Seoul: Week 3 – Paju + The Vertical Village

This past week was dedicated primarily to research on and in Paju Bookcity. On Monday Ran and had the honor of meeting with Seung H-Sang, one of the chief design coordinators for PBC. We discussed his thoughts about contemporary Korean urban planning, his own involvement in the design of Phase 1 of Paju Bookcity, and his hopes for the future development of Paju. And I forgot to mention that last week we met with Baek Won Keun, Chief Researcher of the Korean Publishing Research Institute, with whom we discussed the history and future of Korean publishing, and how that past and future have informed, and perhaps should inform, the evolution of PBC. Tuesday and Wednesday (in addition to last Friday) were dedicated entirely to on-site research and interviews in Paju. I’ll offer a more comprehensive picture of our work in a later post.

For now, I’ll talk about a fantastic — and highly relevant, given the week’s recurring discussion themes — exhibition I saw at the Total Museum of Contemporary Art yesterday. MRVDV / The Why Factory were invited to present “The Vertical Village,” a big, dynamic, playful, and terrifically smart exhibition about city-building. After hearing so much talk this week, in our conversations with architects and planners, about their general dissatisfaction with the pace and products of recent Asian urban developments — and after seeing so many interchangeable “New Towns” along the road from Seoul to Paju — “The Vertical Village” presents a provocative look at some alternatives. (It’s worth noting that Paju Bookcity’s planners prided themselves on their rejection of Western-style master-planning and capital-driven development, and their foregrounding of collaboratively-defined, humanistic design values.)

Looking out the window of the Jijihyang Guesthouse in Paju Bookcity, with a mess of white “New Towns” visible on the horizon (you’ll have to click to open a larger version of the image)

From the lovely little Welcome to the Vertical Village catalogue (which I got for free, in exchange for completing a survey about the exhibition!):

For centuries, the fabric of East Asian cities has been formed by urban villages that are built up of small scale, informal, often ‘light’ architecture: the hutongs in Beijing, the small — mostly wooden — houses in Tokyo, the villages in Singapore, the kampungs in Jakarta, as well as the individual houses and rooftop-extensions in Taipei.

These urban villages form intense, socially connected communities where strong individual identities and differences are maintained. Because they are, and have been, inhabited mostly by the poor, land is cheap — and therefore, change comes easily…

Driven by demographic and economic forces since the start of the second millennium, these cities are rapidly changing. In a relentless ‘Block Attack,’ massive towers, slabs and blocks with repetitive housing units, floor plans and facades are invading — scraping away the urban villages that have evolved over hundreds of years. These alien buildings provide a Western standard of living, destroying indigenous communities in the process. They obstruct urban innovation and discourage differentiation, flexibility and individual ideas.

Is there a better way to develop these areas? Could we densify them without sacrificing the informality of the urban village? Could we even apply the principles of informality to generate new neighborhoods? What if we could grow urban villages vertically, as an alternatives to the monotonous sea of blocks?

This approach could enable housing types with terraces and roof gardens that accommodate leisure activities. This comfortable lifestyle might even attract the middle and upper classes, leading to a more mixed and less segregated society. Homes could even be combined with small-scale offices and workspaces. In contrast to the blocks, this new village type might enable an architecture based on individual expression and identity…

Can this new kind of village be developed in an evolutionary manner? Can a workable model for a self-organized process of city-building be provided?… Such a development would require a framework and a set of principles to regulate and support the individuality of its elements, while guaranteeing safety, sunlight, sanitation, and the wishes of its inhabitants. What technologies would be needed? How can health regulations and air rights be addresses? What about fire safety? Can development be phased?

We need to provide a workable model for a truly self-organized manner of city building — a model that combines individuality, differentiation and collectivity with the need for densification, as an alternative to the Block Attack. A model that can generate a vertical village — a three-dimensional community that brings personal freedom, diversity, flexibility and neighborhood life back into Asian — and maybe even Western — cities.

A model of the exhibition at the gallery entrance

The exhibition is organized into 15 “stations”:

