The urban paradigm is shifting globally. Each city is modifying its agenda—from growth to revitalization, and from development to sustainability. As cities suffer under the threats of recession, crisis, collapse, slump, and disputes, people cannot keep pursuing the old urban development strategies based on developmentalism. Urban revitalization has become the alternative for cities that cannot grow any further through development, and cities are seeking ways to devise policies that fit their regional conditions. Seoul, a city that grew at a rapid pace, is no exception. Seoul’s development policy that picked up in the 60s focused on government-led urban development and speculative urbanization. However, now it must find sustainable measures for development in an age of low growth, falling real estate, recession, and disproportion in the construction business. In recent days, Seoul has proposed various policies, organized public debates, and planned architecture-related events, in which the changing urban paradigm could be applied in reality. Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism (SBAU) 2017, which was initiated this year, is the most ambitious of those paradigm-shifting plans. The emergence of architecture biennales that focuses on urbanism is an attempt to deal with development and revitalization, as well as to understand urban issues in an overall network of politics, economy, society, and environment, and ultimately to present alternative measures to those issues.
While the concept and existence of architecture biennales may be somewhat unfamiliar to some people in the cultural industries, they actually launched simultaneously with the art biennale. They began with the Venice Biennale of Architecture in the 1980s. While art biennales had a centralizing effect in art and spread out to every corner of the world, architecture biennales were limited to the exhibitions of star architects and discourse on the exhibitions. However, the climate changed in the architecture world in the 2000s, when the growth of the global economy started to slow down. Ironically, when architecture was faced with a crisis due to economic recession, architects began to actively engage in urban issues. It was after two decades that a series of architecture biennales (and triennales) began to take place, marking their beginning in Oslo in 2000, followed by Rotterdam in 2003, London in 2004, Shenzen (later joined by Hong Kong) in 2005, Tallinn in 2011, and Vienna and Chicago in 2015. Seoul also joined this trend in 2017. This meant that a new architecture biennale has cropped up basically every two years. The Oslo event is in fact a triennale, whose primary subject is the vision of Northern European cities. The International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR) is based on the architecture studios of an individual city, in which the social involvement of architects is the subject of research. London Festival of Architecture serves as a channel of communication with citizens, mediated through the issues of city and urbanism. While art exhibitions held in conjunction with biennales are performed as an act of cultural revitalization in peripheral cities like Venice, Kassel, Münster, Gwangju, Lyon, and Yokohama, architecture biennales are based in cities that have already grown into major global metropolises such as London, Seoul, Rotterdam, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Chicago, and Vienna.
Among a dozen latecomers to the architecture biennales, the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (UABB), which takes place in Shenzen and Hong Kong, is the first of the architecture biennales that put “Urbanism/Architecture” in the title. This was a conscious choice by the organizers to include the architectural context of emerging cities and increase their cultural values through the theme of “urbanism.” On the other hand, Seoul, as an old city with a 600-year history, seeks to find a sustainable method that can incorporate revitalization by re-examining the previous urban growth model. Each city clearly has different methods of approach, but the distinction between “architecture” and “urban architecture” is becoming more blurred in recent years. Since 2010, the international architecture biennales have been expanding their themes to urbanism, urbanization, and urban issues. This trend was triggered by the Venice Biennale in 2016. Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena’s exhibition titled Reporting from the Front, which was designed to promote the role of architects in society, was like a proclamation of war. Along with this, the influence of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR), which has pioneered in presenting the discourses of architectural culture in the last decade or so, has been quite substantial. It has presented analyses on urban space, environment, and planning in relation to politics, society, and economy, through which the role of architecture in reality and society was constantly proposed. Last year, IABR explored the possibilities of cities coexisting with the environment under the theme of “Next Economy” and addressed the issues of alternative economy by touching upon the topic of alternative energy, one that must be improved on a global level. An endeavor of the IABR, Project Atelier Rotterdam: The Productive City has focused on exploring the next regional manufacturing economy based on analyses of local industry, the atrophy of the manufacturing economy, small-scale business districts, street vendors, and voluntary community. The issue of self-productivity in the local economy, which was emphasized in SBAU 2017, has been an ongoing theme in Rotterdam. As such, we can find the “Seoul version” of answers responding to the relevant topics treated in contemporary architecture biennales in different aspects and parts of SBAU 2017.
