[VIEWPOINT]Architects and a city of rooms

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[VIEWPOINT]Architects and a city of rooms

When I open the door of my room, there is the living room for family members, and when I open the front door of the living room, a yard stretches away in front of me. When I go out of the gate of my house, a winding alley in the foreground welcomes me, and when I walk along the alley, there appears a road lined with stores of my village ― barbershop, hardware store and others.
At the far end of the village road is a street where cars zoom by and the city with schools and department stores spreads out.
From a person’s room outwards to meet a city, a person had to come out of many shells this way and go through a long and complicated ritual. But this kind of city no longer exists. If you enter a building in a city, soju rooms, singing rooms and game rooms appear all of a sudden.
They are connected but unrelated. They are merely convenient spaces where you can go right from the room into the city and vice versa. Between the room and the city, the living room, the house, the alleyway, and the village have all disappeared.
If a traditional city is compared to a tree that spreads from the roots through the trunk to the branches and leaves, the cut-off and discontinuous city where we live is like a water plant with countless leaves right at the root. Let’s call this city that cannot but sway at the mercy of waves and drift according to the flow of the current in “the City of Rooms.”
The moment the film director Kim Ki-duk splendidly received the best director award for “3-Iron” at the Venice Film Festival, other Korean artists, all in a sweat, were installing their works in another part of Venice. The 9th Venice Architecture Biennale was scheduled to open on the next day, and three Korean architects were in the middle of putting the finishing touches on their works at the Korean pavilion.
This year the Korean pavilion planned a very unusual exhibit. Unlike previous years when a few selected architects just submitted their representative works to the exhibit, this year they introduced newly created works with a common theme. The commissioner in charge of the exhibition and participating architects defined Korea’s city and architectural situation under the theme of “The City of Rooms,” and shed new light on the situation of architecture and citizens in this city through thorough analysis.
They neither criticized nor praised the city of rooms. They faced up to the fact that the city of rooms is the environment that we live in and quietly showed that it was a universal situation that many urbanites in the world have to contend with.
The method of exhibition was also unique. Technical drawings and miniature models used to be about all there were in architectural exhibitions, but the Korean pavilion this year was full of works and images that reminded us of installation art. Accompanied by the performance of a fishermen’s band at the opening ceremony, the Korean pavilion attracted the attention of spectators from many different countries. Above all, its profound thematic consciousness and fresh perspective received high ratings from the international architectural community.
The spectators of the world shared the feeling that “The City of Rooms” was not portraying a problem faced only by the city of Seoul or the country of Korea, but that it was a common problem they also experienced in their countries.
The architects in the Korean pavilion also made their own terminology dictionary. For example, “garden” is defined as “a restaurant where bulgogi and cold noodles are served and where a waterwheel is usually found.” “Singing room” is wittily explained as “a place where 30 minutes is too short to leave and 90 minutes is too boring to stay.” “Room” is philosophically defined as “pieces of my body scattered in the city.” “Seoul,” where these rooms are crowded, cannot help being “a place in which all try to enter to live and at the same time a city from which all try to escape.”
The Venice Architecture Biennale will go on until November, and “The City of Rooms” will keep shouting its silent eloquence to the international architecture community.
Its voice is a comfort for us and a warning as well. What fills the empty houses of Seoul citizens are the rooms in the city, and Kim Ki-duk’s “3-Iron” is “The City of Rooms” made into a movie.
This fall, the same two cities were built in Venice, although the film festival drew much more attention in Korea than the architecture biennale.

* The writer is a professor of architecture at the Korean National University of Arts. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Bong-ryol
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