Going Public

The Seoul Design International Forum 2023 has obtained written consent from the speaker to publish the summarized and edited content

Session 2. The City of Tomorrow: Future city of sentiments established through a new vision of design

Going Public

- Meejin Yoon, DEAN, Cornell University AAP, and Partner, Höweler + Yoon Architecture 

`The title of my presentation today is Going Public. This is an expression that is used in the financial industry. It is mentioned when a private company goes public after having attracted funding from the outside. The responsibility of the company grows when it gets listed. Against this backdrop, I would like to apply this to the city and humanizing city. 

Change in the mindset about the city 

I think of the change in the mindset about the city as ‘defining’. Going public is also related to creating a city for public interest. We learned a lot about social distancing during the pandemic period. We have returned to our normal lives and we are in the process of adapting to the social interactions once again. We are also actively interacting with the city again. Such interactions are always monitored, modeled and are being relayed. Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace. In addition to the socio-economic challenges that are deeply rooted, climate change that could not be seen in the past is having a massive impact on the city. In particular, climate disaster is observed more frequently. Examples being record level heat waves and the rise in sea level and so forth. 

Cities will face even more unprecedented challenges in the future. What should we do as urban planners or designers to create a better world in the future as we face so many challenges? I would like to contribute to the public areas through public space and architectural design. In particular, I am heavily interested in the rules of public spaces. Rules of public institutions often say what is prohibited. I am also very interested in the social norms in the public space. I think the public area is ultimately made by the users in a public manner.  

Following the movements of urban residents

Vito Acconci (an American conceptual artist and architect) deployed a project in the 1960s to carry out public mapping by following the movements of people and keeping a record of images. He followed the journey of people moving in public space. During the process, he mapped social conventions and rules that were invisible to the public and private areas. My initial work is also observing how response technology can be used to vitalize the public areas. Light and sound respond every time a person passes by. 

The project I am introducing now is ‘Swing Time’. There is a big piece of land in Boston where the project is based in. It was almost a desolate land. There was a request to turn this into a space that could attract people. When you get on a swing here, the LED output is adjusted in line with the accelerated heat and the slope. An empty space transformed into a fun space. People used the space in various ways. It could also be misused so City of Boston made a request to create rules like the Kowloon Park in Hong Kong. Our studio made rules for the Kowloon Park. There are even rules that public display of affection is allowed in public places. 


I would like to say that such projects need to be aligned with the region to be successful. Currently, in US, with the reduced number of car lanes on the road, there has been an increased number of pedestrian and bicycle friend roads. At the same time, we contemplate about how to make space to become an area that people want to come to. Phoenix, Arizona made public sun shades. This is a very hot city, so the temperature can become very high. This is a space that absorbs heat and can also be used at night. Since it gets hot even at night, I believe there could be a gradual increase in night activities. 

Next is the method of using public infrastructure. This Filene’s Basement insights located in downtown Boston. There is nothing but the entrance to the metro. This had to be transformed into a public space, and I created a public space that stretched to the top of the metro entrance while building a theater that was double the size of the existing space. The stage can be seen while sitting on the stairs. You might be able to see busking musicians if you pass by here in Boston. Transforming a city is not simply about establishing facilities. We can respond to climate change and provide resilience to the city through this opportunity. In particular, urban forests can act as the lung of the city in the long term. There were many splendid architectures in 2010 Shanghai World Expo, including the UK Pavilion made by the Heatherwick Studio. However, the site of the Expo was not used for nearly 10 years after the architectures were removed. 

So, we turned this site into an urban park. We constructed a bridge so that metro users can easily come to the park. China has ancient history and culture, and thus, there are many of these traditional gardens and bridges. The bridge is acting as the surrounding landscape instead of directly connecting A point and B point. We decided to create a different type of bridge. It is a big plaza in one sense, but an artificial lake can be inserted at the center. An interesting point is that elements of the plaza and bridge can be included through several bridges. In addition, we created spaces that allow people to enjoy the beautiful landscape on this bridge without having to cross it. This bridge also enables people and even ambulances to cross. The project was large in size but was designed while considering human scale. 

Stance taken by the city to counter climate change

I believe the city is at the front line of such climate change. Urbanization is being carried out at a faster pace than ever. 80% of global GDP is being generated in cities, at the same time, 78% of global energy is consumed in cities. Also, 75% of greenhouse gas emission is generated from cities. Therefore, I believe all buildings have to be eco-friendly. In particular, We need to reduce inherent carbon emissions and also reduce greenhouse emissions related to operation. 

The facility I will show next is a glass box. The client requested it to be transparent. A canopy was made in the city to create a shade. We tried to use the dispersed light as much as possible and also tried to lower the heat as much as possible. As a result, we made maximum shade while using the least number of materials. We could also effectively save energy that is consumed in operating the building through this shade. 

I really like trees. Trees can be thought of as a dispersed public infrastructure. Now, I will introduce the research project that was carried out in our lab. We saw public data. These are the data from New York’s Tree Census and New York’s Raster Data. These are all disclosed. We made an interface by integrating this data. So, anyone can obtain information about the trees in their own neighborhood. People can get information about the relationship of the environment in which the trees are planted in and the types of trees. While conducting such an analysis, I realized that trees were not planted in regions that really needed trees while being planted in areas that didn’t really require trees. Thus, this tool was very useful. In particular, message could be conveyed to New York City and the institutions of the New York City that the resource of the city needs to be distributed more fairly through this tool. 

