Backlog: Seoul searching


Seoul was one of those cities that owned me.  I was in one of the densest urban areas in the world (over 10 million people in the city proper) for not quite one week.  Seoul is three times as dense as of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo – all places I experienced to some capacity on this first trip around the world.  It was quickly apparent that I needed to be briefed on about 600 years of South Korean history as well as contemporary theories surrounding the public space of this capital megacity.
Many thanks to Berkeley Alum and University of Seoul Architecture Professor, Sung Hong KIM.  He filled-in the missing pieces:

Seoul presents a peculiar urban landscape to outsiders.  It appears neither traditional, post-colonial nor modern seen from the canonical definitions and historical perspectives of Euro-American architecture.  To say that it is eclectic and hybrid is perhaps an understatement.  Wong Yunn Chii described Asian modernity as ‘a mongrel which has inherent exuberance without recourse to ready-made expectations, external and sanctioned measurements.’  Korea’s capital city seems to fit that description.  KANG Hong Bin, a former Vice Mayor of the Seoul Metropolitan Government, once noted that Seoul’s public appearance is the by-product of the paradoxical combination of ‘too much planning’ and ‘too little planning.’  An understanding of this statement and indeed of the state of public space in Korea requires a careful uncovering of the many layers of foundation upon which public space has been built.  History, politics, economics and technology each have had their trowel in the mix.
-The Paradox of Public Space in the Asian Metropolis, KIM Sung Hong

During the days of the dynasty, public space was never planned and never realized.   Traditional squares, plazas, and parks are not a part of most east Asian cities for this reason.  Green open spaces were private (many times very picturesque), reserved only for those who occupied the Royal Palaces.  Those who spoke in favor of a shared public space were tagged as communists…so the discussion ended before it influenced any real urban design decisions.

However, the conception of public space in Seoul, like elsewhere, is ever changing and extremely broad.  There are the labyrinthian shopping spaces that mimic Chinese malls, there are the commercial alleyways with outdoor markets and meat-on-stick vendors, and there are the accumulation of western-ish establishments (a LOT of Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks).  One building type I continue to study is the 6+ story retail sliver.


For all of the people present in Seoul, there were just as many interesting new town scenarios.  Many of them were set in the bed towns of the 1980s.   I hung out in Ilsan one rainy afternoon.




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