Sunday, September 26, 2010

Seoul Ascending (NY Times)

September 23, 2010

I’m standing with Cho Min-suk, one of Seoul’s foremost architects, atop one of his own skyscrapers, a luxury apartment complex called Boutique Monaco. And it’s only perhaps from here, on high, that one can grasp what is meant by “the Miracle on the Han,” as Seoul, South Korea, is sometimes known. A hundred years ago, the city had fewer than a million people. Today Seoul boasts 23 million, making it by some counts the second-largest metropolitan area in the world.

Cho, 43, whose firm, Mass Studies, focuses primarily on the problem of designing for overcrowded spaces, seems both intellectually thrilled and sociologically concerned by the rapidity of the city’s rise. Pointing to the south side of the Han River, now home to millions of people, he says, “Forty years ago, there was nothing there. Just rice paddies and villages. When I was born, I was practically a third world child. There was a sandy beach on the Han where we would swim. Seoul was flooded during monsoon season, with pigs floating around.”

If “the Miracle on the Han” is a tribute to the rise of South Korea (whose gross domestic product is now the 15th largest in the world), it is also a study in urban development gone awry. To survey Seoul from above, from the wan, smoggy sky to the grim, phalanx-like clusters of apartment towers down to the malls, streets and sidewalks, is to countenance a world of endless grays without respite. The creation of so much housing and functional infrastructure is no doubt a stunning technological accomplishment. But it also can feel suffocating, devoid of green, of spiritual egress, of uplift or creative expression of any sort. As Cho remarks, “It’s the complete failure of urbanism.”

In what might be described as a hundred Bilbaos a-blooming, Seoul’s government has made an inspired decision to commission a retooling of Seoul’s heart, soul and mind, to tear up large swaths of the city and replace them with the best in cutting-edge global design. Like a makeover patient in a salon chair, covered in eye patches, bits of tin foil and skin wraps, the city is a patchwork of mega-construction sites like Daniel Libeskind’s Yongsan International Business District, a 32-million-square-foot multiuse complex that will yield an entire district; a brand-new high-tech, eco-friendly City Hall; and the 30-year Hangang Renaissance Project, whose parks, cultural areas and artificial islands along the Han River banks will create public access to open space and nature where literally none existed. The flagship of Seoul’s design investment is Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a cluster of biomorphic forms surrounding the old city wall, featuring a museum, library and retail space as well as 323,000 square feet of green space.

It’s too early to say whether the transformation of Seoul, the world’s biggest producer of flat-screen televisions, hand-held devices and cellphones, will produce a sleek, self-possessed and highly livable 21st-century headquarters or an impressive but inorganic white elephant of top-down planning, à la Brasilia — or, as is more likely, something in between. So far, Seoul’s realignment has been impressive enough to garner the prestigious appellation of World Design Capital 2010, a designation conferred by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design to the city that best exemplifies “design-led development.” The city’s pride in the award is made clear by the number of billboards and scaffoldings bearing the words “World Design Capital.”

While Korea’s future may look bright and shiny, the country has one of the world’s more wretched histories on file: 1,700 years of intense slavery, then repeated brutalizations, first by China; later, during the Japanese conquest from 1910 to the end of World War II; and most recently during the Korean War, when the peninsula served as a scrimmage field for Russian-American aggressions. The country’s entire history, for reasons ranging from necessity, pride, dictatorial government fiat and perhaps habit, seems an endless process of hasty repair and urgent self-transformation.

But statistics tell a story of a populace whose energies have been harvested at an unsustainable rate. Koreans work something like 2,300 hours per year — more than citizens of any other advanced nation. The country also has the highest suicide rate on the planet. Combine that with the tendency for newly wealthy citizens to demand their freedom and individual rights, and what does it add up to?

For me, it felt like the whole place was an adolescent about to turn 18. If the country was the homely nerd from high school, it seems about to become a supermodel. It wasn’t because the powers that be were imposing a sleek, high-tech aesthetic upon the citizens. It seemed more realistic that the culture and its people are just too warm, interesting and weird to keep themselves bottled up any longer.

One afternoon, I met up with the sculptor and artist Chun Sung-Myung and his friend Jae-ryung, an assistant film director. Chun had offered to give me a tour of the older part of town, north of the Han River. Here, the neighborhoods of Insa-dong and Samcheong-dong remain fetching examples of unreconstructed Seoul: pedestrian-oriented, quaint and as redolent of history as anything gets in the city. The larger streets are packed with shops and galleries, while the alleyways are sprinkled with tiny restaurants and houses with pint-size doorways.

Chun told me that long ago, the royal family used to pass frequently through these neighborhoods on their way to the palace. Locals, weary of dropping their loads and hugging the ground to bow before their betters, as dictated by custom, devised the diminutive alleyways so that the royal horses and carriages could no longer pass and disrupt them. The story seems to me to be an apt description of the relationship between Korea’s rulers and its subjects to this day.

