Season 2:

Episode 47

April 13, 2022

#47: Suburbanism | Kenneth Namkung of Monument Office

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Today, I’m joined by Associate, Senior Project Architect, and Designer with NBBJ, Kenneth Namkung. When he’s not working in the NBBJ Healthcare+ Studio, he’s running Monument Office, his research and design firm. I invited Kenneth on to discuss Suburbanism, a concept design proposal for a civic installation in the Herald Square area of Manhattan.

Kenneth details the inspiration behind Suburbanism and how he came up with the design. He wanted to highlight the transition that many New Yorkers make: growing up in the land of shopping malls and cul-de-sacs, and then moving to the big city for their post-grad career. Kenneth says that he felt inspired by that energy and sought to define the areas around the installation in order to emphasize what was not there anymore. He walks listeners through the installation and explains the research and design process that went into it.

We discuss the history of the American suburb and the design language that is commonly associated with it. We get into some of the factors that resulted in the creation of the American suburb, such as the post-WWII endeavor to define the American lifestyle and differentiate it from immigrants living in cities, the growth of commuter rail roads, and redlining. I also ask Kenneth how he thinks towns outside of New York City have benefitted from the exodus due to the pandemic, and what those changes could look like long term.

About Kenneth Namkung

Kenneth Namkung is the founder and designer at Monument Office, a research and design firm based in Brooklyn, New York. He specializes in the interplay between architecture, public space and memory. He is also an Associate, Senior Project Architect, and Designer with NBBJ in the Healthcare+ Studio.

[00:00:00] What goes into making an iconic building in America? What are the stories and who are the people behind the next generation of architecture? If your work touches the real estate industry in any way, or you’re just curious about what goes into one of a kind cities and towns all across our country, join us on the American Building Podcast.

In season two, we learned about everything from skyscrapers to single-family homes from the famous and soon-to-be-famous designers and developers responsible. This season focuses particularly on the pandemic and how our buildings will change in response. Our sponsor is the iconic design firm, Michael Graves Architecture and Design. And now, your host award-winning architect-turned-entrepreneur, Atif Qadir, AIA.

[00:01:09] Atif Qadir: This is American Building, and I’m your host, Atif Qadir. I’m the CEO of REDIST, a technology company focused on innovative public financing for real estate projects. We are recording from the historic home of world renowned architect, Michael Graves, in Princeton, New Jersey. Check out this amazing space for yourself at the Michael Graves Architecture and Design YouTube channel. Now, let’s build something. Today. Our guest is architect, Kenneth. Ken is the founder and designer at monument office, a research and design firm based in Brooklyn, New York, with this, for, with his work, he focuses on the interplay between architecture, public space and memory. He recently started as a senior project designer at NBBJ design.

Previously. He worked at studio Lincoln. And you’d architects and Santiago Calatrava. He began his career at refuge Vanilli architects, where we crossed over for a few short weeks when I was a winter break and turn there, he is a graduate of the school of architecture at MIT and of the university of Virginia.

Today, we’ll be talking about suburban ism and installation. He designed for Harold square in Manheim. More broadly, we will talk about the history of the American suburb and what it might look like as we continue in this COVID slash post COVID world that we’re in. Thank you so much for being here with us, Kevin.

[00:02:45] Kenneth Namkung: Thank you. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here. It’s really an honor to participate. So again, thank you.

[00:02:51] Atif Qadir: Absolutely. So let’s start off from, from, from the beginning. So you began your architecture education in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon, and then moved to Charlottesville at UVA. Tell us about the experience of living in these two great American cities and studying in these two different schools.

[00:03:09] Kenneth Namkung: Oh, wow. It’s really interesting. So I grew up in Southeast Virginia. I’m in a town called Yorktown. And really what ends up happening is that as you move to these cities, free education is especially when you starting architecture. Um, the cities that you occupy as part of this education really becomes part of the educational experience itself.

So going from the suburbs to a city like Pittsburgh, which, you know, it was a beautiful, vibrant metropolis, it was. You know, you’re thinking about architecture. You think about how buildings are made. You think about seating, how cities are made, and you’re in, you know, one of, really one of the great American cities that has this story, uh, past, you know, this industrial center, that’s moving into technology center and you’re literally seeing a city transform before your eyes.

I haven’t been back in many years. I am honestly. Really, really overdue for a trip, but I would love to see how it’s transformed since in the last 20 years. And another thing that was really wonderful about Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon itself was that, you know, because Carnegie Mellon being what it is, it’s, it’s, you know, it’s a world renowned school of architecture is a world renowned school of drama.

Design arts on top of all the architecture as well. So when you’re just, you know, an immigrant kid coming from the suburbs, it’s an absolutely eyeopening experience. Now my climate thing, university of Virginia was also absolutely fantastic as well. It was, um, you know, at the time, um, in it’s remains obviously a very, um, a world renowned school for architecture obviously founded by Thomas Jefferson.

And what was really interesting is that. You know, the history of Charlottesville is in many ways, it’s sort of, um, a lot of the history of Charlottesville. It’s a lot of things that happen there are really kind of foundational to America. So, you know, the, the university was built effectively as sort of this sort of enlightened kind of enclave where the idea was this gentlemen kind of farmer academic.

