The Apartment: Mirage of the Middle Class

Once the dream of the middle class, apartment ownership now symbolizes success and the beginnings of a consumer-oriented society. But behind the rows of identical exteriors and predictable interiors lie the shadows of monochromatic architecture and modernity. As the new millennium progresses and economic uncertainty prevails, so begins the dawn of the post-apartment era.


Military Style Construction

The myth of the growing middle class was one of the key factors that sustained Korean society during the latter half of the 20th century. The family photo with four brightly smiling faces with the backdrop of a decent job, a thousand square foot apartment, and a mid-size sedan was a picture-perfect representation of the reality of the material affluence created by rapid economic growth. However, at the end of the last century, with the onset of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, cracks started appearing in this image of perfection. On the surface, it did not seem like the crisis would last. A variety of emergency policy measures were issued by the government, and the middle and the lower classes were ready to march on to overcome the national crisis. Subsequently, the real estate market started trending upwards, and it seemed that the middle class myth was restored to its former self.

However, all became clear when the 2008 global financial crisis, originating in the U.S., hit the world. A significant number of the middle class was carrying on as if everything was normal up until that point. At the sudden news from across the Pacific, they started staggering as if they had been dealt a fatal blow. As a result, the internal differentiation of the middle class rapidly commenced, and the apartment, once the defining symbol of the middle class, was demoted to becoming a mere nuisance.

Why did this happen?

First, let us turn our eyes towards the Gangnam area of the mid to late 1970s when a concentration of massive apartment complexes was constructed. A gaze from afar in a helicopter looking over a construction site would be perfect. Looking at these Gangnam apartments of the period from such a bird's-eye view, it is difficult not to see its resemblance to a massive military base. Of course, this sentiment is not new.

The observation that the overarching view of apartment complexes resembled military bases was valid because they were both constructed in a similar fashion. Both shared characteristics that were apparent in the construction process; in the 70s and 80s, during the military regime, the construction of much of these large complexes was conducted as if they were military operations. Within this context, apartment units were approached as standardized blueprints in terms of square footage, construction materials, the complex layout, and their construction schedules. The occupants were just statistics.

If apartments, indeed, were built in a manner comparable to a military operation, what would be the ultimate goal of maintaining such a militant perspective from conception to completion? Could it have been the development of a particular housing model that could then be duplicated on a massive scale in new sections of Seoul and its satellite cities as the economy grew? Could it, moreover, have been the development of a new order in the daily life of the occupants of that model?

One of the phrases that the military regime used frequently during the industrialization period, which led to the construction of these apartments, was "human reform." Contrary to popular belief, the object of this reform was not limited to industrial workers and agricultural producers. Of course, an industrial worker was subjected to realizing the most optimized consumption of physical energy by fusing himself to the machines of the assembly line; an agricultural producer was to be reborn as the pillar of the New Community Movement by equipping himself with an earnest, diligent spirit. However, the middle class that emerged along with the nation’s economic growth, was also a subject of reform. The apartment was where this middle class was reformed into city dwellers with contemporary sensibilities, as if conducting experiments on the new order. As is well-known, this experiment took place through the building of apartment complexes in Gangnam for more than a decade, stretching from the mid-1970s to the late 80s.

Korea Land & Housing Corporation apartment complex under construction, 1976 (National Archives of Korea)

Inside the Frame

Now, let us open the front door and take a peek inside the apartment itself. The living room plays a central role in the resident's acquisition of a contemporary sensibility by allowing the experience of a new day-to-day. The living room positions itself as the space where the lives of family members (who have their own rooms) intersect, and as a space where emotional bonds are formed. In the midst of this process, the living room emerged as the central axis of the interior space. Literary critic Kim Hyeon says the following about the interior space of the 1,000 square feet apartment he lived in during the early 80s:

"In an apartment, an object loses its volume and becomes like a picture that exists as lines on a plane. Everything is laid out on a plane. So, everything falls within sight at a glance. In an apartment, all people as well as objects have no place to hide themselves. Everything is out in the open. However that openness is only superficial; it is not of depth."

According to Kim Hyeon, objects cannot find any place suitable for hiding themselves in the interior space of an apartment. They cannot help but be exposed since there is nowhere to hide. Therefore, a gaze exercises omnipotence, and the space where that power is expressed at its maximum is the living room. The objects in the living room are disarmed meekly, without resistance, by the gaze of the person walking in through the front door, and play the part of a picture that exists as lines on a plane.

What plays an important role here is the window that is open to the balcony, which takes up an entire wall of the living room. This window, instead of displaying a view, is devoted to fulfilling the functions of lighting and ventilation. Of course, it is not difficult to look outside standing at the edge of the balcony while leaning on the railing. However, it is of no use. The surrounding view is far from an open scene; rather, the view is completely blocked off. Other apartment buildings surround it on all sides. Instead, the balcony window becomes a cause of concern for the resident. It is the perfect passage for the anonymous gaze to peek in, in secrecy, from the building on the other side. Tall fences were commonly raised around single family houses. In contrast, in apartments, the role of the fence was relegated to curtains on the balcony window.

The interior space of this cube is sealed air-tight so as to block out the outside gaze. The right to look into this space is given only to those who have rung the bell and entered through the front door. Upon entering, one’s gaze automatically falls on the balcony window in the living room. At this moment, the balcony window functions as a kind of a reference plane that renders the living room in a single glance. Straight lines project out from the four vertices of the reference plane and travel along the edges of the inside corners, partitioning the visual field according to the rules gov...