Progress Report 30.1
Look at that - we made it to 30! Hooray!
Given that I've been writing these things for a good way over two years (albeit recently with a more geological regularity than back in the day), I grant you that this isn't the most towering of achievements. But anyways, here we are at 30, and being as the world opted some time ago for a base-10 counting system, it gives us some small recourse to celebration. Hooray again!
And here I am at 32. Last week. Me. Thirty-two years of age. Hooray! The numbers spell maturity, but so also does my performing the utterance with such easy deportment. Feel the angst-free manner in which I type it: Thirty-two long and largely unproductive years alive I have to my name, and I don't care who the devil knows it.
How things are changed! When I first entered this decade, the passage was not an easy one, to say the least. As I recall, back in 2006, I was drunk from September 27th up until the end of the first week of October. There were tantrums, there was pleading, there was all kinds of acting out before I could truly come to terms with the grief I felt for my youthfulness, and none of it was particularly becoming of me. However, September 27th 2008 passed without such histrionic kicking and screaming: It began with an early rise and a wholesome breakfast, followed by a day of preparing food for my evening guests - had it not been for the frenzied murder of a child in the late part of the afternoon, you might not have even known it was my birthday.
Speaking of birthdays, we have also occasion to mark the founding of a kingdom. Today is the 5,000th-odd anniversary of the day that demigod Tangeun impregnated a human female who had once been a bear. Depending on your politics, this is either a highly regrettable event of retroactive bestiality or a highly advantageous union such as Jane Austen might have once conceived. Regardless of your judgment, it was a top-heavy coupling that begat the entire Korean race. From these seedy but mildly fascinating origins, the mighty Han people went forth across the peninsula, and whence have singularly failed to achieve anything remotely of interest to the rest of the world for fully five millennia.
This may be a somewhat harsh appraisal - I believe there may have been an interesting war with the Japanese somewhere around the 17th century - but for the larger part of its history, Korea (in its various tedious guises: Chosun, Koryo, Shilla, the Three Kingdoms, u.s.w.) has failed to distinguish itself in the popular imagination of either the West or its closer neighbours. Its backstory is a wasteland of bickering skirmishes, spineless suzerainty, and tiresome, caretaker kings. Confucianism kept the peasantry in check, the aristocracy did the paperwork and the monastic castes variously came and went from favour.
It was a kingdom that was happy to plough its own plodding furrow, and thus didn't much care for the attentions of world around it. It had no ambitions to expand its borders, and no desire to see them either encroached. Foreign visitors usually took the form of invading detachments, who were either repelled or subsumed into the existing order as was seen fit. Occasional hapless shipwrecked sailors washing up on these shores were held hostage or hacked to pieces. Missionaries were tolerated or tortured to death depending on the efficacy of their preaching. It was, in short, a most insular peninsula.
That's not to say that it was any lesser a culture than its neighbours for the greater part of its history. It had its ceramics, its visual arts, its theatre, its poetry, and its architecture. It had its glaring feudal social divisions and a languorous aristocracy. In these departments, it could hold its own against any comers. Still would things be thusly ticking over had the world not modernized around it.
It was this failure to keep abreast of changing tide that was to cost the nobility their place at the top of the pile, and a few million of the peasantry their lives. And of Korea's cultural achievements, it would be the architecture that would pay the greatest price.
The subject of architecture is what I now intend to address, but first, an interlude, whilst I make a request of you:
Go and find an architect (or failing that, Brian Sewell). Once you have him, sit him down, give him a drink and ask him to name his top three cities in terms of their architectural beauty. Then further ask him to name his next ten. And then go on to the next hundred. Keep this up to the mid-to-high thousands, and then, maybe, after exhausting the lesser African capitals and Kingston-upon-Hull, you might catch a mention, between the studious umms and aahs, of the city of Seoul. The release of this single syllable (which is strictly two in its Korean pronunciation, but he probably won't know that) is your signal to thank him and let him on his way, for my point will have been proven.
What am I getting at? Simply, that Seoul is one of the ugliest cities in the world.
Even the staunchest of Korean nationalists (a double tautology - all Korean nationalists are staunch, and all staunch Koreans are nationalists) would have trouble erecting a rebuttal to such a statement. With its innumerable identikit high-rise apartments mushrooming in fecund clumps, the poured-concrete office blocks with unadorned features, the raised monster highways and six-lane city streets - only a Russian would declare it a vision to behold. Its constant murky miasma of smog seems part of the design. The greyness of its concrete is exhausting. The plain-coloured spastic signboards stick to the buildings like the vomit from a scavenged meal - undesigned, unplanned, and ugly, they are the dermatological symptom of the deep inner rot.
I have every reason to believe that there was until recently only one architect in Seoul. His monopoly position was little advantage to him, for he was commissioned for three or four blueprints and then sent to have his skill set reassigned. From his brief portfolio, every building in the city was constructed. Any questions of form and function were answered unswervingly in favour of the latter. Aesthetic concerns were not an issue. The buildings were simply structures, to be lived in, not looked at. No wonder they were so often beset with a gin-blossom of signboards - randomly-hung plates of anti-creativity, with identical, single-weighted lettering marooned upon an aphasic ground.
