A Manual for Architectural Mutations in Korea
Seoul has an exhilarating, dualistic, and one might say almost seemingly bipolar, character. On one hand - in it’s sangga’s replete with fantasy programmes; in its gaming world PC bang’s, massage and steam-filled Jimjilbangs; it’s APT’s illegally renovated as animal houses and maker spaces, Mukbang-featured Mat Jib’s (trendy eateries); urban escape camping sites; in the informal holiday-weekend villages that pop up in the middle of the city under Han river motorways – the city tends towards a kind of spontaneous, non-idealistic (and often architect-less), delightful ‘desire’ fuelled chaos in which there could easily be as many versions of reality and architecture as there are people: about 9,968,212. On the other hand, Seoul is a place of hakwon’s (grueling after school private academies), universal-service military camps, financial towers that deal in mounting debt, hetero-normalizing wedding halls, plastic surgery offices, and cosmetic salons. A place of strict limits, discipline, ideals, conformity, and faith in institutions that only seem to become more engrained as they become increasingly invisible under the bubbling surface of the cities ‘desiring’, colourful mutations. The strict substructures of Seoul’s modes of production, control, and profit can be understood as the cause or driver but paradoxically also containers of its mutations.
Seoul’s mutations – which at their core simply reflect people's desire to enjoy their lives - can only ever go so far, otherwise, they might precipitate transformations and new Uses: radical experimentation with forms of architecture, social relationships and life. The explosion of market-driven, entrepreneur-designed mutations of programme and architecture in Seoul’s bangs (rooms) are an index of the simultaneous drive towards Use, but also it’s separation, suspension, ordering, and integration back into the productive machinery of the city. At the deepest subjective levels, new Use is separated and deactivated by a faith (and not the good kind) in narratives, systems and institutions whether literal, legal, financial, behavioral, and cultural. Here we might cite examples like an adherence to or trust in profiteering, competition, ‘success’, reputation, production (work)-as-identity but also the well-meaning idealistic intentions of politicians and architects to design and plan it all out. These supreme, behaviourally regulatory meta-institutions, which both generate and regulate space, production, the city and its forms of life, are often (sub)consciously accepted and enacted through rites and behaviours as a means through which to one day attain happiness and a better life. However, they are, as it becomes clear in moments of pause, in fact precisely what separate us from realising ‘happiness’ in practice and encountering its simple presence at hand.
To be sure, new Use is always already manifesting, even if timidly. So many of Seoul’s (un)faithful (though too often compelled by desperation) are profanely ‘playing’ and engaging in experiments with their architecture, life and relationships. As architects, given what we now know, it is perhaps better to root out our own faith in design and planning and not to idealise, prescribe, or develop new ‘models’ or phantastical masks. Instead, we might observe, expose, and create tools that can facilitate new Uses and experiments. An architecture manual or handbook can carve out a contemplative space, and open imaginaries and possibilities to both architects and non-architects alike. It can work towards a deactivation and ‘profanation’ of architecture as idealistic, prescriptive or narcissistic. It is not faith or even hope that is needed now, but an experiment in opening up those architectures, technologies and practices to a Life whose form and means can become a perpetually unfolding experiment, and an end and pleasure unto itself.