suparc architects schweitzer song seoul/frankfurt

I     news
II    profile
        2.1  ryul song
        2.2  christian schweitzer
        2.3  office
III   work
        3.1  projects
        3.2  competitions
        3.3  theory

          3.3.1  plastic space
          3.3.2  suncheonization
          3.3.3  the black borderline
          3.3.4  liquid plans
          3.3.5  korean/german moot

              Korean/German Moot
              by Ryul Song, Christian Schweitzer, questions by Goetz Stoeckmann

                      korean public space

Goetz Stoeckmann: My questions refer to the urban condition, to virtuality only if it supplements the social role of space. Is the Korean public?

Ryul Song: Recently the Korean Film Awards show took place. The Korean film scene imitates, like all countries, Hollywood’s red carpet to vitalize and commercialize the film industry by showing presence in public. Before the film stars get their awards for their sacrifice to art they have to show off at the red carpet to be evaluated by the public whether they fit the present lifestyle demands. Dressed in extraordinary gowns with expensive accessories and elaborate hairstyles they pass by countless eyes of cameras now and then stopping and posing. The striking difference from other countries in this well known scene is the fact that there are only very few stars who enjoy this walk, showing confidence and pleasure. Especially the actresses walk by awkwardly, defensively, seemingly embarrassed. I think this scene describes very well the relation of the Koreans with the concept of ‘public’ and their still equivocal attitude towards it.
To understand the reason for this situation one has to understand the historic and social incidences and developments over a long period of time that formed the Korean mentality. And the above mentioned scene indicates that the Koreans still need time to overcome this dubious attitude towards ‘public’. The subliminal dependence on China followed by the openly brutal occupation by the Japanese laid the foundation. But especially the tense situation with North-Korea generating a nationalistic dictatorship in the south inhibited over a long time the concept of ‘public’. The space that commonly is understood as ‘public’ was turned into a scary black hole just by putting up a prohibition sign ‘keep off’ or ‘no trespassing’. Nobody asks ‘why’ but just turns around and leaves. For instance the inner-city mountains with their park-like quality were all cut off by huge walls hiding secret service or military activities. As an other example every area off the paths in a park has an all year ‘keep off the grass’ borderline around it without apparent reason. This turns the city into an endless road without cutouts or lay-bys which forces the inhabitant always to keep moving. Empty space is just for the image not for use.
The reason why the Koreans still have a kind of superficial view of ‘public’ is because we behave in a way that the subject of ‘public’ is not the single individual but the eyes of the others that look at us and judge us. In a way the Asian ‘virtue’ of conformity prevents us from feeling and acting free in public. But the human being has an instinct for freedom, one does not only want to life free inside ones one house but also outside, in ‘public’. This is why we try more and more to follow our instinct of physical and emotional freedom, no matter how small the space is we are in. We are living at the moment in a period of transition, the younger generation changes drastically although the pressure and the intolerance of society against this change are immense.

GS: Will the Seoul Citizen appreciate Public Space?

RS: Definitely … Seoul is a huge city which keeps expanding on a function driven pattern as a generic city. In this city it is very hard to please basic needs, e.g. the need for recreation, because it takes a huge effort and therefore stress to fulfill it (at least two hours to get anywhere and in the place there are too many people and two hours back again). Because the instinct for recreation used to be neglected the importance of public space was quite low. Nevertheless the positive experiences with public space in other large cities arouse interest, although the concept of public space is understood differently here than in western cities. In the general understanding a public space is a physical and metaphysical space that has the ability and the power to gather, but Seoul has a desire for space as escapism, to escape from itself. This is why despite of many kinds of public space the typology of the green park became a big issue.
On the neighborhood level another kind of public space generated that reflects back on the generally awakened interest for public space. Small scale multifunctional voids cut in between the high density that defines itself by the (mainly sportive) activities of the inhabitants.

korean public space
(Constructing private public space in Seoul)

GS: Does the Cheonggyecheon Restoration suit Seoul?

RS: As a Korean living now again in Seoul after 10 years abroad I respect the realization of this project. And of course I have regrets about the actual design which lacks a lot of aspects but I admire the intension to allow in the center of Seoul the possibility to enjoy something in connection with ‘nature’. But if I think of the present situation of Seoul this question seems to me a secondary question of debate. It should be: does the Cheonggyecheon restoration suit the people of Seoul? Saying this I know that your question asked as a European implicates my question but this shows at the same time the problem in the Korean thinking, because here only the question whether it suites Seoul is asked not even thinking that Seoul has anything to do with its inhabitants or that they actually are Seoul. This is probably also the main reason why the design looks like this and can only look like this (even if the planning would have incorporated more considerations). The actual important point of public space is its complexity and configuration of indicated activities. But the Cheonggyecheon restoration is from every point of thought too two dimensional to allow anything to happen beyond just existing on itself. It seems to me that the project is more important to itself than to the experience of the people. And this actually describes perfectly Seoul as a hole.