The tiresome, beauty-challenged nature of the construction belies the situation of its provenance. This is a city that was built from scratch. Much as many other Asian metropoleis were projected skyward with an impossibly short turnaround, so Seoul found itself in the post-war years with a rapidly expanding population to house, by consequence of its sudden modernisation. However, there is not here the creative, celebrated chaos of a Hanoi or Bangkok. This was no crazed proliferation, no orgiastic entrepeneurial pollination where fortunes and opportunists birthed a teeming skyline, but a centrally-planned and sensibly-managed union of government capital and a handful of big corporations. This was fascist architecture: Disciplined, functional, bereft of inspiration; a triumph over the human spirit.
It was a resounding statement on the order of the new Republic. Corporations built the apartments to house workers for their factories, and branded them accordingly. The peasantry were now the labour force whether they liked it or not. Those not willing to work and follow orders of their immediate superiors had no place in the new Korea, except for the countryside or to internment camps in the mountains.
But what of the architectural legacy of the past? How could the ornate and intricate achievements of previous generations be combined with such gunmetal insipidity? Such concerns are reconciled with great aplomb in some other Asian cities - most notably Osaka, to cite one example from my own experience. How in Seoul might the old confront the new? Such synthesis, as things turned out, was simply not an issue.
Why? Because over the course of the three years of the Korean war, almost every building in Korea had been razed to the ground. For the effect it had on architecture, it may as well have been a war against right angles. Countless homes, shops, temples, markets, halls, and structures of miscellaneous designation were left in ruins. Hundreds of irreplaceable cultural relics were lost forever amidst the pointless destruction of the conflict.
This is not to say that there were many cultural relics to lose. For you see, whilst Japan had been an occupying colonial force from 1906 up until 1945, they had overseen a restructuring of Korea to fit more closely to their 'Japan's little brother' ideal. This meant that they oversaw the construction of a basic industrial infrastructure, as well as paved highways and brick and concrete municipalia. (I believe I may have made this word up. I intend it to mean 'government offices, schools, and the like'.)
Japan was in a strong position to play the colonial power back at the beginning of the 20th century. It had recognized the change in the global weather and took steps to make its own voice heard, signing treaties with various major players rather than ceding cities and being colonized piecemeal as was happening in China. Its establishing itself on the world stage instead led it to become the aggressor toward its less forward-looking neighbours. Hence the sly sortie onto Korean soil.
Once established, the Japanese rulers weren't particularly interested in having anything too Korean around to remind them of the true nature of their task. Korea to them was not so much a self-contained kingdom with a 5,000 year history as a wayward sibling being brought onto the right path; laying waste to palaces, forts and temples was akin to buying it some new clothes. The peasantry, needless to say, were treated with equal disdain. Those who weren't willing to co-operate were reeducated in the classical fashion, though there were plenty who most certain were willing. The best of these ended up in charge when the Americans docked their boats, and were happy to assist in making their brothers and sisters put-upon subjects once again. What IS it with peasantries?
So now we're left with a capital city that is short on pretty but heavy on efficient. And what is my motive in bringing the subject up? Well, firstly, some degree of it is misanthropic bile. I'm venting, I suppose, but not without some provocation. Seoul IS ugly, make no mistake. However, things do appear to be changing. New buildings occasionally break the mould. Architects are starting to show some confidence. It will be a long time off before the city moves away from looking like Milton Keynes to the nth power, but the roots for a renaissance have been laid. This is not just in the showpiece structures at the heart of the city, but on the outskirts too. A new library recently opened in my neighbourhood whose design I might go so far as to call 'postmodern'. In point of fact, in my visits there thus far, I don't recall having even seen a book.
But, as always seems to be the case with Korea, there are entries on both side of the ledger. Whilst we may now have some attractive municipalia sprouting forth, there was a significant loss not too long ago. Back in February of this year, Seoul's southern gate - Namdaemun - was largely destroyed by arson. What had been the city's oldest wooden structure, dating back to 1398, was ravaged by fire when a sour-tempered ajoshi, goaded by his being short-changed on a property deal, snuck into the structure, dampened it liberally with paint thinner, and set the thing ablaze. Thus one more artefact of Korea's cultural heritage was laid waste.
How much of the gate was actually antique is open to some debate. It would seem that a great deal of it dates back only to the slightly less imperious epoch of the early 1960s, when extensive repairs were made. Nevertheless, it was a significant loss for a city that could ill afford to lose another bauble.
There was, however, not nearly as much wailing and gnashing of teeth as I expected there to be. There was emotion, mos' def, but not quite on the scale one might anticipate. I would dearly like to read into this the signs of a city looking forward to its future rather than fetishizing its past. In this indulgence, I hope I'm not being too optimistic. As an individual with an increasingly lengthy history with no heritage to show, its a notion I might also indulge about myself.
Anyways, that enough from me.
I promise never to talk about architecture ever again.
Until next time,