Monday, December 04, 2006

built environment 1

Walking thoughts (I was going to make this “Walking in Seoul II” but it is more like “random thoughts about the built environment”)

Me: dark hair, dark eyes, glasses, MP3 dangling from my neck. My internal beat: newly downloaded song “Naughty Girl” by Beyonce. That Beyonce, she has some talent. I can walk really fast to this music, I can shove old ladies aside with abandon. That’s the thing that sets me apart in this picture -- the way I walk. Long Stride. Brisk Gait. What they call here “씩씩해” (I love that word.) A Whatchoolookinat kind of walk.

Uneven pavement. Construction. Each street corner could potentially end your life. Delivery men on scooters who could join Cirque du Soliel with their amazing balancing acts: I’ve seen them carrying an umbrella (in the rain), talking on the cell phone, balancing hot food AND still managing to weave through traffic all at once! Now that’s skill. Of course I’ve also seen them cleaning the blood off the street and the funeral procession coming to visit the markings on the street afterwards: “feet” “head” “motorcycle.” This man, he wanted to be a writer, a street artist, he wanted to make his mark on the world. Instead his life and body are reduced to painted descriptions, to be run over again and again.

City life: what an interesting textual and sensory jungle. This new apartment building is “More Human Than Human.” (I have to remember to take a picture of that sign.) People talking loudly into their cell-phones. The smells of sewers which for some reason are always placed at intersections. Tent “restaurants” ("포장마차") set up on the sidewalks and in alleys, emitting smells of ddokboki and soju, drunken laughter and “Aigu, what is to be done. It is too difficult.” Riding the subway in the morning you can smell the garlic and alcohol seeping from the pores of barely-sober men hanging onto the handles for dear life. Jackhammers. People gently pushing and shoving their way through the crowd. Honking. Smoking. In the morning, occasionally a puddle of vomit in the sidewalk. Dogs, usually no larger than my diaper bag, wearing fancy outfits and elaborately groomed. Old men and women picking up trash.

Buildings are a jumble of signs of all colors and sizes proclaiming their contents. Samsung Tower Real Estate + phone number + 4th floor. Idea Glasses + phone number + 3rd floor. Myung-Ga restaurant + phone number + 2nd floor. Character Dentist + phone number + 1st Floor. You get the idea. It is the visual equivalent of electric shock therapy. Or perhaps an experiment: how many colors and words can this young, music-video raised generation take in at one time! This old fogey sure has had trouble. When my reading speed was slower it took me too long to sort through all the text and the stimulation so I made an effort to tune out. Now I’m better at subconscious scanning.

Why all the signs? This is a walking city. In the U.S., if you suddenly break out in hives and need to see a dermatologist you look online, or in the yellow pages, or ask your friends for the name of a good one, look up the address, and drive there. It is a goal-based drive, point to point. Here you can just walk around until you find one. That’s precisely what I did -- just walked down the block looking at the buildings until I found one a stone’s throw from my apartment. The doctor wasn’t in so I continued on across the street and found another. Walked in and had allergy medicine in no time. Back home it was the trees and grass that got to me; here it is the dust. That, perhaps, and the air pollution.

We live in Gangnam (literally “South of the river”), which was farmland before the 1970s. Now it is high rises, gridded streets, Starbucks on every block, and rows and rows of apartments. Gangbuk (“North of the river”) is the older part of the city with a labyrinth of alleys and buildings from multiple areas (the occasional colonial building, rebuilt Chosun dynasty palaces, and many buildings from the 50s on. I know pockets of Gangbuk, which is where KC grew up, but in general it confuses me geographically and architecturally.

Gangnam doesn’t look that different from parts of Eastern Europe: rows and rows of concrete apartment blocks. We live in one of those rows, in fact -- a squat, unadorned block of concrete with cracks and fading paint. The first time my parents came to visit and saw our apartment they asked, “Is this subsidized housing?” No Mom, but thanks for the compliment. The cheapest and most efficient way to build, KC reminds me, for a country with few resources to spare. (aside: Look at Malaysia, I argue. They’re building like crazy but they add a little something here and there to give the high rises some aesthetic value, and to give them the flavor of more traditional Malaysian architecture.) Here in Seoul the beautiful mountains are being raised to fill up with more ugly apartments.

Seoul is a wonderful, safe, livable city, but it is not a beautiful city. Coming from the Land of Strip Malls I don’t know if I have any right to complain about the aesthetics of Seoul, but every time I go to a city with beautiful buildings, or see any of the older temples nestled in the mountains of Korea, I wonder what Seoul would look like with just a small attention to architectural beauty and more of an emphasis on retaining some of the traditional architectural forms. Stop cutting down mountains, for goodness sake! What would Tangun say???

That was my rant about aesthetics.


Cat said...


I just found your blog and I love this post. It perfectly describes what Seoul is like for people who haven't seen it (yet).

I moved here with my husband seven months ago and we live in Seocho-gu. (Husband works in Gangnam) so I know exactly what you mean.

Great writing.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jennifer -
if you are interested - a Korean arch. firm has been getting press for thier more recent buildings going up in Korea.
maybe worth a jaunt to go see this one - it's in Seoul.
They call it Museum Yeh, or Gallery Yeh.


JonAllen said...

I fully agree.
Going out of the Seoul on the train you go for miles and miles and it's just tower block after tower block.

The bridges are the same too, they don't spare a single won on decoration or adornment.

I think they will regret it later when the country is completely covered with the same tower blocks and the same road and bridges.