In these trends of global architecture biennales, what SBAU promoted as its theme was the “Imminent Commons.” Primarily having taken place in venues like Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), Donuimun Museum Village, and SewoonSangga, the discussions and exhibitions on global urban issues, food and environmental crises, and proposals for alternative production were held in areas around Dongdaemun such as Changsin-dong and the Euljiro-Sewoon Sangga area. By differentiating the locations, SBAU naturally brought about an introspection on the urban context. The Cities Exhibition held at DDP presented contemporary issues, policy directions, and public projects of 50 different cities; however, for certain cities, they showed the limitations of being reduced to a simplistic promotional exhibit. The way of assigning individual booths to each city gave an impression of emphasizing the individuality of a city rather than the relationship between the cities, which left something to be desired. In Production City, which was arranged to reflect on an alternative manufacturing industry, the cultural values inherent to Sewoon Electron Plaza were first analyzed, upon which potential collaboration with architects and its industrial possibilities were discussed. Urban Foodshed, held in Donuimun Museum Village, exhibited a number of projects presenting alternative approaches on global issues from the perspective of architecture, such as the environment, food, climate, and so forth. However, the manner in which this location was selected and represented is somewhat regrettable. What the organizers of SBAU seem to emphasize through this village is the sustainability of traditional housing and villages, but, in fact, the neatly renovated traditional Korean houses in the village gave too much of an artificial vibe. If the objective was to revitalize and revive the traditional villages, old, neglected villages surviving in different parts of Seoul should not have been overlooked. The question to be addressed is this: What would happen if architecture intervened in the old downtown areas disappearing with the redevelopment of Seoul, or in run-down villages? China’s hutong, narrow streets that fill the old quarter of Dashilar, a local community maintained and preserved by Beijing Design Week, would be a case in point.
As SBAU 2017 is a space to seek the ways in which architects can engage in social practice, diverse projects of SBAU conducted research based on statistics, mapping, and big data which analyzed the urban issues. When we look at the data and materials related to various cities and social issues, today’s biennales begin to look very similar to the international news columns or society columns in newspapers. This is true not only for the architecture biennales, but also for the art biennales. One of the rising concerns in this regard is that the architects’ opinions addressing their criticism of a vast number of urban, social, and environmental issues in the exhibitions get somewhat ambiguous. Many pieces in the exhibits do pose questions, but take a rather passive stance in raising a critical voice. It was difficult to find critical movements or reflective introspection on society or the architecture world from the exhibitions in SBAU, which were triggered by the crisis in architecture. There are Korean architects who have analyzed the conditions that put our city in crisis and fiercely struggled to improve the situations, such as the environmental problems deriving from construction waste, ruthless occupation of large developers and the crises of small architecture firms, urban occupation of capital, and increasing concerns for redevelopment. The biennale, however, failed to reflect these struggles. There is a lack of criticism and introspection about Seoul as the Commons to address the issues about certain parts or aspects of Seoul that are not commonly shared, as a prerequisite to discuss the topic of Imminent Commons. Inequality, sustainability, instability, segregation, traffic, pollution, waste, migration, natural disasters, informality, peripheries, and housing shortage—in lieu of listing these issues just by narration, statistics, and data, wouldn’t it be better to reinforce discussions about what is being practiced in real life and what efforts are made in architecture?
This is an age flooded with architecture exhibitions without architecture and art exhibitions without art. In the sea of innumerable discourses, I would hope for the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism to take a more practical direction. It is my hope that the architects would organize public debates about architectural practice through their participation in reality, pose questions about urban issues rooted in daily lives, and proceed to excavate from the architectural culture the alienated areas of Seoul which are deemed and abandoned as worthless. Now that the topic of Imminent Commons has been brought up, discussions should be continued as to how this could be put into practice.
※ This article was originally published in MisulSegye magazine (November 2017) and reprinted under authority of a MOU between KAMS and MisulSegye.
Somi Sim is an independent curator, art critic and researcher based in Seoul and Paris. Her curatorial practice explores across the interdisciplinary fields of contemporary art and urbanism with focus on urban interventions. Her major exhibitions include: REAL-Real City (Arko Art Center, Seoul, 2019), Ring Ring Belt (Donuimun Open Creative Village, Seoul, 2018), Micro City Lab (Various urban interventions, Seoul, 2016). She served as the artistic director of 2018 Gyeonggido Public Arts Project: Ring Ring Belt by Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation and received the 11th Lee Dong Seok Prize for Curatorial Practice in 2018. She is an editorial board member of journal of cultural theories, ‘Culture/Science.’