Yeah. And the idea was to be able to sort of, you know, learn and think and grow in a space removed from sort of the hustle and bustle of the city commons. Jefferson, you know, him, he himself was educated at the college of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, which at the time was a, a major port city.

So what’s happening is that the students are intermixing with the sailors and like, All, all of the sort of unsavory activity that goes on in these port towns. So literally, you know, the notion of the college campus is, is coming from, from that experience. And in many ways, what was really wonderful about Charlottesville was that it was a really wonderful and kind of congeal environment in which to really think about architecture, to hone your craft and to sort of understand, you know, um, history, landscape and all of these things, um, as sort of integral to.

To design architecture and urbanism.

[00:05:59] Atif Qadir: I think that a, so for our listeners, they’re probably familiar with the fact that last year I decided to work from home in places all across the country. So I had an opportunity to live in several dozen cities over the course of the 12 months. And two of those were.

And Charlottesville. And I think what I would say a remark about those two is that both are epically, epically, beautiful cities. I think in terms of Pittsburgh, the fact that you have a city built in and around the interplay of multiple rivers together and that physical environment that it’s set in. And I think with Charlottesville, Particularly how distinctly beautiful, not only the university, but the surrounding area is I think once you’re able to go beyond like the tourist aspects of both cities and actually spend time there, I think it becomes clear that.

As to what the foundations of those two cities are. And I think with the case of Pittsburgh, it’s the obliteration of the native American people that lived in are around there for a wholesale growth for European settlers and industrialization. And I think, uh, particularly I think what stands out with Charlottesville.

I can’t pull apart the fact how epically beautiful of a place that is, and the fact that it was built on the backs of slave labor. And for many of the gentleman that you are talking to, we’re referring to as the, the early students at UVA, they kept slaves while they were, uh, university students. And the long sorted brutal history of slavery on that campus is something that.

I mean, I just don’t know how to pull those two apart, but to particularly, I think it’s very apt in what you described. Those are two very iconic American cities. And I think that experience is the one of almost every place in America to one to one aspect.

[00:07:55] Kenneth Namkung: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. So,

[00:07:58] Atif Qadir: um, before I go on another kind of like a soapbox about that.

So, uh, the term, uh, starchitect is used to describe a particular breed of designers. So. Iconic famous flashy, arrogant. And over the course of your career, you’ve had the opportunity to work for several architects that would qualify for this descriptor. How was it working with, uh, people of, of that kind of.

[00:08:29] Kenneth Namkung: Well, it was to be perfectly honest. You know, these were absolutely incredible experiences. You know, when you do work for these, you know, famous architects, you know, you, you you’re able to sort of learn how they think, how they approach archaic you approach. How they approach life and you, and it’s really wonderful, sort of involved in these very sort of high thinkers.

You know, I mean, they’re, they’re, they’re demanding a lot of you of course, but they’re also demanding a lot of themselves and that really there’s this larger effort to really, you know, be involved in a really spectacular, um, projects. You need these iconic buildings that people people remember, uh, And in that, in that respect, I would say it was an absolutely incredible experience because you learn how much you personally are, uh, capable of accomplishing, you know, it allows you to be, you know, much bigger than, um, than you ever imagined that, that you could be.

So, so it’s, it’s experienced that I genuinely, um, appreciate and will take with me throughout my career.

[00:09:29] Atif Qadir: That’s terrific. Did you find any particular challenges and working with the starchitects.

[00:09:37] Kenneth Namkung: Wow. I’m going to have to be careful. I was almost like an ambush. No, no. It’s just one of those things where, you know, in many cases what’s happening is, you know, normal architecture activities.

I’ve, in some ways, you know, it’s a much more iterative design process. You’re going back up things over things over and over and over again. Sometimes you’re asking you, you know, you’re pushing the limits. You know, you you’re, you’re making things which are not always the easiest things to build, you know, there’s, so there’s certain amount of interaction with the consultants and contractors, that, that sort of thing, which, you know, sometimes those things can be a little bit difficult, but at the end of the day, what you’re looking to do is you’re looking to make, um, to make a great piece of architecture.

You’re looking to make a great civic contribution and ultimately you do what you need to do to get the job.

[00:10:35] Atif Qadir: Yeah, I think, uh, I can, I can totally understand that perspective. I think in particular, as there has been a greater recognition in our industry that. A piece of great architecture isn’t done by one soul, typically, man, at the head of the office, that it’s actually an entire team.

I think that has been a real change that has perhaps I alluded the impact of stark. It’s extra, the control of starchitects in terms of winning of commissions. And we had a great conversation with Vishaan Chakrabarti earlier this season as, so he’s doing the other rock and roll hall of fame, a renovation of, I M Pei’s original work in Cleveland.

And he actually said, Incredibly surprised that they ended up winning because of the star star-studded cast of people that were invited and more finalists in the, in the competition itself. When I asked them. What did he think his secret sauce was to win? And he said, we approach every project the same, which is with care, with empathy and with the attention it deserves.

