Challenging the Rules for SpacesThe narrow streets squeezed between the buildings exist solely as desolate, physical routes.
An architect in Seoul may require a great deal of rationalization to maintain a healthy outlook. The city is so crowded that one of the main challenges is getting around municipal ordinances that dictate the amount of space required between houses. All the ideas about the aesthetics of space learned in Architecture 101become the subject of conversations at lousy bars, where urban planners grouse to anyone who will listen about Seoul's less than accommodating environment. That may sound a little harsh but it is a part of the nasty reality. There are exceptions, however, like E Il-hoon, one of the few professional architects in Korea who seems to really understand the city's weaknesses, but attempts to embrace them as part of the aesthetics of life in Seoul.
Talk to him for more than ten minutes and you will realize this man is even more uncompromising than painters. But whether you talk to critics or fellow architects, people invariably agree with what he says. He assures many disillusioned architects in Korea that it is their understanding of society and life here that must shift their understanding of the subject. This discernment is apparent in his own work.
For a recent project, "A Study House By the Railway," which has been nominated for the Critic's Architecture Award, Mr. E designed a children's home for a group that fights community poverty. The group's organizers first approached Mr. E two years ago and asked him if he could design a house that "respected the atmosphere of the neighborhood, one that did not intrude on the ones around it." He accepted the challenge.
Located in Manseok-dong, Incheon, a congested suburb of Seoul, the impoverished neighborhood is full of slate-roofed houses and pharmacies.
"I visited the neighborhood and found that there were only two public bathrooms in the entire vicinity. Families waited in lines every morning. I went into the houses and saw that all they had was one room and a kitchen. That was it. No wonder the first thing the organizers asked me was to design a nice bathroom for the children," said the 48-year-old architect.
What he designed was a three-story building, with a total floor space of 148 square meters. The building includes two bathrooms, a large study room, a kitchen housed separately, a small prayer room and lots of corners for kids to hide. For the building's exterior, Mr. E suggested solid bricks and unadorned concrete to match the group's tight budget.
"One of the organizers came to me and said they had found a cheap construction company, which would take monthly repayments. I met with the company's chief and asked about the cheapest way to build the house. He said piling bricks required the least labor. So there it was," Mr. E recalled.
The architect's meticulous attention to detail is manifest in the space. The building's slate roof imitates structures in the neighborhood that surround it and the front of the building is a mural painted by children. On the third floor, there is an uncovered bridgeway way that connects the main building to the kitchen. To reach the kitchen in the rain, you risk getting wet but, he said he likes the idea of living in touch with nature.
"I encourage people to live a life of inconvenience," he said. "When people are put in inconvenient situations, their conversations get sincere. Just look at how many couples broke up after cell phones were introduced." Obstructed lines and separately-housed kitchens, which encouraging people to reject the modern consumer lifestyle based solely on convenience, are now Mr. E's architectural trademark.
When it comes to Korean architecture, however, he has almost too much to say and falls silent. He mentioned the realty industry and a few ambitious architects and left it at that.
He notes that houses in Seoul are like little islands. They are not adapted to their neighborhood and the walls are the conceptual embodiment of isolation. The narrow streets squeezed between the buildings exist solely as desolate, physical routes. Although Mr. E attempts to stay faithful to the conditions he is presented with, the brute reality of the neighborhoods he has to work with often reduces him to just another powerless architect.
"But there are parts of Seoulites' life that are very precious to me," he said. He thinks architecture should exceed utility and widen its aesthetic criteria by embracing an eclectic viewpoint incorporating function, location and form.
"Make smaller windows when you have a house with a nice view. If you look at it too much all at once, you get sick of it too soon," he hinted toward the end of the interview, inhaling lightly on his cigarette to underscore his point.
Critics who like to categorize describe Mr. E as an architect who is socially interactive. But after the long interview, I would say he is an architect who remains faithful to his vocation.
The 4th Critic's Architecture Award, sponsored in part by POAR Architecture Magazine, will be awarded to Mr. E on Saturday with a special trophy designed by the artist Ahn Pil-yeun.
by Park Soo-mee