the surrounding environment (including the city), and of the social interactions between individuals. In that sense, Choi lacks a certain preferred material or a formative language that are often referred to when trying to classify certain architecture works down into a few words. He approaches every work with a different design and material choice; ironically, by this process, stories that are accessible to the masses, even to children, are thereby produced.

Referring to the slogan of Venice Biennale in 2000 – ‘Less Aesthetics, More Ethics’ – there is an observation that the 21st century architectural trend is now turning towards an emphasis on social practice and responsibility of publicity. Some also say that this trend is also influencing the winner selection process for the Pritzker Architecture Prize, exemplified by Toyo Ito, who carried out humanitarian aid efforts after the 3.11 East Japan Great Earthquake, as well as Alejandro Aravena, who executed rental residential projects for low-income families—an architecture under the category of ‘ethics’. I agree with this view and also claim a need to approach this from a slightly different perspective.

Looking back in history, the core of the debate in architecture resides with an argument of ‘narrative’, not ‘beauty’. The essence of art is, according to John Dewey’s assertion in the book Art as Experience, not admiration but a life experience, and in that sense, architecture is the highest form of art. Throughout the 20th century, however, having lost the power of symbols and metaphors – which are also its essential functions – architecture either fell into abstract aestheticism or was reduced to a mere means of expression for capitalist greed. The narrative architecture that embodied the life and experience of a human being disappeared, and architecture degenerated into a ‘poetry’, which solely focuses on a play of forms. In this context, ‘ethics’ may be perceived as a term to recover both ‘narrativity’ and the role of architecture as a medium that transfers life stories, which enables architecture to communicate with society. As such, if the ethics of architecture is when something surfaces above the trend, then narrativity is that which lies at the core. This fact can be easily found when observing the history of architecture.

Long-lasting architecture always had an interesting and engaging narrative, and the great architects were all established storytellers. I think the weakness of Korean architecture lies in this point. If the words ‘curves of the eaves’ (form) is a 70s’ expression, the ‘emptied yard’ (space) represents the 80s’ expression, and ‘uncertainty’ (concept) is what that swept across the end of the century in Korean architecture scene. The description of the architect’s work is often cut down into a few sentences, and the collection of works and its contents are mostly stored in a photo gallery. However, we too have a narrative architecture. From the ‘talking architect’ Chung Guyon’s public projects during the turn of the century and the recent ‘the story of a library that became a town’, one can observe various kinds of narrative architecture. Choi, too, is a front runner of the ‘storyteller group’ in the 21st century Korean architecture scene. Gilles Deleuze defines philosophy in his book What is Philosophy?, after discarding the idea that philosophy is an interpretation of the zeitgeist, as the kind of work which creates new concepts. Similarly, instead of abiding by systematized architectural grammar, Choi simply and straightforwardly presents the value of architecture and those possibilities that have not been previously conceived of.


Public vs. Public & Sharing: The Architecture of ‘I’

The keyword that represents narrativity in contemporary architecture is ‘user’. According to Adrian Forty’s observation, the user is an entity, differentiated from the client or the owner, and representing the ordinary citizens who have no relation to the capital and power which produces architecture. This identity was introduced after World War Ⅱ in the 1950s, and coincides with the development of a public welfare system emerging from the background of the socialist national ideology. However, this is also an era when existentialism began to spread in each of these citizen’s minds. Such change and ideological conflict seem somewhat similar to our recent situation. I cannot give a full explanation here, but while there has been a paradigm shift in the past ten years of Korean architecture towards a ‘public architecture’, this was however also accompanied by a rise of individualism.

Neologisms such as honbab (dubbed as the trend of eating alone), YOLO (the abbreviation ‘You Only Live Once’), and sohwakhaeng (which translates into ‘small but certain happiness’) reflect the character of this era. While ‘communality’ is being systematically introduced, a paradox arises because the citizen only desires the public without the communal aspect. While the narrative of ‘us’ is ideal, one is more inwardly attracted to the narrative of the ‘I’; while the open space is introduced as ‘ours’, what is actually more significant is ‘my’ life, ‘my’ experience, and ‘my’ happiness. It is specifically at this point that Choi’s architecture provides a solution. The open spaces and its relevant architectural devices in his architecture integrate well with the daily lives of the young generation that pursues after private desire and the public in this honbab era. While it is unsure if this was intended, but a sense of anonymity is guaranteed in his public spaces.

His architecture is divided. He never uses a large volume but cuts it up into smaller pieces. After positioning these divided volumes to maximise their connection to the surrounding area, he installs a low-gradient ramp, slightly-inclined floors, and a somewhat excessive amount of entrances between these volumes of spaces to create as much traffic lines as possible. The users experience architecture in this divided space as they freely exercise their line of sight. This space is like a seat at an opera hall, because while it provides a spectacular scenery at the front, its method of use is secretive. Choi’s works often appear in blogs and YouTube videos, and portray people dating at the gradient ramp of Ssamziegil, studying for exams in a dining hall in the student union building, and enjoying music on headphones at the Hyundai Card Music Library. To borrow the expression of a blogger, his architecture is ‘just nice and enjoyable’. 