Uh, and I think that that level is probably maybe the new counterpoint or the new answer to this idea of, of wanting to have an architect simply because of their. Um, but I guess that that’s for developers and clients and other clients that decides when, in fact their commissions. And so you, you launched monument office while a designer at any had architects.

And then it continued when you move to your past firm, which was a studio link arc that’s what were the priorities you were balancing when deciding to take an entrepreneurial path and a traditional one at the same time, which I think is actually relatively.

[00:12:14] Kenneth Namkung: I guess, um, the first thing I should actually mention is.

My mid office, isn’t a real office. It’s more just, it’s a sort of a venue, a platform for my own kind of personal explorations, you know, and it sort of allows you to explore a design voice outside of professional practice. Um, and in particular, I started with notions of looking at culture, looking at, um, different ways of approaching civic space and given my own history.

You know, I I’ve actually worked at, um, at the civic scale for, for many, many years. So that was sort of, um, really, really the first impetus to start to look at different ways to approach architecture and public space. And it’s, I’m starting to move a little bit towards this notion of dealing with issues of culture, dealing with dealing with issues of history, dealing with issues.

Have a memory and so on and so forth. And the idea was that, you know, when you’re within the boundaries of professional practice, you’re interacting with consultants, budgets, clients, all of those sorts of things. And sometimes it’s good to just, you know, to be able to think about. What got you into architecture school in the first place and just have that sort of freedom, that ability to sort of, to really explore your own approaches to design.

[00:13:29] Atif Qadir: And I think doing that too, seems like the way that you’re describing. Tons of sense. And, uh, this idea, this notion of a zero or one decision may even not be the right way of framing, that kind of conversation. So definitely dig that. Uh, so congratulations, you taken on a new position at NBBJ. Tell us about that.

About the role and the types of projects you’ll be working.

[00:13:53] Kenneth Namkung: I’m relatively new. Oh to the office. It’s a bit about, uh, three months. I am as a senior project architect with a company in the healthcare space. And then currently I’m involved in, um, a very large medical medical project in the Northeast. It’s really been absolutely wonderful.

It’s a very down to earth. It’s a very collaborative company. The attitude that they take is that. That the best idea can come from anywhere. So it’s, it’s a very sort of lively, very collaborative, um, discussion, which has absolutely wonderful.

[00:14:27] Atif Qadir: Excellent. So I’d love to pivot and start talking about the project that we will be focusing on in this conversation, which is survivalism.

So you design the suburban ism installation for Harold square. Tell us about this part of Manhattan and why you chose it for

[00:14:45] Kenneth Namkung: this. Well, the all square area. It’s, um, it’s at the intersection of 32nd street and sixth avenue and Broadway and it’s. And the project site is literally a triangle between Broadway, between sixth avenue and 32nd street.

It’s adjacent to, uh, Manhattan’s Korea town, which, um, which obviously being, you know of of Korean descent is a place. Uh, street with which I am intimately familiar. Um, I realized recently that there’s one restaurant that I’ve been going to there for the last 18 years. Um, it’s called. Okay.

[00:15:20] Atif Qadir: Oh, I’ve definitely been there too.

[00:15:21] Kenneth Namkung: Exactly. Actually, why I’m guessing we may have been there together at some point. Yeah. And it was one of those things where, you know, I had a day job for a while. That’s why I actually worked near the area for, for about eight years. So, you know, partially I chose this site out of convenience because it was a, it was a public space with which I was very intimately familiar.

So, you know, the site analysis part. Of the project was, you know, it was maybe five minutes. So in some ways it’s, it’s a decision that’s, um, coming out of kind of convenience, but also, you know, Harold square is one of those areas of Manhattan, which I also like it because it’s a really, really diverse really, really sort of, um, people of all people, of all, um, income levels, ethnicities are coming to the space.

So in really. It’s very much sort of a microcosm of New York city. You know, you have your fancy, you’re fancy, you heard Soho tried Baca, you know, on parts of south Brooklyn. And in, in so many of those are sort of there, you know, those neighborhoods are not really representative of New York as a whole. And one of the things I like about the Herald square is that it, you know, literally everything comes together.

[00:16:37] Atif Qadir: I think absolutely. And in particular is the, the, uh, uh, squares named for. The fact that it was the former headquarters of the New York Herald, which was one of the major American newspapers of its time. And over its iterations has a history has been the location of a great shopping districts, entertainment districts, and our major transportation hub.

Um, because the path station and the Penn station and nearby, and I think that idea of coming and going and change is so quintessentially New York. And I think in a funny way, provides an ironic setting for this idea of a project of suburban aneurysm, which is one that on its surface actually is one that has meant.

Uh, perhaps implicitly, explicitly evoke stasis or the idea of staying the same. Um, so I’d love for you to talk about once you you’ve owned in, on this area, what your, uh, research and design process was like for this project, uh, besides of course ordering Mondu and job Che and bulgogi,

[00:17:43] Kenneth Namkung: I will say, um, the man doing the job check, I definitely did, uh, uh, become a part of this.

[00:17:51] Atif Qadir: Ready listeners that may not be familiar. Those are incredibly tasty and wonderful Korean dishes. You can have them at the restaurant that, uh, cannot recommended or or any other wonderful ones.