It would be great if we could achieve our target with just trees alone in all cities, but nevertheless, architectures still play a significant role in creating a human-centric city in public areas. I will give you an example of a project that developed space that used to be a parking lot at the center of the region with skyrises and in a space where two-story and three-story buildings were charmingly gathered together in Boston. It was a very attractive piece of land but no one developed anything here. I met many startup developers in this place. The land was small but it was not easy to negotiate with the City of Boston and the residents in the neighborhood. We strived hard to humanize the building through several layers. In addition, we conducted research on the texture of materials that are consumed a lot in the area. 

So, I applied a flute form consisting of several layers to realize a multi-dimensional texture. This way, I thought that I could maintain human scale while establishing a harmony with slightly higher buildings located on the side. Buildings consist of 8 units in each floor. The land is small but I did not want to give up on the sidewalk so I maintained that small land. I thought that the sidewalk would be required to connect to nearby regions. So, I worked with the community to widen the sidewalk on the ground floor and worked on the connections. Consequently, a connection was made with the street across. This played a part in connecting two townhouses. The townhouse was a critical element in creating an atmosphere for the neighborhood, and hence, I maintained the existing mood of the townhouse. 

I actually think that various social institutions can contribute to the urban fabric. For instance, I think that university needs to enhance accessibility while providing benefits to the community. Many US universities actually don’t pay tax, and because of this, many people wonder about how they will return things to the community. MIT is located on 77 Massachusetts Avenue. 95% of the people who come to MIT enter through the front door. Afterwards, MIT decided to invest in the campus square, and built 4 big buildings. However, that led to another concern about a new entrance. So, a new entrance was designed with MIT Museum and the welcome center as the central buildings. MIT has a very open campus. Most of the other universities in the vicinity have fences, but that is not the case for MIT. So, a new connected metro entrance was also constructed. 

We also designed the MIT Museum. There are three floors in the MIT Museum. Gallery is located on the second floor, and we designed the boundary between the front side and the backside to be slightly blurred so that it can be seen from the side. We had to maintain the unique characteristic of a public space, and thus, it had to be visible from the outside. We also allowed the residents of Cambridge to use it. If we go up the stores, there is the exhibition space. There are several exhibition halls on the second floor. If we follow along, the elevation changes and there is another floor. Then, there is another set of stairs, and if we climb up the stairs, it would be the third floor. Various events like book talks are carried out even on the stairs. 

Another building is the Collier Memorial that was built in commemoration to Sean Collier, and MIT Police Officer. It was a shocking incident. So, we took a bit of an emotional approach. I remember having had emotional difficulties and having felt a sense of loss about life because it was the first murder case that happened on the MIT campus. So, we reflected the keyword, ‘we are strong when we stay together’. So, the arches are leaning towards one another. When you go over the arch, 32 blocks are supporting the dome shape in the air. It is in the shape of an ancient bolt. The structure is such that individual blocks gather together to physically support the entire shape. 


Next is the Memorial Hall in University of Virginia of a similar nature. University of Virginia is a university that symbolizes US democracy. University of Virginia was established by Thomas Jefferson, the third President of US and the person who drafted the Declaration of Independence. However, ironically, Thomas Jefferson was a person who enslaved more than 600 men, women and children. Until now, the history of University of Virginia did not mention slaves at all. In 2007, it officially expressed regret for the hidden history for the first time. In 2021, President of the University of Virginia organized a Commission on Slavery at the University. A collaboration was carried out with them for about 6 months. 

This community hoped to expose the space rather than having the symbolic monumental object being at the center. It is a space to learn from the past. According to the estimation of the historians, approximately 4,000 slaves worked in University of Virginia from 1817 to 1865. Most are without names and are only written as ‘unidentified’ even on the record. We created steps by making an open community space, and we left monumental markers on the wall. We dug out some of the stones, as if to be seen like scars, and when it rains, it holds water to look like tear or blood flow. We do not think of this place as the completed monumental space, and we are going to continue to add names when we find new names. More and more people are commemorating these people here. It makes us think about how such violence and racial discrimination is continuing.  


What is required for the public nature of the city 

I believe giving life to the public nature of the city is ultimately about creating a city that is more equal and more justified. I also think that it is about creating a city that is socially and environmentally resilient and flexible, and in particular, I think it is about creating a city that counter various challenges such as climate change. Furthermore, we need to take a deeper look into the public spaces and areas as a part of public infrastructure. Above all, we need to realize that while technology is a very powerful tool in itself, it is not a solution. In addition, I think cities will be humanized if private and public sectors collaborate. Lastly, since we are designing public spaces for the public, I think general citizens must participate in the design process. I believe everyone plays an important role in designing the future. I will conclude my presentation with a quote. 

“We can achieve 100% humanity without destroying the ecosystem and without taking away the rights of others only when we are together through spontaneous cooperation.” 

Thank you.

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