Seoul Biennale Opening Forum
17 September 2021
John Hong spoke at the Seoul Biennale 2021 Grand Opening Forum about education and resiliency.
Moderated by Vincent Ahn, the list of panelists included Farrokh Derakhshani (Director of the Aga Khan Award), John Hong (Prof. at Seoul National University), Seunghoy Kim (Former City Architect of Seoul), Dominique Perrault (General Director of SBAU 2021), Haewon Shin (Curator of the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2020), Benedetta Tagliabue (Co-founder and of EMBT), Thomas Vonier (Past President of UIA).
DISCUSSION TRANSRIPT (from 1:05:25) >
Vincent Ahn (moderator): How should we educate the future generation of architects and planners? what type of education should our students receive for our cities to become more resilient?
John Hong: It’s been great that everyone is talking about collaboration, especially some of the new ways that Venice Biennale curator, Haewon Shin just talked about… This is happening with the students: We’re not asking them to collaborate, they’re doing it on their own and this is very telling. They’re inventing new kinds of infrastructure. They’re dealing with LGBTQ+ questions and who the city is for. They’re even doing projects on urban happiness. It’s very exciting that this collaboration is happening at the grass-roots level.
At the same time, students these days are feeling more and more powerless because the issues that we face in terms of ecology are so complex that they become incalculable. Recent eco-criticism for instance brings up the figure of the leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. The leviathan is a giant figure formed out of so many humans that there’s no longer any individual agency. I think the students are actually feeling like that.
To deal with this complexity, I think we need, first and foremost, new platforms for collaboration within the school. We need to reinvent and critique our accreditation system and what it means to be an architect. Right now we have a very generalist accreditation system where the architect has to know across the board about everything and the architect has to be a single individual with this breadth of knowledge.
But what about ways where there can be different kinds of concentrations? For instance, in literature departments, there are so many different concentrations. There isn’t one overarching theme of literature. Architecture also has to take this approach on. Just a few topics off the top of my head: We also talked about data today. Computational Design has to be one of the deep focuses of architectural education and it would be incredible to have an actual major along those lines.
Another node of knowledge would be Regional Design – and I say regional design not in terms of urban design because I think the term urban design is outdated because it privileges the city. With urban design we have to look across the board from urban to rural.
Social Design is also central in addressing these emerging inequalities in gender, economic access, changing family structures… I think these 3 concentrations could be very powerful disciplines within the overall discipline of architecture that we can be accredited for. Education and knowledge has to become deeper, rather than more general.
One last thing on how the Biennale fits into this: I think it’s an incredible platform for students. I saw a lot of projects this time where architecture students are collaborating with other disciplines like poetry and new media. In this way, the Biennale can be a leader in examining cross-disciplinary thinking.
Vincent Ahn: If we educate students in this way, we have one thing that we have to be careful about: If we move in a certain direction, we can become too focused on one keyword. For example, when we think about resilience it can become very superficial. What can we do to keep ‘resilience’ from become just a trend?
John Hong: I’m glad you’re closing with this question – it’s a very dark question because the whole theme of the Biennale is ‘resilience!’ Meanwhile, we’re being asked to question it and I think that’s perfect. Biennale’s are about questioning. Going back to an earlier presentation, I loved the way Benedetta talked about how resilience in-and-of-itself is resilient: It’s open to interpretation and it’s inclusive. In this way the term ‘resilience’ always has to be reinvented. This Biennale takes one stand, but the next Biennale should take another.
At the same time, while I was one of the directors of the AIA International Region, I noticed that resilience had become a professionalized term and that’s very dangerous. Resilience was defined as a kind of bouncing back to normal. But as we’ve seen in this pandemic, there is no normal, there is no bouncing back. In terms of the climate disaster, the question is not whether we can avert it, the only question is when: When is it going to happen? It’s already in process. Therefore, resilience has to be reclaimed from the idea that we can bounce back to normal.
Secondly, we need to move away from human-centric approaches. It’s a little trendy to say ‘post-human,’ but when we think about resilience, we should perhaps not equate it with the modern version of progress where progress is always limitless – where we are always looking for something better. That includes using too many resources. If we can decouple this idea that resilience is just for humans and follow a new narrative that looks at the term across nature and humans as a species within in.
Finally, the term resilience can also be decoupled from purely economic terms, the neo-liberal attitude toward the city where if something is good economically, it automatically is thought of as good socially. It’s no coincidence that when disaster strikes, whether it be environmental disaster or something like the pandemic, it reveals the weak parts of our society. It’s not just the disaster in and of itself. Instead the disaster is a litmus test that reveals systemic problems in terms of wealth distribution, healthcare, food scarcity, and all these related issues. If we can decouple the ways in which infrastructure, food, health and education are just economically driven – that would be a much more inclusive and responsible way to think about resilience.
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