[00:18:03] Kenneth Namkung: Exactly. It’s actually been really interesting to see, you know, when you’ve been in the city for two decades, you know, it’s been really interesting to see Koreatown evolve.

It’s gone from the somewhat, the somewhat sort of enclosed enclave to being almost sort of an integral part of the, the New York experience. You know, it’s really, uh, to me, so gratifying to see, you know, to walk by on a Friday night and the street in the street is just full of, you know, non-Koreans, you know, like.

In terms of advertising the cuisine, the culture 32nd street is doing something right. So to dive into the project, it’s interesting. I started this out as an entry in, into a design competition called tactical urbanism and through an organization called Tara Viva. But in reality, I started using. I thought about this last as tactical urbanism and more, I use this as sort of, um, a vehicle by which to sort of explore different ways to look at culture and memory and public space.

In fact, actually this is remarkably not tactical. I mean, I might basically taking out a square and putting this giant thing on top of it. So basically me winning the competition was never, it was never really about that. So one of the things that that’s really fascinating about New York is that a lot of the energy in the city comes from people who live in, who grew up in the suburbs, go to college in suburbs and then come to New York to kind of make their lives, meet the careers.

And some of them stay for a long time. Some of them stay for a short time, but ultimately it’s this sort of transition that gives the city a lot of energy, a lot of cultural energy. It just gives it sort of a different vibe. It really is one of the major sort of destination cities for life and for your career in north America.

So what I did for this project was I started with that kind of a global movement as sort of the jumping off point from the design. They went online. I just Googled suburban house plans. I found I pulled up the first one that I could find I built that is, um, as. I made a digital model of that, uh, you know, put the floor plans to can and what have you.

And then I, I scaled that up across the site. It, um, I scaled that up about one and a half times. I multiply that across the site and I subtracted that from the larger form, uh, for the, for the larger form coming from, you know, the triangle that is, um, Harold square. And the idea was to, well, this form is actually.

This form is articulated in a kind of a light wire mesh material. And, you know, it’s not actually, it’s really trying to live inspiration from, from an artist named Eduardo who, what he does is he takes he’ll go to historic sites and he’ll using this wire mesh he’ll sort of recreate, you know, the building or the house that used to be there.

So you sort of see this as kind of a ghost as kind of a memory. And I thought that was just really such a beautiful idea. So what I did was I took that idea and I, and instead of, you know, we create like a, like a Plaza or restore, you know, temple or something, I effectively kind of. You know, took this negative space of the suburban house and articulated that in this wire mesh so effectively, this, it becomes a go to becomes a memory of the American suburb that express itself in the least suburban of environments.

And the idea is to sort of echo, obviously the movement that brings everyone to New York. You know, it’s, it’s something that I did in 2003 or something that you did a few years later. I think. So the idea is in some ways, You know, for people to be able to walk through it and to remember where we all come from, you know, in that sense, and this idea of articulating it using this wire mesh really does talk about kind of, you know, history of memory and that sort of thing.

But to tie it further into New York city, what I decided was that. And in large part, this is purely purely pragmatic because this is quite large, but the proposal is to support this wire mesh with a scaffolding, which as you well know, Artis is pretty much endemic to the city. You know, the scaffolding’s everywhere.

And to me, it talks about the fact that it’s a city that’s constantly changing, constantly being rebuilt, being reworked. You know, if you know, it’s. Uh, static city, like everywhere you go, facades are being done. You know, it’s just a facade you’re being rebuilt. You know, people are cleaning up the facades and that sort of thing.

So yeah, I

[00:22:36] Atif Qadir: would say I would offer that, uh, the same way. Say like mud brick is a traditional building material in Mali and dolomite, limestone in Turkey that, uh, perhaps, uh, sidewalk sheds or scaffoldings, or that’s the native building material of New York city, I guess you’d see that everywhere. That’s a trickle part of everything that we do.

[00:22:55] Kenneth Namkung: That’s exactly right. And it’s amazing where, you know, I’ve been in the city long enough now that there are some buildings that, you know, I’ve never seen them not under scaffolding. Right. So, so in many, in many cases, you’re right. It is actually very much a need of building material. One of the things that that really kind of led me into this notion of dealing with the suburban experience honestly, was.

You know, for me, it’s less not. It’s, it’s partially about the growing up in the suburbs and moving to New York city. That’s one thing, but also as a first-generation immigrants, you know, I’m not coming from a culture that really comes from. Uh, suburban sort of history, right? So in other words, you know, when I’m growing up in the suburbs, you know, I, you know, we, as a, as a, as a Korean immigrant family, we are occupying suburban space.

Definitely. We are occupying suburban the suburban house differently. This is slightly different attitude towards the domestic environment, towards the front yard, towards the backyard. So there’s actually, you know, there’s, there’s this kind of additional cultural layer that for me, is sort of applied to this as well.

And what’s also interesting is that. We, we do start to sort of move a little bit away from sort of architecture, but for, for reasons that are not going to get into here. My own connection to Korea. You know, my nominal Homeland is actually pretty weak. I’ve only been back, um, you know, two or three times and for various reasons, um, I’m not, I’m not really going to get into here, you know, going back as will not be an option for some time.