“We don’t have a voice like you have in America,” Chun said, sitting down at Minto Communitas, a 24-hour coffee shop with blond wood tables and a Euro-leaning vibe. “We have a lot of people in such a small place, and we have to live together. If the factory is next door, making noise or pollution, you just have to learn to live with it.”

Since World War II, under the military dictatorship through 1980 and then through a democratically elected government, Korea’s politicians have exercised power through the chaebol system, a sort of benevolent oligarchy of corporate cronies — Samsung, Hyundai, Kia, Lotte, LG — who control the lion’s share of economic activity. Samsung, for example, with shipyards, cellphone businesses, electronic businesses, real estate and apartment towers, controls an estimated 20 percent of South Korea’s economic life. If the system lacks the level of transparency and democracy that might be demanded by Western polities, there can be no doubt that it has delivered a level of growth, security, prosperity and social harmony unknown to most of the world.

The price of such carefully guided progress has, for the most part, been the submission of individuality and creativity. “We’re like robots,” said Chun, whose recent artwork runs to sculptures based on his own childlike image, stuck in a silent, mythic process of endless self-mutilation and meditative self-observation. Koreans work, work some more and do not question their government. Conflict — within couples, within families, within society — is uncool. And yet signs are everywhere of a creativity and vibrancy bursting out between the seams of society. In the Minto coffee shop, one of thousands across a city that 15 years ago had almost none, young people gathered to socialize.

While their elders, raised in a third world country, dress in somewhat grim proletarian styles (derby caps, down vests), the younger people in this cafe were dressed in Uggs or Converse high-tops, skintight jeans and baseball caps. They work at Lotte World, the largest indoor amusement park, or at Spaghettia, an Italian restaurant chain: jobs that are more about having fun than rebuilding a country from the brink of starvation, as it was after the war with North Korea.

It’s not that life is less serious for the new generation of Koreans; the life trajectory of the older generation is no longer possible. Land prices have risen so fast that it’s now impossible for many young people in Seoul to move out from their parents’ homes to get married, start a family, live the middle-class dream.

After coffee, we spent some time looking for a road that no longer exists, and I heard Chun and Jae-ryung express a sentiment I would hear continually throughout my visit: “Oh, that building got torn down.” “Oh, I guess that building isn’t here anymore.” For dinner, they took me to Yang Ban Daek Restaurant, a down-home place in a private house for 26 years running — an eternity for modern South Korea. The interior is made mainly of cheap, yellowed linoleum, which I would discover is the litmus test for whether a place was New Seoul or Old Seoul.

“We’ve come so far,” Jae-ryung told me as the waitress set down some 20 small plates of banchan, or appetizers and side dishes, including glass noodles made from potato starch, oyster pancakes, a vegetable pancake, fried zucchini and kimchi. “We’ve jumped ahead so many steps in such a short time. There’s such a void between my mother and I. And in a larger way, because we’ve always had China or Japan or America telling us, ‘Go this way! Go that way!’ I’m not sure we really know what we are. You probably know what we are better than we do, in a way. It’s very hard for us to see it.”

The main dishes came, served in the middle of the table, to be shared — everything is communal here: fried corvine, baby octopus salad, tofu dishes, the tenderest abalone. Then came an obscene dish called sam hap, steamed pork belly with kimchi and fermented skate fish, with gnarly shanks of cartilage. I struggled between the stink of the skate and the toughness of the tendons. And as I digested, I thought that even if Korea does rebrand itself into a sleek capital of technology and design, the food will always serve as a hot line to the deeper soul of Korea: hearty, not so pretty, sometimes strange and almost always satisfying.

Jae-ryung’s openness and willingness to include me in a conversation about her country’s identity reminded me of something Cho, the architect, had told me. In Asia, he said, Koreans are often compared to Irish and Italians. They’re highly emotional, they like to drink, they like to read, they’re very vain, but they’re also very warm. Describing the volatility of his countrymen, Cho explained, “We have what is called a ‘steel pot mentality.’ We boil very quickly and cool very quickly!”

I was reminded of this with the cabdriver who insisted on trying my hand-rolled cigarette, nonchalant about my foreigner germs. I couldn’t think of another country where this might happen — certainly not Japan or Thailand. I thought of this, too, when watching couples in restaurants, cuddling and talking, in a way one also doesn’t see elsewhere in Asia. South Korean culture seemed centered around a kind of togetherness and intimacy that was quite appealing. Seoul seemed proof that Malthus was 180 degrees wrong, that overcrowding and prolonged suffering just make people nicer, warmer and more fun — if a little eccentric.

