fragments book on table Custom 1

Fragments of a New Housing Language

2016 [Publication, symposium, and exhibition at the National University of Singapore]
Curator: Moongyu Choi
Book Author: John Hong

The historical legacy of housing in Korea paradoxically is both heroic and mundane: Until recently, the nation’s rapid urbanization fueled the creation of entirely new regions of high density apartments while cycles of urban renewal within the city continue to push the radical disjunction between new and historical fabrics. At the same time, the ongoing impasse between developmental pressures and design progress has reduced housing to its basic elements. However, if we use language as a working metaphor, a current wave of architects has quietly begun reassembling these fragments into new syntaxes, instilling them with nuanced social qualities while still maintaining their efficiency. While each work in this book and exhibition represents a unique solution, their innovations can be seen as typological advances in the way the core elements of housing are willfully redesigned, recombined, and re-imbued with new qualities.

Introduction lecture by John Hong at the National University of Singapore

Roundtable discussion at NUS. (left to right) Eunkyung Lee, Younghan Chung, Siew Man Kok, John Hong, Jinoh Lee

Opening speech by commissioner Jaeyoung Lim

The Anxiety of Reassembling Fragments
Introductory Essay: John Hong, Architect / Professor, Seoul National University

Housing (rather than house), is by necessity serial, especially when applied to our urban environments – it is impossible to gauge the success of the dwelling unit without measuring the success of its aggregation. In this way one could call housing a kind of language – the single word interchangeable as both noun and verb. As a noun it is ‘uttered’ daily as a kind of common tongue, a framework and place for our everyday rituals. At the same time, as a verb it is capable of edifying and transforming the very fabric of our existence. It is from this premise that the collection of works in this exhibition and book begins: As curator, professor and architect Choi Moongyu implies in his preface: housing does not need to be related to the noun spectacle “in a city already full of spectacles,” but rather the verb change in the way the projects in this volume express the “consequent changes brought to everyday life.”

With all the celebration of ‘starchitects,’ and special purpose buildings that get published and awarded, more than 77% of buildings in Seoul are housing, the stuff of the everyday. As elaborated in the introductory essay by Professor Park Cheolsoo, the almost sublime repetition of units contained in superblocks known generically in Korea as the ‘APT’ type was catapulted by political and social forces that were in the end driven by sheer need: In the decades of recovery following the Korean War, the chemistry between Machiavellian policies, foreign investment, and an elusive-to-define but incredibly powerful collective will converged into an unprecedented building boom. For instance, over 13 million housing units were constructed nationwide and the city of Seoul alone increased from 1.5 million inhabitants to over 10 million.

Beyond the scores of astounding statistics we use to describe the parallel between economic ascendancy and accelerated density, the story of housing within the once so-called ‘Hermit Kingdom’ is more nuanced and complex than a generalized narration of how ‘local’ low-rise became ‘international’ high-rise urbanism. On one hand historians agree that the nation’s recent past is one of radical societal change in the way the collective consciousness of Koreans, once isolated by the geopolitics of its topography and its peninsular condition, was forced open. First it was through literal colonization by the Japanese in 1910, then through a cultural colonization brought on by the proxy Cold War between the superpowers of the United States and Soviet Union staged on Korean soil (1950-53). After these tumultuous periods, the flood-gates to the exterior were fully opened, and as much as Korean culture had enjoyed its cultural autonomy, a delirious gaze toward the modernity of the West was now foregrounded. On the surface one can discern this abrupt juxtaposition in the way traditional urban fabric was replaced by a postcolonial one – in over-simplified terms, it is registered in the destruction of wood and stone hanok and the construction of concrete and steel apartment complexes.