Right. So what ends up happening is that you’re in this kind of suburban space, right. But you’re occupying it from through the lens of a complete different culture. And you also have to find through the lens of culture that you don’t fully know yourself. So there’s this. I wouldn’t call it discomfort, but it’s this kind of feeling of like, not entirely being there or sort of feeling, you know, being feeling like you’re really 100% a part of this.

So, you know, for me, this exploration is, you know, there’s a lot of psychology and love of memory here as well.

[00:24:57] Atif Qadir: There’s so many interesting parts to this in particular, what you’re describing feels. It could be the experience of the children and Manari the Oscar nominated, I believe Oscar winning movie that was last or focused on the experience of Korean immigrants to, uh, Arkansas, which is, I think the extreme even beyond.

Suburban America and this idea of trying to put oneself into another culture in time and space and physical environment and the awkwardness and the beauty that, that does come from that. So I think I definitely appreciate that. And I would imagine for Indian Pakistani and other Asian immigrants, this idea of.

The often the unit of measure that we use a foundational in our culture is the community. It’s not the nuclear family, it’s not the individual. So the notion that you have a house that is built for a nuclear family on a separate lot, that is not attached to another, uh, and that each person typically will have their own bedroom, uh, is of a different scale and a different notion that I think, uh, that people from these backgrounds are familiar with.

And I think it’s not as if there is a. Solution to be made or an answer to be found. It’s more just. The strangeness of being that that ends up creating. So I feel like there, there’s definitely something really evocative in what you’re saying. And what particularly struck me was when you talked about this idea of memory and the idea of creating, not the space itself, but the defining the area around it in order to emphasize what was not there anymore.

And in particular, I think that that is a tool. Is a one that could be, say similar to photography of photographing, uh, historic monuments. Uh, for example, um, I saw a recent, uh, installation of photographs of historic monuments that were destroyed during the invasion of Syria, uh, over the past couple of years.

So Greco, Roman, uh, an automatic and beyond, uh, historic monuments. And I think in particular, the, what I saw over the past few years is the use of. Uh, web three, uh, type tools to recreate, uh, in virtual worlds, uh, what someone isn’t able to access our experience anymore. Uh, so for example, uh, students at MIT recreated the entire.

Campus if you know, in, in roadblocks. Uh, so essentially our mind sweep one of the two, and I think this idea of, of recreation or of memory being written in many different ways, feels like something that is particularly evocative in a time where people may not be, uh, in their typical situation, uh, whether physically or mentally or in any other way.

Um, so let me ask you this. So you talked about some of the materials that you used, uh, help me understand the scale of what you’re talking about. How big is this.

[00:27:48] Kenneth Namkung: It’s about three stories tall. Um, and the idea behind that was to sort of make it big enough that it could really be understood as, um, in urban space, as an ease for, you know, various types of civic activities.

And what I really liked about it was I also. You know, this notion of scaling up the house, the suburban house, you know, by about one and a half times, the entire idea behind that was the short of the scaling. It makes it a much, makes me feel much more conscious. It makes it feel. A little bit out of the realm of sort of something that’s real.

It makes it sort of, I don’t want to say unreal, but it makes us something that you have to sort of experience and sort of understand that you kind of think about the best way I can think of to explain it was that, you know, we all have had this memory of as children of, you know, beings being much bigger than us.

[00:28:43] Atif Qadir: Right. That’s actually the case, I think, with being an architect as well, but every time that. Imagine a place where I see photographs of before I actually go to the place itself, I’m always shocked at how small it is actually get there on a project

[00:28:56] Kenneth Namkung: site. Right. That’s that’s exactly right. I remember when I was, um, a child, you know, my parents were PhD students actually at the college of William and Mary, but to bring it back to the Thomas Jefferson discussion.

So I spent a fair amount of time in the physics building. And, you know, I remember sort of seeing this equipment, you know, all these things, which were, you know, when you’re five, um, you know, these things are huge and you don’t know what they are. And I remember going back at one point in high school, seeing seeing the same equipment and all of a sudden it’s tiny, it’s regular it’s, it’s kind of human sized and.

Pardon me kind of actually prefers like the childhood memory of just sort of being, you know, kind of overpowered by the space. So in some ways, like the scale of this, um, the scale approaches is, um, is, is very, very, very deliberate. The idea is to really take it into something that’s, um, there’s a term I’m looking for, not quite sublime sublime, but.

You have to bring it to us in order to make it present. You have to kind of bring it to a state of unreality to make the concept really, really visible.

[00:30:01] Atif Qadir: And I think to be, to take a dark turn towards that, I think this idea of favoring, or perhaps looking back at a childhood memory of home versus a present reality is a really evocative metaphor for millennials.

So we are the poorest generation and American. We are the first ones where our Paris parents’ generation actually have a greater level of living than our generation does. Uh, and particular, we, we have the lowest rate of homeownership that has been the case at our maturation process of our generation and modern American history.

And there’s this reality that there are millennials. Plenty of them. They can’t afford the home that they grew up in, uh, if they were to try to attempt to purchase it now, uh, namely, because over the past several years, the incredible influx of buyers in markets, like say, for example, Phoenix, where this past year 25% of the home sales went to essentially six different companies that bought them through, uh, algorithms.

