Instead of entering a red ocean with countless competitors, developing a new market through differentiation and diving into a blue ocean is the most effective strategy in modern society. However, the blue ocean is not always full of bright futures as its name might suggest. Entering a forest where none have gone before asks for the courage to fight a dense jungle that will claw and scratch you at every opportunity. Amidst skyscrapers dominated by concrete and steel, earth is romance and memories. That is why many shake their heads when hearing about the dreams of Alumni Shin Keunshik ('96) and Lee Kyubong ('97), who build houses from earth at the Earth Architecture Research Center known as Architerre. However, these young architects have already established sound foundations of earth in their own blue ocean.
Building Structures Out of Earth that are as Strong as those Made of Cement
In the 2000 Gwangju Biennale, an 80m long earthen wall was erected by the name of Forest of Men and Paintings in the special exhibition center. With slate roofs and concrete walls reaching even the remote corners of rural villages ever since the Saemaeul Movement, the wall made of earth alone recreated the fond and fading memories of every passer-by's grandparents' house of their childhood. Alumni Shin Keunshik ('96) and Lee Kyubong ('97), who led the creation of this earthen wall say "earth can be used to build buildings just as strong as cement buildings" and opened Architerre (www.architerre.org), whose name combines the words for architecture and earth (terra in French), to pioneer earth architecture in Korea.
"A third of the world's population live in houses made of earth," says Shin. Of course underdeveloped nations such as Africa have over 80% of their population living in earth houses. Korea, which has gone through rapid economic growth, finds earth to be a symbol of poverty and the past. However, in France, Germany and other European nations, it's already been 30 years since they have looked at earth with a different perspective. Thinking about replacing fossil fuels, they have become concerned about using cement and other construction materials that cannot be created without the use of fossil fuels. Earth architecture, which is now catching on in Europe and South America, is a movement of self reflection by a highly industrialized society."
As research has shown that cement and other construction materials have toxic contents, earth architecture is drawing attention as being both healthy and environmentally friendly. Also, the residence in Gimhae the two are working on is to be the residence for president Roh Moohyun after his tenure, drawing additional interest in earth architecture. Although popular interest is growing every day, they both say that "as it is in the beginning stages, there are many obstacles."
"Buildings larger than 100 square meters need permission from the offices but earth is not even registered as a structure, while cement, steel, wood and other materials are. There are no institutions that evaluate the strength of earth either. In addition, although there is a need by the public, it is difficult to speak with the scholars. Architecture can not be done alone. In order to create an infrastructure for professionals or standardized earth, we desperately need the help of scholars. However, if we say 'earth is sufficiently strong' they ask if it is 'stronger than concrete.' It should be enough that it is strong enough for construction, why does it have to be stronger than concrete? Even old homes are not entirely built of earth. Foundations are laid in stone and pillars are made of wood. However, since everything is covered with concrete, houses attack people. We're talking about using appropriate material. Use strong concrete for the foundations, steel skeletons for the pillars, and earth for the floors as earth is better suited. We need to change the concept."
Potential of Earth Architecture Realized in France
Architerre not only plans and builds earth architecture, but also researches new construction methods, materials, and even organizes educational and promotional activities to spread earth architecture. This is because earth needs to be as common and useful as cement or steel in the construction field in order for earth architecture to take root. Thus the two alumni play the role of cultural missionaries trying to popularize earth architecture. The activity of the two was greatly influenced by director Jeong Kiyong of Kiyong Construction who is famous for his buildings that seek the benefit of the public. Having worked with director Jeong at different stages of their career, they have met earth architecture through Kiyong Construction and the earthen wall at Gwangju Biennale was also planned by Kiyong Construction.
Shin admits, "With graduation approaching, I really didn't know what to do. Then I attended a lecture on earth architecture by Director Jeong. I was just there to get to see him as he was so famous (laugh). Afterwards, he needed workers for the stage of dancer Hong Shinja, so I led other students to work. I ended up going to the office, and somehow I was on the payroll (laugh). Afterwards, when I decided to go to France to study, the director told me to 'decide what you want to study first'. That's how I began studying about earth. I wasn't certain about earth then. But after studying at the Kraterh Research Center in France, I realized that the potential for modern earth construction was boundless."
Lee explains, "I graduated a year after Shin. I was also not sure of what to do, but he called me on Christmas Eve. He needed to build a model, but it looked like he was going to spend all of Christmas and New Year's to complete it. That's how I got hooked up with Kiyong Construction. But after a month or so working together, he left for France. I filled his place (laugh). In 1999, I went backpacking to France. I was curious to see what my friend was doing. I saw the potential of earth being high tech, working with friends from all over the world. I found modern earth architecture in packed wall made of repeated pouring and packing of earth into molds, earth bricks made of non-baked mud, and others."