But in rebuilding historical narratives to invent new futures, perhaps it is no longer productive to think of Korea’s urbanscape through these binary definitions. In the background, a parallel and more organic history has been evolving, hidden from the panopticonism of tabula rasa urbanism and therefore more nimble in its ability to change. Michel de Certeau states, “Escaping the totalizations produced by the eye, the everyday has a certain strangeness… Beneath the discourses that ideologize the city, the ruses and combinations of powers that have no readable identity proliferate; without points where one can take hold of them, without rational transparency, they are impossible to administer.”

photo: Seungho Choi
photo: Seungho Choi

Intro photo essay: Seungho Choi

Whereas the planning and construction of apartment complexes has always been pre-conceived by centralized authorities, smaller scale housing in Korea has evolved through improvisation and need, with legal restrictions only happening after the fact. Beginning in the 1930’s with the move to rapidly industrialize and urbanize the nation, the owners of single family houses began to illegally rent out single rooms to factory workers in need of housing. Interestingly, it was the traditional hanok type with its integrated central courtyard that allowed it to be subdivided, rescaled, and shared in new ways. As the plumbing did not allow for multiple bathrooms and kitchens however, new types of ‘family’ structures between unrelated individuals was also created –  social situations that we think are so radical today were already beginning to emerge 80 years ago as traditional typologies were transformed to meet the then contemporary needs.

Before the advent of the high-rise apartment complex, we also tend to forget how the intermediate scale of the 2 story brick house proliferated in the 1960’s as the new form of density. In lieu of 1-story hanok, it was implemented to respond to dwindling wood supplies and rising fire-safety concerns. Initially constructed as single-family structures with Western facades and Korean interiors, the continuing scarcity of housing as more of the population flooded into the urban centers inspired more under-the-table invention: Where the hanok type was transformed in plan, this time it was the section that played the new role. While the owner would live on the 2nd floor, they would often remove the interior stair and improvise odd exterior circulation to allow their own separate entry while providing private access for their illegal tenants on the 1st and basement floors. Even today when walking through the back streets of Seoul, one can still spot the complex ‘beautifully ugly’ interventions which are in their own ways attempts to negotiate density, open space, and multi-unit coexistence. These are solutions that no architect could ever dream up under the auspices of proper ‘design’ but nonetheless we can learn from them because their spatial evolution is parallel to the evolution of a specifically Korean urban culture.

As the city continued to be faced with housing shortages, the government again followed rather than led the logic of individual residence owners, legalizing multi-family dwellings on previously single-family lots. This institutionalization of the type however introduced throngs of small-scale developers to the market who merely sought to take advantage of the conditions of the new laws and generate as much profit as possible. Even so, a kind of Darwinian logic prevailed creating the most efficient minimum typologies that could create maximum financial gain in the form of multifamily structures classified as ‘dasaedae’ or ‘dagagu,’ But as everyone knows, land values in unchecked capitalism always chase profit margins in a kind of absurd dog-eat-dog scenario. The result was an incredible streamlining of the basic elements of housing, emptying the unit, corridor, facade, open space, roof, and stair of any social content and reintroducing them in their most reductive state. It was as if the syntax of housing, its very words, were separated into single-syllable monotones without the hope of ever being joined into coherent sentences.

But architects are a certain breed of perverse thinkers – drawn to the impossibility of utopia, they seek to generate social change where none is seemingly possible. While the top-down power structure of large scale apartment development continues, the architects in this book have instead engaged change from the bottom-up (or more precisely from the side-up). Finding a kind of melancholic beauty in the decimated elements of low-rise housing, they have quietly begun reassembling its fragments into new transformations, imbuing them with social qualities while still maintaining the efficiency of the original typology. Moreover, from a privileged view of a retrospective history, they are now able to critique and mine the recent and distant past, hybridizing tradition with contemporary concerns while finding inspiration in the palimpsest-like practices that are now being written on what was once a clean and modern city-scape.