And I think this notion of, of memory, particularly for millennials, I think is going to become stronger and stronger. More and more so that that transition happens to ownership. And perhaps what we’re able to buy is a lot more modest than what it was that week or.

[00:31:22] Kenneth Namkung: Right, right. The funny thing about this is that, you know, when you think about, you know, this notion of the suburban home in this history of this memory, in some ways like you’re right, this could also be understood as you know, effectively the ghosting of it that goes in nature.

This almost talks about something unattainable. Now it’s not necessarily just history, but you know, something that is never going to be a reality. And one thing that, you know, That, that dawned on me as, as we were having this conversation was that, you know, a lot of the, you know, I grew up, I grew up in kind of one of the older suburbs.

The house I grew up in was built in 1978, something like that. Right. And when you think about it, a lot of the. Um, political decisions, a lot of the kind of governmental decisions that kind of lead us to our current state of incoming equality, um, this, you know, this huge amount of money coming into a residential, um, coming into a residential construction and residential architecture, a lot of those decisions that, that, that led to our current condition or actually happening in the late seventies, early eighties, you know, that.

Right. So I, you know, and this is really doesn’t relate to anything, but, you know, this adds just to kind of another dimension to that discussion, right. I’m basing this on a suburban floorplan that easily could have been built in 1980. So

[00:32:39] Atif Qadir: I think so, uh, that this idea that. The idea of home is one that is tied with both reality and imagination fact and fiction and the haves and the have nots.

And that essentially is the story of suburban America and help us understand. So we, now we understand the location, we understand the material, we understand your design process and the scale. Walk our listeners through what they would see and feel as they were walking along for example, 32nd street into Herald square and what they would see in and around them at the suburban ism.


[00:33:25] Kenneth Namkung: Well, the larger idea obviously is to sort of, you know, it is to be occupying this urban space that was, you know, and the idea was to create a new kind of urban space that’s created by the negative, the negative form generator, um, you know, buy this, buy this house for, right. So the idea is really. As lightly as possible to create something that is spatial without being excessively physical or architectural.

So when you’re, when you’re inside the space, you have this very, very light move over you. And that gets back to this notion of history that gets back to this notion of memory and to further this connection to the American suburbs. So what I did was I I’m proposing occupying the space beneath that in adjacent with this sort of type of wire mesh furniture that effectively.

It’s sort of, uh, actually derived from various suburban archetypes, you know, you’ve got, let me pull it up here. You know, I just randomly took a couple of, um, suburban, suburban ideas and sort of combined them and recombine them in different ways. So there’s, you know, there’s a wire mesh version of like the, um, the easy boy lounge chair.

There’s a, I’ve done some, something similar to like the large sort of sectional sofa. Um, they’ve got, you know, your kind of backyard recliner. That’s been kind of a rendered in this sort of ghostly wire mesh material as well. So the idea is, you know, to really, in terms of the occupation of this urban space, you’re, you know, you’ve got the ghost of the suburban house above you, and then you’ve got this sort of suburban furniture, which allows you to sort of occupy the space of the city in a different way, in a way, which sort of helps people remember, you know, the suburban life before New York city.

And the idea also is very much to sort of. You know, create a lively and active on public space. And you know, the, one of the great things about the city is that the second you put out a place for people to see.

[00:35:21] Atif Qadir: Like for like pigeons, basically humans are like,

[00:35:24] Kenneth Namkung: that’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. And one of the things that I do like about that that’s been happening in the Herald square area recently is that the city has made efforts to bring more, uh, street furniture. Um, there’s. There’s the green tables and chairs, you know, those little light metal things they’ve put up ping pong tables.

And now there is, um, you know, they have a live music playing there on, on a fairly regular basis. Some of it is, comes from the city. Some of it, some of it is just random people, you know, uh, who are, uh, playing for money. But yeah. But it makes for a, what I would consider a very, very, uh, lively space.

[00:36:01] Atif Qadir: So I am going to take a break here to let listeners know that we will be having developer.

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So the term suburb literally means below urban or referring to the lower density of these places typically located in rings around your city, in your opinion, what is the suburb and how has it changed over time and feel free to use any measure of time to go all the way back to the Eastern Han dynasty, which I think was the first suburbs recorded human history to anything more.

[00:38:01] Kenneth Namkung: So how have suburbs evolve? It’s quite interesting. Um, the one thing that I have noticed is that, you know, when I was growing up, I think you can sort of see. That’s well, the suburb I grew up in Yorktown Virginia was, you know, a fairly sleepy, um, a little place, very much sort of, there was a bit of a connection to, you know, the older Southeast Virginia, the older Tidewater area that, that has been there for 200 years.

And, you know, when I was growing. It was still a very, very strong, um, connection to the local culture. Right. Um, and I don’t know that that was the case for every suburb, but you know, a lot of the first ring suburbs outside new cities, like Pittsburgh, outside cities like Boston, you know, there is something of a connection to the local history of the place.