Maison de la Corée​ ©Hervé Abbadie


Campus Architecture

What was meant to be an introduction became too long. This was because a specific critique on a design, particularly on the Choi’s architecture, might become meaningless, considering how the disposition and concepts of an architect for ‘architecture’ might seem coordinated, but also be completely contingent and individual when it comes to the ‘building’ due to the difference of the topos. The reason why red bricks were used on the façade of UOS Centennial Memorial Hall, for example, was simply because red bricks were found there. In this way, Choi works by collecting the stories that the land carries. As such, it was felt that it would be more meaningful to discuss the architect than to discuss his works.

The conditions and programmes behind the three works that feature in this article are very different. In a narrow sense, the only work that may be referred to as campus architecture is UOS Centennial Memorial Hall; Yonsei University Educational Foundation is closer to a private office building, and La Maison de la Corée of Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris (hereinafter Maison de la Corée) is placed at an international dormitory district that is far detached from the university campus itself. In terms of context and programme, the characteristic of ‘divided architecture’ is quite visible in the case of the UOS Centennial Memorial Hall. This building houses many complex programmes – a historical museum, lecture building, education centre, gym, large lecture hall, and convention centre – and has been composed by layering the large-volume facilities underground to follow the boundaries, and directing the rest of the programmes towards those dividing lines placed upon it. A large concrete deck was placed around the dividing line between the upper and lower bodies to give a sense of visual unity to the underground spatial units. As a result, the building does not appear heavy or give off an oppressive impression, despite the immense 20,000m2 scale, especially because of how the upper masses carry similar body-sizes with the nearby campus buildings. This division seems appropriate, considering how the building is adjacent to a quiet residential district; but a structural difficulty follows when trying to secure a large unoccupied space at the bottom. In the case of the lecture building, this structural difficulty becomes especially greater considering how the front side had been protruded out with a cantilever for the sake of traffic lines on the rooftop garden. The campus site is relatively level; the building site, however, has an inclination of approximately two levels, which suggests the possibility of connecting the three levels with its surroundings. To be more specific, various traffic lines enter the building: the main traffic line that leads to the main university entrance, as well as those from the surrounding residential district, the small park at the back, the outdoor playing field adjacent to the lower floors, and other neighbouring campus buildings. They are not limited in access to only those who are associated with the university. The comment that ‘it is hoped that they [the residents] would be able to walk their dogs at the campus at evening’ is also an expression of the architect’s desire for this building to be as open as possible. 

Maison de la Corée is designed to lease 70% of its rooms to Koreans and 30% to foreigners. Compared to dormitories in Korea that have warehouses for package post, this programme is relatively simpler. It only holds 250 studios, a communal kitchen, a community space for the tenants, a facility for visitors, and a basic service infrastructure. However, the environment and its related information surrounding the building is foreign and hence there is a need to cater to the different life patterns of its users. This is especially the case in France, where the building frame generally tends to be decided before the design due to more detailed regulations in terms of urban planning, and this was the case for Maison de la Corée. However, if the architect was to treat this not as a limitation but as a condition, this condition could then also function as a positive element to the design. The spatial structure was completed with consideration of noise insulation from the highway and the building limit lines, and the programmes were distributed appropriately within. The metal louver in the façade is a device that answers to the region’s solar radiation condition and privacy concerns. In this way, while the design of Maison de la Corée seems simple, the difficulties lie elsewhere; the size of the land, in contrast to the volume of the programmes in demand, was too small; and there was a need to actively draw the external city towards it. The horseshoe-shaped positioning that was chosen for Maison de la Corée was a response to such context. The individual rooms had to stay away from the highway noise, intervention from the adjacent site, and central external space. The slender units, as a result, became mostly positioned towards the west of the site as they took on a continuous middle-corridor shape. At the east, a hall and a rooftop garden where the tenants can gather has been positioned, and a plaza and a stepped stand that leads to the underground sunken garden have been placed in the central area for visitors. While it would not have been possible to layer the open traffic lines in various ways since a dormitory should prioritise the safety of its tenants, but the openness on the ground floor was no different from Choi’s other works. Still, a communal kitchen and a shared dining hall were installed per two floors from the third floor onwards, and this was done to increase the chances of encounter between the tenants. Considering that it is uncommon to have all tenants gather in a dormitory setting, and how it is difficult to invite others to a private room due to its small space, one can easily picture how students would choose to gather at this dining hall to eat together. It is where one can come to appreciate again how intimacy can be found within a public space.​ 

Jeon Younghoon
Jeon Younghoon is a professor at Chung-Ang University. He graduated from Seoul National University, and obtained a Ph.D degree on history and theory. He had worked for Iroje architects & planners. He was the editor-in-chief of Architecture and Society, and now currently elaborating a forum ‘Architecture asks books’ and ‘Common Architecture School’. He is serving as the principal of Architecture and Society Research Lab at the Korea Architects Institute and a member of 2018 Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang Committee and a member of Commission on Architectural Policy of Seoul Metropolitan Council.