Thoughts on urban planning, city design, architecture, the built environment, social issues, Seoul, Korea, and soon... London


New Urban Living Design Experiments in Seoul 

Seoul over the past year has seen the (high) rise of a new living and urban design experiments. These experiments are about a square kilometer or two in size, containing a variety of singular and clusters of similar apartment towers (some of the tallest buildings on the Korean Peninsula), with a few office blocks thrown in for good measure. Each area is largely designed and built by one developer (inevitably a chaebol -- a family-owned and operated conglomerate). Two examples are Dogok (Samsung) and Omokyo (Hyundai).

The experiments through the design of the individual apartments, the buildings and the urban layout intimate a new, Western -- and therefore "modern" -- lifestyle. This is all the more apparent when they are contrasted with the dominant form of apartment complex design (and therefore living) that has been, and continues to be, erected en masse since the 1960s by the very same developers (i.e. chaebol). These older cookie-cutter cement slab apartment buildings composed of identical apartment units dominate every South Korean city today -- sometimes built row on row, sometimes in fours facing each other, but almost always with the space in between filled with parking lots. The usually 10-20 storey blocks, though bland, economical and severe, did attempt through form to accommodate mainstream Korean lifestyles.

The most obvious of these are ondol, under-floor heating, and the veranda, that each of these older apartments has. Ondol is conducive to life at floor level, where most Korean living customarily has taken and continues to take place. The verandas are not usually used for tables, lunching or leisure; they most often serve a place for performing daily household chores, including laundry and food preparation. Moreover, they are the clearest definer of the apartment blocks’ facades.

What is most noticeable about these new living experiments is the loss of the veranda. The activities that belonged to the veranda now belong to modern convenience: combination washer-dryers replaced the need for space to hang clothing to dry (by far the most common use for the verandah in the older-style apartments); food can be bought prepared and packaged, meaning the end of laboriously washing, cutting and fermenting vegetables (Korean staples) on the balcony. The main living space, or “living room” as it is known in North America now opens directly to the outside. Ondol is still there (which is perhaps for the best, as it is an economical and efficient heating method).

The buildings themselves tend to live up to certain current prescriptions for good design, particularly mixed-use and varied apartment floor plans. However, the inhuman scale from the street, the uniformity in tenants (the well-off aspiring for Western-style living) and commercial focus on upscale food and restaurants is not creating a lively neighborhood. The streets are dead, the commercial spaces not well patronized. The monumental scale of the buildings, most with a three-to-five-story base for a shopping mall are domineering, leaving no place for people to want to stop. Even the plazas created between the buildings are so controlled that they are cold, void and unattractive. Given the expensiveness of the stores and restaurants and the uninviting streets, people from outside the area are rare to venture in.

The experiments have thus in part achieved their goal: Western living -- that of a static haughty North American suburb made vertical.

I completely aggree with you and of your assesment of Western Life impeding itself to much on Korean life styles. But this is a problem that now has become so attuned to the way of Korean Apartment design that people are not searching for way to make them better. Do you however have any suggestions for leaving this very cold street & human scale idea, and of one that perhaps might venture into the propagation of a more elegant and inviting atmosphere.
Thank You
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