And my own family, our center of gravity has moved from, um, Southeast Virginia to around the Washington Washington DC area. And to me, it’s a much more, it’s much newer, at least at least what you know, um, where my parents lived. And in some ways it’s a much more sort of anonymous suburb. Right. Um, you know, the buildings are fancier, but they’re, you know, they’re just, they’re, they’re, they’re much more generic.

It’s a, it’s a much more, you know, they’re, they’re, they’re in some ways, like there’s so much more emphasis on curb appeal, you know? So in other words, it’s, it’s, in some ways the new American suburb or what I see now is it’s much more about looking like something as opposed to actually being something that makes sense.

Another thing that I found though, is that at least. In, in the suburb, you know, where my parents live now, the shopping centers have become, they’re starting to be based around based in some ways, like they’re starting to mimic more kind of what we would consider in Arabic conditions. So you’ve got, you know, your little sort of public street, you know, where people are interacting a little bit and then, but, but that’s surrounded by, you know, like seven acres of parking.

Right. So in other words, it’s, um, you’re starting to see. No kind of the reverse movement from Bryce suggest to where effectively the sub the suburban shopping experience, starting to kind of become a simulacrum of, um, what we consider a modern urban condition. So it’s, so I guess the way I would see it as that, this the suburbs to me seems much more.

You know, I, I don’t want to use the word fake, but I think it’s, you know, people are really trying to sort of evoke something that, that, that really wasn’t there in the past. Another thing that I do find interesting is that, you know, my father, before he passed was in a retired, was in sort of a suburban, kind of, not quite a retirement community, but it was, um, he was in a community that was, uh, geared towards kind of older, um, older home buyers.

Right. The funny thing was in that particular where he lived, you know, the space he occupied was much more spatially, kind of ambiguous, like, you know, much more open than, um, than, than any other suburban house I’ve ever I’ve ever lived in, you know, to the point that, you know, because you know, it’s designed for, you know, your older, you know, your older residents who may be not walking as well, you know, they may be wheelchair.

So there’s certain amount of openness that sort of required, you know, which makes things well effectively, it’s. Remarkably informal, right? Yeah. So, so, so I think that’s been interesting, I

[00:41:27] Atif Qadir: think in particular, the, this idea of an architectural style. And that’s I apology that attempts to evoke something that isn’t there, or it tends to be representative of an imagined existence.

Uh, and I think that there is no thing, more emblematic of what you just described, then the McMahon. And I think that’s a term that folks, uh, from our industry and obviously from outside of it have heard, but the history of that term, I think is one that is so fascinating as a corollary to the transformation of the American summer, but over the past 30 to 40 years.

And I think particularly the key elements of a McMansion, one of them is this jumbled design language. That includes things like steeply, still sloped roofs, multiple dormers. A man started roofs, really detailed, mixed material, pallets, he stones and coins and weird, um, different types of cladding, uh, that ends up resulting in this idea that you can’t figure out.

If you’re looking at something. Like a reduction of something Palladio decide or something that looks like a Levittown. And it’s essentially this, this mish-mosh in between. Uh, and the origins of McMansions actually started in the 1980s in California. And the idea was that it was meant to be a type of a house that was somewhere in between atypical tract, uh, housing, suburban housing, and somewhere between a suburban gated community.

Or a golf course, so generally smaller lots, but wanted to explore a lot similar to the lower level hugs. But we wanted to give the impression of grandeur of the larger level homes. And that’s why this notion of. This fast food reference and the supersizing of these homes is something that has become a design language of their own.

And now they’re essentially a pejorative to be negatively ascribed to generic, negatively described the homes. I think some other terms that are, are often used are a Hummer. I’ve heard that a very occasionally a starter castle and executive homes. So I think that they all tend to be, um, key parts of the design language of the American suburb.

So help our listeners understand the things that resulted in the American suburb being created, because this, this is not happen in a vacuum. There are certain. Cultural political and even transportation conditions that made suburbs expand rapidly in the United States. Give us an overview of what some of those issues are.

And, uh, we’re for the Americans. From

[00:44:10] Kenneth Namkung: what I gather, you know, there’s this, um, there’s this needs to, you know, it allowed us to come in from post world war two, the GI bill, there’s a need to house all these soldiers who are coming back. Right. Um, I think that there’s this push to, especially after world war two, there’s a bit of a push to establish something of an American identity separate from sort of, you know, the, the immigrant cultures that exist in the cities now.

So there’s the. You know, effectively this desire to kind of create almost an American sort of town style tradition, which, um, you know, it evokes sort of the English country, you know, these English country homes, that sort of thing. And it’s all part of this larger sort of, kind of endeavor to, to kind of create, you know, the American lifestyle.

There’s a certain aspect of the, you know, as I’ve mentioned, sort of maybe not wanting to be associated with w w with these immigrant cultures, which are primarily in cities, there are certain aspect of, of class and race where honestly, it’s my understanding that. You know, suburban house. So we’re effectively designed to be economically out of reach for very specific groups of people.

And you know, that that’s, I don’t, I don’t know how, how well known that is, but, but that’s very much my understanding. And on top of that, there is this larger, you know, This is all happening in conjunction with the creation of the American interstate system, which obviously works. They connect people in places there’s a certain thought of, I believe trying to get people out of the major population centers, because this is also the start of the cold war.

