Questioning the longevity of our spaces

U of M’s Jae-Sung Chon channels purpose of this year’s Atmosphere symposium

Jae-Sung Chon is a designer, curator and educator in the U of M’s faculty of architecture. Originally from South Korea, he came to Canada to continue training as an architect. Having spent time in both Montreal and Winnipeg, he saw how environment both reflects and limits our lives.

“I was exposed to many different cultural fabrics and textures of these places,” Chon said, “which sort of created my appetite toward these sort of nuances.”

As a designer he runs the architecturally savvy Make Coffee + Stuff coffee bar, as well as STUFF (Studio for Transformative Urban Forms and Fields), a space which attempts to engage and develop public awareness in design as he himself is “more drawn to curatorial work rather than the defined office of interior design [and] architecture.”

One project at last year’s Nuit Blanche involved creating an outdoor curtain. By setting the exhibit outside, Chon carved out the domestic space of a room from the urban city space.

In fact, Chon’s almost philosophical understanding of space allows his work to transcend the traditional confines of art, architecture and design by focusing on space as an experience — not a static piece or structure, but as an experience in and of itself.

“My tool is space,” he said. “That’s why my curatorial work largely focuses on immersive experience, rather than having beautiful art on the wall and just watching […] which has its place, but it’s just not my palate.”

According to Chon, design has only evolved so much in the last hundred years. In fact, domestic space itself hasn’t changed at all.

“If you look at the floorplan of a 1910 suburban house and the floorplan of a 2020 suburban house, [they’re] almost identical,” he said. “Even the decor is similar […] but technology is all different and what we do in that space is completely different, too.”

Chon is fascinated with the idea that homeowners build for resale value leaving wasted space.

Where technology has gone forward in leaps and bounds, and our culture has become so fundamentally different because of tech, our homes and spaces have remained broadly static.

Chon would like us to question how much time we really spend at home. Our infrastructure and transportation has changed, yet we still have garages? We eat out as often as we eat at home, yet still have full kitchens?

“Architects or designers of space have not done their job, whereas all the technology people and gadget people have done their job,” he said. “That is not to say our peers are lazy — I’m just saying we haven’t really thought through this as a spatial experience changing.”

Chon’s philosophy, then, focuses not on what is wrong with design, but understanding where we are, where we came from and where we are going, which is the subject Chon is focusing on in this year’s Atmosphere symposium.

The 12th annual symposium put on by the faculty of architecture runs from Feb. 6 to 8, with Chon as the organizer.

He believes this year’s theme — “Next School” — is one of the most important subjects for Atmosphere to explore.

Chon hopes the symposium theme helps answer the question that has been rising in the last decade —what should school and education look like? He wants professors and students alike to imagine “What’s next? What’s coming? What’s just surging up? What’s tomorrow?”

“[It’s about the] feasible extension of what we are doing, but fundamentally rehauling some of the things we need to think about,” he said.

In fact, Chon believes that only through fully engaged and cross-disciplinary discussions can there be any forward movement or proper self-reflection.

“We know there is something about school that is slightly not in sync with how we operate in the world today,” he said.

“We are not only interested in critiquing it, but just thinking about it. Let’s just stop and think about it. What is a school? And what can it be? What it should be? What is it doing now and where are we? Reflecting on the idea of school, which is different than just education. What is a school in relation to education?”

Chon’s questions naturally span into the space of post-secondary education, asking why we go into post-secondary and if the purposes of school are aligning with the actual consequences and outcomes. Chon believes a main purpose for pursuing higher education is for credentials or experience to be more desirable in the job market. But he wonders if students are leaving school with degrees without actual education.

“It can be forced to align, of course, but is it fundamentally aligning?” Chon said.

In fact, this is just one of the avenues that Chon hopes this year’s symposium will explore.

His ideal goal would be deeper networking and interpersonal discussions across disciplines far beyond an added line on a resumé — connections that actually produce exchange and experiences.

Cross-discipline and hybrid education is the future for Chon, and only through a genuinely critical and mutual exchange can there be a full understanding of our changing world.

“I think too much is on contract these days, rather than in trust,” he said.

“As a cultural mandate, I want this to be a shaking-hands kind of experience rather than ‘I have you on my CV.’”


For more information on the Atmosphere symposium visit