Book and exhibition structure - organizing projects by the way basic elements of housing are transformed
Book and exhibition structure – organizing projects by the way basic elements of housing are transformed
EMA Architects
Society of Architecture


Architects Office SAAI

For instance YounghanChung Architect in his ‘Five Trees’ project has taken the adhoc collision of urban layers inherited from Korean War refugee settlements in Busan and generated a scaled down micro-city that allows flexibility and change. JMY Architects in their ‘5×17 House’ similarly grows their sliver-like mixed-use rowhouse vertically out of the horizontal linear fabric imposed during the Japanese colonial period in an effort to bring new life to the old city center. SoA in ‘The Rabbit’ takes the standard one-room multi-family type and somehow finds maximum dimensions that span through the entire length of the building, opening up linear spaces of collaboration. OBBA in ‘Beyond the Screen,’ also reimagines the multi-family typology but this time eliminating the corridor altogether allowing the insertion of a haptic vertical courtyard in the middle of a building type that typically denies any sort of amenity. SAAI Architects in the mixed-use ‘Uhjjuhdah House’ leverage the productive power of the incidental in curating and generating a new community of diverse tenants. Finally EMA in their ‘Mallee-dong Artist Housing’ engages the very process through which housing is created allowing design to be an instrument of communication before the building is even built.

Grappling with what these architects have accomplished is not an easy task. What the photographs and drawings may not show at first glance are the major revolutions happening at the minor scale. For this reason, ten keywords were curated to qualify the way in which the basic elements, shared across all housing, are transformed into a radical new language. Described more in detail in the table of contents, these syntactic modifiers [hybridity / sociality / individuality / polarity / code / process / relativity / unpredictability / subdivision / rescaling] act like viruses, attaching themselves to the basic elements and multiplying their influence. Instead of the polished continuity of a complete work therefore, this book acts partly like a user-manual and partly like scathing cultural critique for the current state of affairs. Where individual projects are fascinating experiments in their own right, if one read between the lines they are also new inventions that challenge the norm and incite immediate change. Their fragments are powerful new typological tools that can be rescaled and redeployed to solve a wider set of problems beyond the site specific context of the work itself.

In understanding the above architects’ projects as inventions through transformation, it is helpful to close with a sideward glance at the ‘Fundamentals’ theme of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale (where the Korean Pavilion happened to take the first place Golden Lion Award). Curator Rem Koolhaas used the opportunity to dismantle architecture into its constituent parts, namely its elements. But as his colleague Peter Eisenman later critiqued, “Koolhaas doesn’t believe in grammar… For me what is purposefully missing is the grammatic.” Therefore where the work of the Venice Biennale was to productively dismantle, the work of this (albeit much smaller) exhibit is now to reassemble. And this is where the analogy of language becomes a salient working metaphor: To create a new kind of writing, we actually must confront the anxiety of understanding the disembodied fragment. Separated from its relationship to the overall, the fragment is no longer capable of participating in pre-existing aesthetic pursuits that seek the smoothness of overall control. And in this state, it can be willfully redesigned, recombined, and re-imbued with new qualities.

Younghan Chung Architects


Book Author and Symposium Coordinator
John Hong AIA, LEED AP

Moongyu Choi

Jaeyong Lim, Sunghong Kim

Architectural Works by
Architects Office SAAI,  EMA architects & associates,  SoA (Society of Architecture),  JMY architects, OBBA (Office for Beyond Boundaries Architecture), YounghanChung Architects

Cheolsoo Park, John Hong

Photographic Essay
Seungho Choi

Editorial Team
Project : Architecture (Seoul National University)
Hyein Kim, Hyun Jei Lee (project coordination),  Hyelim Jang, Tae Hwan Choi, Youngju Lee (translations)

Jung Yoon Chin, Young Ju Lee

Yoojin Jeon

Exhibition Design
SoA (Society of Architecture)

Graphic Design
Eunjoo Hong, Hyungjae Kim (Optical Race)

Korea Architects Institute

Official Host
Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, Republic of Korea

Official Sponsor
Arts Council Korea

National University of Singapore, Department of Architecture, School of Design and Environment

FILOBE System Window Co., Ltd., Jarchiv, NShome Co., Ltd., OCA, Pyung Hwa Engineering and Construction Co., Ltd.