korean public space
(A street is taken over by the adjoining program and later covered by a glass roof turning it into a mall /
An average restaurant serving as the actual dwelling of the owner and his family /
The seven layers of the Korean contemporary house: cantilevering roof (for sun protection) and respectively in the apartments a winter garden zone, fly screen, exterior window (later added isolation glazing), protective bars, actual window with milk glass, shades, curtain. A blurred reality emerges)

GS: Will the Mall facilitate Korean Culture?

RS: This is a delicate question to answer clearly. What I can say is that the huge shopping malls are a consequent result of the contemporary general Korean ‘life-style’ obsession. Korea, like most other Asian countries, seems to seek more for quantity rather than for quality. Although this quantity has to have a quality on its image level, not on the product level itself. For instance at the supermarket you can only buy brand name products and these in ‘super size’ or by the bunch what one or two people can never use up by themselves. But this doesn’t bother anyone. Obviously this is the hybrid of Korean life style. The huge shopping malls around the Cheonggyecheon area are the representation of the power of capitalism overflowing Asia nowadays and the people do not ask themselves if such a mall is an aspect of Korean culture or not. The people have less and less choice for an individual degree of quality of life, the way of the capitalistic society is last remaining. The concept of ‘mass’ is very young in Korean thinking and emerged during the times full of privations during the Korean war and the following period. The Korean culture is more and more blurred and replaced by the generic life style of capitalism. And I guess this phenomenon will continue for quite a while.

Christian Schweitzer: This is a tricky question. When I first came here, one and a half years ago, I would have had a simple answer from my European point of view. Now I am not so sure any more. I had to learn that the Koreans (or maybe all Asians) use the same terminologies as we do but the meanings are slightly different. So my answer is ‘no, the Korean is social’. But if you ask me whether the Korean is social I again would have to answer ‘no, the Korean is extremely group-orientated’. And again ‘no, the Korean is public’.
At the first sight Korean (especially Seoulian) life, including the private life, is completely public. The streets are always filled, if not to say overcrowded, with people, in every third house is a restaurant with groups of at least four people having lunch or dinner, the ‘drinking culture’ is developed to excess, a very unique ‘bang- culture’ has been developed with karaoke bars (nore-bang), bath houses (zimjil-bang, where you can stay overnight and sleep ‘in public’), etc. etc. In poorer districts whole families seem to life in their shops and restaurants, that are opened 18 hours a day 7 days a week, where you attend their private life for five minutes while buying a pack of cigarettes or while eating in their ‘living room’. For me it seems that the concept of privacy does not exist and therefore in reverse everything is public.
But this ‘public’ is just a display, the outer expression of a deeply social society where the family, social interaction, and interpersonal relations have a completely different significance as they have in western society. The Korean seems to have a radical need for ‘being together'. Aspects of this need are the fact that every (really every) Korean older than seven years has a cell phone (and always the latest model) … life is communication. The internet, and Korea is among the world top three countries with internet access, plays a highly public and communicative role among the younger generations with ‘blogs’, online diaries, chat rooms, and internet communities, in contrast to western societies where the internet is still a symbol of impersonality and social isolation.
But this ‘social’ is utterly contradicted by the extremely strong Korean characteristic of an individual achievement-orientated society (in contrast to the cliché of the Japanese collective achievement-orientation) where everything and everyone seems to be sacrificed for the personal social and occupational advancement. Therefore in Korean society a two fisted group-system evolved, a highly sophisticated network of dependencies, exclusion, and protectionism with the only aim to outrun the other groups. It is overall important which high school and university one attended, it determines in which group one gets into. The group guarantees your social status and advancement as long as you sacrifice yourself for the group. Therefore everyone outside this group is useless and valueless and therefore no social rules apply which expresses itself in a sometimes very rude and even brutal behavior towards other people in public. The ‘social’ applies only to the group, not to the society. But again this is not fully true, actually it is completely different ...

