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
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
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.
(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.
(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
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.