Who had told me that if I wanted to understand South Korea, I had to understand the opposition underlying the culture. “Austerity is what we like to present of ourselves — disciplinarian, Confucian Chinese-influenced, you know, that’s the cool side, the strict side, with the spartan apartments, which is all about stability and a ticket to middle class,” he said. “But then there’s the shamanistic side. You look at the urban environment, all these crazy signs and this crazy development — it’s more like Taoism. That’s the really lively side.”

One day, Jae-ryung and I took a walk into Euljiro, a neighborhood reminiscent of New York’s Canal Street 30 years ago: lots of trade-oriented shops specializing in sewing machines, digital lighting supplies, AC adapters and so on. A cacophony of advertisements climbed up the building sides four stories high. We ducked into a tiny alleyway, lined with grim-looking machine repair shops, to a door with a small, rusting sign. Jae-ryung was bringing me to see a fortuneteller, a man her mother and grandmother had consulted for decades. I was about to get a glimpse of the old, shamanistic, unreconstructed Korea.

The fortuneteller sat on the floor in a den surrounded by bookshelves overflowing with ancient, dusty consulting charts and books in Braille. The floor was covered in the now familiar yellow linoleum of Old Seoul. The fortuneteller, nearly deaf, nearly blind and wearing sunglasses, shouted as he asked me through clenched false teeth when my birthday was. I told him, and for 10 minutes he squinted into his charts, which he held with one hand, while making calculations on the other hand using an abacus-like device. Having divined my future, he barked out, “You spend too much! You earn little, and you spend too much!” He told me that if I got married in 2010 and let my wife handle the finances, I might have a chance in life. In fact, I would have a family that would last me until I die. He then cried out a final admonition: “You should have become a technician!”

After my encounter with the fortuneteller, I decided to go further into Korea’s shamanistic side, to dig deeper into the culture’s underbelly. I found myself in a five-story bathhouse in the famous foreigner zone in Itaewon, north of the Han. Formerly known as the red-light district, the area still has a couple of streets with transvestites and strip clubs, but it’s quickly becoming gentrified. For South Koreans, bathhouses function like public parks. There were dozens of nooks and side rooms for people to read manga, use the Internet, watch TV, eat and lounge by the hour. It wasn’t the decision to go to the bathhouse that was so exotic — it was the choice of having a full-body scrub. I’d been told it would be painful — “kind of like going to the car wash,” Cho had said. “They just strip you down and skin you. With some rubbery thing, some abrasive thing. You will feel brand-new, like brand-new baby.”

The bathhouse part was delightful. I had been warned that the older men might unabashedly check me out, having never seen a naked Westerner before. No big deal. Then a nearly naked man who looked like an Asian version of Howard Cosell started to scrub me as hard as he possibly could with something like Brillo pads. I kept grunting in pain, but Howard didn’t care. Thirty minutes and 16 dollars later, I was a broken man with weird little scabs all over my body. So much for brand-new baby.

No matter how excruciating the massage was, these old-school, pre-consumer culture pleasures endeared me to the city. My next thought, of course, was how much longer they might last. The city is going to keep changing — and very fast. Today, it’s nowhere near as “cool” as, say, Tokyo or London. And yet it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Seoul is the future. It throbs. As Chun called it, it’s “a 24-7 city,” open late, eager to do business, confident about what tomorrow may bring.

On my last day in Seoul, I had lunch with Kim Min-hee and her colleague, Kwon Mi-sun, two 30-something editors at a popular publishing company called KCC, the Korea Copyright Center.

We sat in a coffee shop in Hong Dae, the neighborhood surrounding Hongik University, a large art school. Kim looked out the window at all the kids and surprised me by saying she’s not sure she wants to have any of her own. “We’ve built this country up so much, and the world is so polluted. I just feel like I’d feel so guilty about leaving a kid on this planet, after what we and our parents have done.” She fake-shrugged, addressing her rhetorical progeny with a wince — “Sorry we polluted everything so much!”

For Kim and Kwon, Korea had reached the limits of traditionally defined “accomplishment.” It kind of seemed like a good idea to let the society relax, download a bit. Nearly everyone I met had a sibling who had or was about to tune out or drop out. Cho’s sister had moved out to the country to live on a farm. Chun and his girlfriend had moved an hour and a half outside Seoul to live in a big warehouse. Who needed the hustle and bustle anymore?

In the past, the most popular books sold by KCC were about success and self-help. South Koreans were never interested in reading about themselves. All they wanted were books from foreigners about how to get ahead and how to become better — at everything. Recently, however, people had become hungry for domestic authors, writing about Korean life, Korean society. Even more surprising, poetry books were becoming popular — with big print and meditative illustrations.

The recent global economic crash had simply sped along the process of disillusionment with growth, Kim said. Ever since the financial crisis, they said, South Koreans had begun seeing the limitations of a world defined entirely by fickle material success. “People in modern Korean life are just going and going and going,” she said. “They finally just want to be able to have a moment of peace!” ◦

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