CS: Public space in Korea is a functional space to please social needs, and the most important social need is meeting other people (of the group). If a public space does not provide this explicit function, like a café, a restaurant, a whatever-bang or in larger terms a theater, a gallery, a shopping mall, it is useless and not appreciated … simple as that. Public space in Seoul therefore is mainly indoor space. Recreation, relaxation etc. are secondary needs that also only seem to work when they are combined with the primary need like in a bath house, a fitness centers or very important here in this conjunction, in contrast to Europe, a church or temple with its community facilities. Outdoor space is judged in the same functional way whereby function always indicated an economical value. The terms ‘aesthetics’, ‘calmness’, ‘beauty’ are irrelevant in these considerations. This applies not only to the ‘public’ or outdoor space but also to buildings on the exterior and even in the interior. Appearance, and therefore in a way reality, is just an envelope that enables a specific function, its inherent quality is irrelevant. Space is never just there, it always has to serve.
At the same time I can observe in our studio at the Korean National University of Arts in Seoul a strong desire among the students for a waste of space, for width and emptiness against the chaos and the over crowdedness of one of the densest cities in the world. They connect this feeling with what they believe is the European public space, the plaza and the park. Their designs however are filled again with the most absurd functions to legitimate this ‘waste’. Therefore I assume that our idea of public space cannot be transferred onto Asian cities. Korean mentality and thinking is about to create its own ‘public typology’ with space redefined through new specific functionalities that emerge from their specific desires.

CS: The concept for the Cheonggyecheon restoration is definitely not a Korean concept but neither is it an European, because nobody will get the idea to break down one of the cities most important and excellent operating traffic arteries, the inner city highway, to realize a public park. Its planning and realization however is very Korean. The speed and intransigence of its execution fits the Korean ‘bally-bally’ (quick quick) mentality, shoot first ask later. By the time of the completion in Europe not even the architectural competition would have been decided. Very un-Korean on the other hand again are the extraordinary technical complexity and economical expense to make nonexisting water flow. All in all it is a very contradictory project to even global lowest common denominator. The length of the project, the costs to build and to operate it, the specific location in Seoul, the actual design, the influenced area and its degree of present and expected development, the catchment area for potential users, the attraction to tourists and the achieved reputation are disproportionate to any thinkable added value. The overall radicalism of the idea however is breathtaking (imagine to tear down the autobahn from Frankfurt to Cologne to build the world longest golf course starting tomorrow).
However when I look closer at the actual result, going down in a sunken garden enclosed by high walls, walking for seemingly hours in a monotonous endlessly self repeating ‘virtual’ space, being completely segregated from the city, I can sense a deeply Seoul specific quality. The Korean indoor space seems to me to disconnect more and more from the exchangeability and irrelevance of the outdoor space and its appearance. The interior, the room, separates itself from the context, from what is outside. The indoor with its air-conditioning, constant neon lighting, windows blinded by advertisement or covered by function doesn’t need the city any more. Even the interior of the dwellings is filtered from the outside by endless layers of windows, sun shadings, bars, winter gardens, curtains, fly screens, plants and even furniture. Coming out of a Korean building has the same effect like coming out of a cinema and meanwhile it has become dark. Always a short moment of confusion arises, where am I, how long have I been in there, is this where I entered, from what direction did I come? It is a scary tendency that all Asian cities seem to share, but at the same time it is quite understandable. And therefore I have to say the Cheonggyecheon restoration definitely suits Seoul quite perfectly. It actually is an indoor space that neglects the city like every other indoor space here does.

CS: If the mall would not have been invented jet by the Americans, the Koreans would invent it. In the mall two very Korean characteristics are combined. The social culture of coming together in a functional public space (as mentioned above) and the aspect of the ‘market’ that is deeply rooted in Korean society. Not to confuse with the Arabic bazaar. It’s not about bargaining, actually the more expensive the more trustworthy it is. It is actually just about consumption. Markets pop up everywhere, infiltrating the streets, taking them over. The big department stores, at the first sight not distinguishable from their western equivalent, are based on the idea of the market. Every five meters two employees are advertising what is in their reach to the bypassing customer. Even in the supermarket the employee at the vegetable-sections tries to over-scream the one in the meat-section to advertise the products. For Europeans shopping in Korea is a quite noisy and stressful business.
The (western) mall definitely has become a quite significant Korean socio-cultural space. Although up until know American mall concepts are copied the immanent possibilities in adapting the specific Korean understanding of the ‘public’ have to my experience not yet been utilized. But this is just a question of time.

                         korean public space

              (Mc Donald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, Lotteria, Nescafe, and Baskin Robins
              underneath one roof, sharing a huge common seating area)

              published in in cheonggyechon cha-cha, pp. 64-73

          3.3.6  the ulterior dimensions of the line
          3.3.7  architecture as non-objectivity
          3.3.8  die tür zum garten
          3.3.9  setup for an electrotectural experiment
          3.3.10 zur psychologie des sexus
IV    exhibitions
        4.1  installations
        4.2  project exhibitions
        4.3  curation
V   publications
VI    teaching
        6.1  design studio
        6.2  theory classes
        6.3  lectures
        6.4  workshops
VII   contact

© suparc schweitzer song 2000-2013