Savvy eco-designs alter family roles, abandon formulasAs an eco-architect, Lee Yun-ha is ambivalent about his job being characterized as a New Age trend. He says eco-architecture encompasses the creation of “a futuristic dwelling,” explaining that the concept is the only remaining refuge for modern architects who will bring healthier changes to today’s homogenized landscapes. But he shows visceral distaste to construction marketers who try to sell the idea as a way to boost home values.
When his young architecture students at Wooseong University knock on his office door after a lecture with rehearsed transcendent visions about eco-architecture, he kindly admonishes them, explaining that architecture comes first rather than ecology.
But as an architect who started his career as a critic and a poet, he knows by theory that modernist architecture and the movement that followed ― whether deconstructionist, social realist or post-modernist ― will eventually fail.
“One of the biggest failures of modernism in architecture was that it simplified our way of living by focusing on functionality,” he says. “It worked technically, but people are tired of it. They are more and more trying to move away from theory.”
Mr. Lee, 42, is one of the first Korean architects to bring “sustainable” designs to modern architecture. He uses recycled concrete and salvaged materials in the construction of schools, memorial halls and homes, mainly to reduce landfill waste and save energy by maximizing natural resources. The idea is not new in the West, though only a few countries actively practice it due to the high costs.
But in a country where architecture concepts are governed by real estate values and the lowest estimate of maintenance fees, his works are often considered too radical to fit into mainstream city architecture in Korea.
“We’ve tried a few cases in Seoul,” he says, “but they all failed. Not many landowners in the city are willing to invest more in better living conditions for their tenants.”
The idea of eco-buildings has faced other challenges in Korea, Mr. Lee says, particularly when it comes to persuading his clients about the value of ecological living, because the term “eco-architecture” among Koreans is often perceived as simple, spartan homes. Then there is abuse of the word “ecology” and its first three letters, a buzz word somewhat becoming affiliated with the status of middle class urbanites.
“The word is everywhere,” he says. “People are selling ecology. There are people who used to sell solar panels and now call themselves ‘eco-architects.’”
The misconception about the field has gotten to a point, Mr. Lee says, that people have asked him to design a house that can heal a cancer patient. The patient’s family asked him after his work was featured on a local medical TV show as an alternative to enhance peoples’ well being.
“People spend way too much time over this nonsense,” he says. “They ask me where to place the doors, which is facing what and the ideal site for feng shui. But where your heart feels most comfortable is I think always the finest spot to build your house.”
Though Mr. Lee stopped writing poems in the early 1990s explaining “he had nothing more to say,” the poetic sensibility of his words are carefully immersed in the details of his architecture, which he says he now believes to be a more effective way of changing lives than through words.
And part of ecological living for Mr. Lee is feminizing society.
His ideas of a family’s division of labor are keenly reflected in a house he designed on the outskirts of Seoul.
The kitchen is in the center of the home so families can share the labor. A guest room, which mainly existed in the past to serve guests of a male family member, has been turned into an extra room for a female on the far end of the main floor to oversee the house. Overall, it turns domestic areas of a traditional Korean-style house from a male-dominated space to a female-oriented one.
In most of his designs, he deliberately stretches walkways to focus on “a space in process,” where residents become more aware of their sense of place within a limited space.
“It only takes a few more steps to walk [in my buildings],” he says, “but people think the paths are too long. They are just so used to seeing things in places in a certain order in city buildings.”
While the principles of his design are focused on environmental considerations, there are playful experiments in the details of his space, whether it’s a fence that parodies a traditional stone wall or an interior roof made out of wood similar to the design of a Korean hanok.
At the Institute of Eco-Architecture, an academy Mr. Lee runs for adults, he runs hands-on classes for students to build houses using modular building materials. After six months in the program, the students learn basic techniques to build their own houses. Students include retired railway engineers, police officers, artists and reverends who dream of leading a leisurely lifestyle in the suburban countryside after the class is over. Already, he’s seen some progress among them, most commonly lowered stress levels from a more moderate pace.
“You cannot become an architect without having philosophy,” he says. “The idea really forces you to think how you want to live your life. Part of my job is to teach them how to build a house, but it’s also about how they want to live.”
by Park Soo-mee
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