The Dark Side of Architecture

Kyong Park is an obscure legend in the world of experimental architecture whose work, until now, had mostly circulated in the form of rumor. Born in a small town in southeast Korea, raised in a suburb of Flint, Michigan, and a brief resident of Detroit after graduating from the University of Michigan, Park moved to New York City and founded the Storefront for Art and Architecture in 1982. Alternative spaces for art were just emerging from abandoned buildings in the East Village, and within a few years Lebbeus Woods and Elizabeth Diller among others had adopted Storefront as a place to confront international design and politics through architectural exhibitions.

Since leaving Storefront in 1998, Park has set off on a series of nomadic investigations, founding the International Center for Urban Ecology in Detroit, cocurating the Detroit section of the “Shrinking Cities” project in Berlin (2002-4), and more recently researching cities undergoing transition in the Balkans. His first book, Urban Ecology: Detroit and Beyond (Map Book Publishers, 2005), assembles a collection of essays by Park and his collaborators about this work. Metropolis associate editor Stephen Zacks talked with Park about his reasons for leaving New York, the goals of his urban research, the search for new beginnings in the remnants of destroyed buildings, and his dubious neutrality about terrorism.

Why did you leave Storefront?
Three exhibitions at Storefront really influenced me to leave: first, one from Sarajevo called Warchitecture, about “urbicide” during the Balkan war—the destruction of the city’s history and culture through that of the buildings that embody them. Then Basilico Beirut, photographs of the city’s downtown one year after the Lebanese civil war ended but before the buildings were demolished for redevelopment. And The New American Ghetto, by Camilo Jose Vergara. They showed me that architecture was not just about construction: it also has a dark side that is about destruction. It was in this destruction that I saw the humanity of architecture and the reality of what architecture is.

Couldn’t you explore that at Storefront?
Storefront was in large part about construction and the illusion of optimism. We got a lot of respect for showing emerging designers and artists who later became very prominent internationally—the high end of design and aesthetics. But these other exhibitions showed me that what I was doing at Storefront was about buildings. What I do now is about architecture as a much broader, more powerful discipline. Architecture is the best historical document; it’s the best cinema ever made, in which I could read and project the process of humanity through the urban landscape. This was much more exciting than figuring out who was the best designer. Of course I appreciate great designers; we need and certainly have them, and we will always have them. That’s not a problem. But in each successive period can we have a better society? I’m not sure. And I can measure this from architecture and the urban landscape.

When you went back to Detroit, did you have a mission?
Yeah, I had a mission. It was partly reactionary in relation to the endless gentrification of New York, which after 9/11 seems to be even bigger than before. That disturbed me, and I realized that even Storefront—a self-generated “experimental” space—could not be experimental in a larger context where alternative places were just being folded into the city to create a lifestyle. New York has a great ability to turn everything into a market. With the homogenization of alternatives, there is no alternative anymore.

But the Balkans, for instance, continue to exist as nonaligned territories. These unclaimed territories are like all of the empty buildings in Berlin which remind people of New York ten or 20 years ago. Berlin is in the process of unofficial self-creation because what was officially planned collapsed: the city is nearly 60 billion euros in debt. Totalitarian central planning according to the Western capitalist model failed, and people started to think, “I’m glad that it didn’t work because now I have an opportunity to make Berlin into a city of my own.” Each generation should be able to build its own city, and I’m not sure that New York can do that. I don’t think it has unclaimed peripheral or open spaces where the time period and generation can be redefined. I moved to Detroit because the center no longer gave me the possibility of making new work—it was not reinventing itself. This is a market; it’s not a place to create things.

What did you find in Detroit and Berlin?
I started to look for cities where you could make new things, where you could contribute more meaningfully to society and the public rather than to clients and corporations and collectors. In Detroit I lived in a ghetto where about 20 percent of the built structures remained, half of them empty or burnt. It looked like countryside. It’s a perfect scenario in which the balance between the state and the citizens is reconfigured, where the state begins to malfunction and the citizens start to pick up where it left off snow and garbage removal, the school system, medical services.

More and more in places like Detroit, East Germany, and the Balkans people had to manage by themselves because things were collapsing. There’s a self-invention, a self-generation, happening; they’re not doing things in the way they were done before because before they were done by the state and that failed. I think the next invention is happening in peripheral areas, and that’s why I’ve been working in these areas since I left New York. I’m going farther and farther out into peripheral areas, physically removing myself from the center to find my real values.

In a way Urban Ecology: Detroit and Beyond is a dystopian book. Toward the end there’s a disturbing implication that the terrorist attacks in New York have something in common with your criticisms of the United States. How do you reconcile this with the fact that the values advanced by Islamic fundamentalism are presumably quite different from your own?
In my opinion architecture is the new effigy. It’s not enough to burn a cloth-and-paper sculpture of a political figure at a demonstration. The game of the opposition has stepped up in its physicality. Architecture is part of this now. Architecture and urbanism are the clearest instruments through which the borders of a territory are being defined. In the 1980s architecture was seen as a very optimistic entity. Buildings and developments like Battery Park City, the AT&T building, Canary Wharf, and La Defénse were shown in the media. Now we see blown-up buildings, collapsed buildings, and buildings on fire. This is the new architectural movement, and it’s not being done by architects.

Let’s take 9/11, for example. If I’d had the opportunity I would have proposed to go into the siteafter its immediate destruction—before anything was touched or removed—to look for signs of life that didn’t exist there before. From that destruction a new kind of existence emerged. It may still live there, this thing. That’s why I’m interested in Detroit; shrinking cities in East Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom; and the new wild cities of the Balkans. I see the genesis of new ideas coming from there that are more appropriate to the present than a continuation of the past that prevents us from entering into a new era.

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