Realizing the possibilities of earth architecture, alumni Lee decided his graduation paper topic for the university he was attending would be earth. However, he kept getting rejected with 'too early' as the verdict. Thus they have decided to try earth architecture through Kiyong Construction. In 1999, they began by building a house named Gooinheon in Youngwol, then built homes in Dooncheol Village, Sancheong, and the dormitory for 'Ghandi School' in Jeochon out of earth. They divided roles, with alumni Shin serving as the CEO of Architerre, doing technology research and advising, while alumni Lee served as the director in charge of planning and supervision.
Overnight Debates and Dilemmas in Ansan Became the Power of a New Perspective
Thanks to director Jeong who took the burden of being the first over 10 years before the two alumni, they say they were able to "start of with less of a burden." However, it is their ability to "see normal, taken for granted things differently" that allowed them to develop their own field. Also, they say that the heated debates during the time when ships used to harbor in the seas beyond the College of Design, and when trains went past the campus once a day serves as fertile soil for today.
Lee reflects, "I think of the 90s as the time when architecture started to reflect on its bureaucracy. The books I've studied lived through these rough times longer than I did (laugh). We changed the texts that were behind the times. We learned a lot from upperclassmen while participating in Art Space (a planning club). We began to take interest in construction."
"During our freshman and sophomore years, we partied until we could party no more. But we still got A's on planning since we liked it. I wasn't the only one like that when planning didn't go as well as we had hoped. One of us would say 'Let's go!' and others would follow with liquor and leave. Then we would engage in endless debates and our ideas would become more concrete. Architecture must take into account social and cultural trends as well as the technical side. Thus it is important to experience many things and mull over things together in depth. But nowadays, we hear that people throw TOEIC books at you if you worry too much (laugh)," says Shin.
The two felt disappointed that today's students "try to find answers without effort." Thinking that knowledge inside hard disks is their own, the students are not used to logical thinking. Alumni Shin tells students every time he lectures not to "use Naver web searches that give answers after just a few keystrokes." Not only is it often inaccurate, but contains only limited information.
Lee adds, "There is Google and Yahoo as well. Look at foreign sites. If you limit yourself to Korean sites, everything's pretty much the same. People who are going to work in the knowledge industry should see much and experience much. When looking at social events, try to judge the Zeitgeist as well. Painting a big picture is courage, and that is the soil for new ideas."
Will Establish a Research Center that will Lay the Foundation for Earth Architecture
The two at Architerre wish to popularize earth architecture and practice architecture that will increase the quality of life. Thus they are trying to make earth architecture part of everyday life. However, they are a bit frustrated. For them, the accent in earth architecture is not earth but architecture. The obstacles they face now are just the beginning. Countless steps wait to be taken one at a time, but they are not in a hurry. They plan on establishing a research center that will become the center of material development and building method research for the popularization of earth architecture in the long term. In order to see the blue ocean nobody has seen, they must build the foundation for a road that will slowly inch toward their goal.
"France started earth architecture 30 years ago. Those that started when they were younger than I am are still on the field with silver gray hair. The earth architecture project that began in 1996 in Africa is planned through 2008 as well. Now it is our turn to succeed, and for us to try and pass it onto others, we need feedback. If there are loose ends, it will crumble at once. We must do it even if it takes a century. Eventually, it'll come through," says Shin optimistically.
Alumni Shin graduated from HYU College of Architectural Engineering in 1996. Afterwards he earned a degree in Earth Architecture in France, 2000, and worked as a researcher at the Grenoble Earth Architecture Research Center. Active both domestically and in France and Belgium, showcasing an earth wall titled Forest of Men and Paintings in the 2000 Gwangju Biennale, he returned to Korea in 2004 and served as a professor for the Green Color College Ecological Architecture Department, teaching earth architecture. In 2005, he founded Architerre, a dedicated consulting firm on earth architecture and serves as its CEO. Alumni Lee graduated from HYU College of Architectural Engineering in 1997. After graduation he worked at the Kiyong Construction Company and participated in numerous earth architectural projects at Kiyong Construction after earning a degree at the Seoul Architectural School in 1999. As a partner of Architerre in 2005, he planned and supervised the Sancheong Dooncheoltodang and Pohang Inbitodang, and as a director of Architerre, he participated in Gimhae residence earth construction consulting this year.