Finding Authenticity in Fake: The Immigrant Experience

Essay in Anthology “Real and Fake in Architecture”

Architectural historian and Associate Professor at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, Anne-Catrin Schultz, compiled and edited an anthology published by Edition Axel Menges in 2020. I am excited to have contributed an essay to Real and Fake in Architecture: Close to the Original, Far from Authenticity?

“The diverse contributions shed light on unexpected identities in architecture – inviting critical thought about our built environment – analog and digital. The goal of this publication goes beyond unmasking deception in architecture, it aims at unfolding timelines and revealing the layered nature of people and places. The images and essays reveal our contemporary condition and let collective and individual narratives unfold, a range of truths in themselves. Expanding from the discussion about truthful materiality and tectonics, this book provides an understanding of real, authentic, and fake in urbanism and architecture.”

The effort began in 2017 as the word “fake” began to be used in phrases like “fake news.” Around this time, I began questioning my immigrant status in this country. I became a US citizen a few years after 9/11 when my first kid was an infant. I didn’t really question whether or not I should give up my Korean citizenship to become a US citizen. It seemed like a good idea to be a citizen of the same country as my young family. I had been living in the US for about 15 years by then – on the West Coast and in New York City.

After twelve years of citizenship, and 27 years since arriving, I felt the need to defend my presence in this country. Beyond the taxes I pay, what contributions did I, and other immigrants like me, make? Specifically for architecture, what design insights could immigrants bring?

The ruminations led to the following observations which were included in the anthology:

Immigrants reinvent themselves by critically evaluating group and individual traits. The process of acculturation, the individual experience of assimilation, becomes an important factor in reshaping the immigrant identity.

Labels given to immigrants represent static traits and cannot adequately describe their evolving identity in the current flux of contemporary society. Identity defined only by inherited traits ignores the transformative power, to activate the social fabric, of individual deliberations to accept or reject values. Identity is found not just in fixed inherited traits but rather in self-actualizations. This approach can move us away from the current trend of using identity as an exclusionary tool.

The deeply personal narrative of acculturation can suggest different ways to inhabit and conceive of mundane and banal spaces. More compelling than the physical attributes of the built environment is the transformative power of the evidence of human presence. Cheap and abundant urban spaces described as unified space by Debord or Junkspace by Koolhaas seem dreary and bleak. However, in dense urban conditions, left without a better alternative, immigrants tend to co-opt and humanize banal spaces. This phenomenon can be better accommodated by boundaries that are spatialized and programmed to lead to new, more nuanced, program relationships and even reinterpretations of building typologies.

Arendt’s criteria for identity, that the generation of remembrance and shared history is central, can be used to inflect program relationships and spatial configurations. Expanded notions of boundaries can provide the physical space for the unscripted, not-yet-defined program relationships and human activities. The new boundary conditions can be designed to have the appropriate balance between protection and openness, creating a new kind of a “storefront” that is activated by the emotionally invested activities within resulting in a different urban texture.

Constructing and grappling with identity is a human condition. The inclusive approach to constructing an identity can offer rich program relationships and new spatial experiences if it is prioritized over the reductive profiling of user groups during the design process.

See student explorations of themes outlined in the essay