So, you know, again, I don’t know how, how much it’s one factor versus the other. Correct. But, you know, it’s, you know, all these things come together to create an urban in our architectural condition, which is very specific to.

[00:45:56] Atif Qadir: Yeah. And I think that there are. Many different aspects and I’ll add a few more that might help color or the stairs understanding.

In addition, it’s the growth of the commuter railroads, particularly those around Metro New York city that allowed people to effectively work in New York city. And, uh, live elsewhere. It’s uh, you mentioned earlier the tax codes as being an integral part of the existence of the suburb and particularly the 1980 tax vote, which, uh, created the mortgage interest deduction, which actually made it more lucrative to be a homeowner than to then be a renter and the various.

Levels of federal government and municipal government interactions in the seventies and eighties that led to cities being drained of funding. And particularly, I think one that is the most well-known is this concept of redlining, which was created under the FHA under president Johnson. And the idea was that a high minority areas would not be able to be, uh, subject to or.

Get a bank financing that is backed by a federally backed mortgage insurance, uh, which made it very difficult for people that were in certain areas to get the full value of their homes and for those people to move to other areas as well. Um, so a lot of these social cultural political issues come together in this amazingly toxic soup that created the American suburb that we have today.

So I’m really curious about what your thoughts are going forward on a few issues. So one in particular, so with COVID New York city lost an estimated 5% of its population, which is about 440,000 people. So other dense urban areas have experienced the same. And by scrolling through Instagram, it seems that everyone moved to Miami for a hot minute, New York times, and particularly looked at municipal data around car registration and found that most people actually moved just a few hours from their home city.

So how do you think places like monthly or New Jersey Huntington, New York, Greenwich, Connecticut are going to benefit from COVID in the longterm, in the context of the suburban type.

[00:48:19] Kenneth Namkung: Well, it’s actually sort of interesting. The one thing that I think that happens during the pandemic was that, you know, people learned that, um, they could work from home and be, be much more productive.

So two things, number one. Yes. The city lost a lot of people, but number one, many of the people are coming back. That’s the first thing. But I think people are coming back into this with sort of understanding of that, that they can live and work from almost anywhere now. So I do think that this ability for people to, you know, even if they’re nominally based in a place like New York, but are living in the suburbs, you know, like you said, Montclair, Huntington, I think.

Uh, effectively, you know, people will allow, people will be maybe spending more time, you know, in their home county or in their soul, in their suburban locations. And effectively what that does is that I think it takes a lot of the urban activity of New York. It takes the population. And I think it spreads that out to these different towns.

So I think that this potentially could be very good for a lot of the cities and allow the neighborhoods just outside of New York city. I have a colleague at a company called database actually, which, um, it’s a, it’s a coworking space that cater specifically to that. So the idea is to create sort of a second space or a third space actually, where, you know, it’s a coworking space that’s effectively.

Uh, designed for small, smaller cities, smaller towns, you know, a little bit more of a suburban occupation. So I think potentially this could, you know, what’s coming off COVID is that this new Redis redistribution of, of our work activities could actually become a tool for, uh, for revitalizing or bringing more energy to towns outside of New York city.

It’s not the new calculus is that it’s not just New York or nowhere, but it’s New York and all of these other places. Which I think is quite bad.

[00:50:11] Atif Qadir: I agree. And I think as leasing and sales for a class, a office in urban core areas continue to be challenged. It’s the suburban office that is doing quite well right now, both on the leasing and the sales perspective.

I think it’s this notion of what he described as the third or fourth space is particularly interesting to office tenants right now. And I think a couple of other things that listed. Look forward to, or keep their eyes open for is I believe that these smaller cities are going to benefit exceedingly from relatively well-heeled new Yorkers now moving their tax domiciles to their cities.

So that I think is going to be allowing for a greater flow of funding to smaller cities. And you’re probably going to see demand driven improvements in terms of retail. So if someone’s expecting all the retail that they saw in Hoboken to be in these cities an hour away, That I think over time locations, like the ones in Western New Jersey will start, uh, being able to.

Rise up and, uh, and address some of those demands. I think you’re going to probably see changes in housing stock. So namely to include, um, for example, like you’ve talked about office spaces within the home, so totally cool to wear a spec pants there. Maybe not in the database, maybe if they elevate a little bit from the sweat pants there.

But, uh, I think also we think about the movie minority, the sort of uncomfortable, uh, place that the grandmother had in that home. There wasn’t really a place for her there. Uh, and I think. As the population of the United States, uh, it looks a little more like me and you, uh, that there are going to be alternate visions of what a suburban home actually looks like in terms of the consideration of multiple generations living under the same roof.

And I think the one that will really be. To I think be shown is in 2022 and 2022 at 2024, how a voter dispersal is going to be affecting voting and elections in areas outside of the core cities themselves. And I guess we’ll have to see what happens. So, thank you so much for joining us today on the American building podcast, Ken and listeners.

If you want to hear their behind the scenes stories of how I conic buildings and our country were designed and built subscribe to this podcast on Spotify, iTunes, Google anchors, Stitcher, or wherever you like to listen, rate and review us on iTunes to help us reach a wider audience and follow us on Instagram.

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