  • The Introduction, from which I quoted above
  • “Block Attack,” which defines the phenomenon
  • “The Properties of Communities,” which draws on such thinkers as Christopher Alexander and Jane Jacobs to identify the qualities that distinguish healthy communities
  • “The Death and Life of the Urban Village,” which “trac[es] the evolution of nine very different Asian cities [to provide] insight into the development, the current status and the future of urban villages”
  • “Unfulfilled Domestic Desires,” which features videos of young families in Taipei discussing what they look for in a “nice house”
  • “The Housemaker(c),” a prototype “software program that can address the many requirements of prospective homebuyers,” e.g., number of rooms, layout, shape, materials, etc.
  • “Dream,” a section whose specific focus I don’t recall!;
  • “Google Search,” which features a selection of search results when one googles phrases containing the phrase “vertical” and “village,” and examines what we can learn from these precedents;
  • “Investigating Evolution,” which features the results of an experiment: designed “[]
    o enhance knowledge of the Vertical Village’s growth, to understand the relationships among its different elements, and to test the necessary rules…. Cubes represented individual houses, with each color representing one parameter. Growth over X years was simulated for six days, for six identical plots, following six parameters, resulting in a battle of conflicting desires. How does the village’s economy compete with community?…”
  • “Ask the Experts,” where various designers, academics, officials, etc. share their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities presented by the Vertical Village;
  • “SuperKampung,” which examines “the socioeconomic side of communities in Jakarta,” and tests what might happen if nine different kampungs, each with its own informal structures and economies, joined forces into a Super Kampung;
  • “Five Villages,” which presents five possible manifestations of a Vertical Village on a plot of a standard size, with a given number of inhabitants and development time-span;
  • “The VillageMaker(c),” “an open-source software program that allows future inhabitants to collectively develop a vertical village in an evolutionary way” (I couldn’t play because everything was in Korean!);
  • “A Day in the Life of…,” where we can “peek in on the lives of the inhabitants of the VV”;
  • and “Project Chronology,” which is what it says it is.
Out on the patio — the “Preface” to the “Introduction” station.
“The Housemaker(c)” Stations
A not-so-great shot of the lowest of the three levels of the exhibition. It’s much larger than it appears!
Peeking through a peephole into one of several Vertical Village models

It was such a fun and engrossing show I spent a good hour in the museum. And on my way out, I caught a glimpse of a strange form up in the hills of Pyeongchang-dong — so I hiked up some crazily steep streets to get a closer look. I’d love to learn more about this place:

So awesomely weird!

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My final days in Seoul were dedicated to lots of writing, a final meet-up with Minhyoug (during which we apparently crossed paths with some Korean TV stars, whom I never would’ve recognized); final climbs up Inwangsan mountain (where I discovered a marvelous temple tucked up in the rocks) and Namsan; and an evening in Hongdae and Hapjeong with Ran, during which I marveled at all the cute cafes in the back alleys, and finally recognized just how central convenience stores seem to be to public life in Seoul: the Family Marts commonly put tables outside, and local folks of all stripes hang out and drink — and, while I was there, watch the Olympics.

My final full-day in Korea was the first honest-to-God mostly-sunny day I was able to enjoy on my entire trip, so I caught a nice northern panorama from the top of Namsan:


Re-Centering Centre County: Life After Football

Until recently nobody had ever heard of my hometown. When people asked where I was from, I’d say, “Oh, about 15 minutes’ drive from [Larger, More Recognizable College Town.]” That changed in May, when my beloved Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, played host to the Jerry Sandusky trial. TV vans — from local news outlets to major networks — lined the streets of Victorian buildings. They double-parked outside the community service center, where my mom volunteers on Fridays; outside the YMCA, where my grandmother does her “aquacize” a couple mornings each week; outside the jewelry store where my brother and sister-in-law bought their wedding bands nearly a decade ago.

Unfortunately, my connections to the whole Sandusky debacle don’t end there. I went to Penn State, too, although I certainly never wanted to. I had my heart set on Swarthmore. But when it came down to money — Swarthmore was $15,000 or so after scholarships; Penn State was pretty much free, thanks to my admission into the Scholars Program — I had to choose “free,” especially when I was expecting tons of medical school debt (back then, in the mid-90s, I thought I was going to be a doctor).

Growing up a stone’s throw from a college town — a sports-crazy, heavily Greek-ified, but still charmingly idyllic college town — meant I was exposed at a very young age, and repeatedly, to strong examples of what I definitely didn’t want to be when I grew up: a football fan, a sloppy drunk, a sorority girl. I resented that we had to plan our fall weekends around the home football game schedule; we always went grocery shopping *during* the game, while 3/4 of Centre County — as well as roughly half the population from the neighboring states (I exaggerate slightly) — was safely locked up inside the stadium. During those four quarters the roads were dead, and my mom and I had the mall and the Weis Market all to ourselves.

I managed to get through four years of Penn State without seeing a single football game. If only my then-boyfriend hadn’t forced me to sit through one set of a volleyball match one evening, I could claim the dubious distinction of never having seen a single Penn State sports game during my undergraduate tenure. In lieu of sports, we went to shows — to concerts my boyfriend and his friends organized at the student union building, or to shows in Philly and Pittsburgh — and I tutored kids in math and ESL, and worked at an independent indie-rock-and-jazz record store in the basement below McLanahan’s Drug Store, and studied my butt off.

And occasionally I waitressed — at the fanciest restaurant in town, it just so happens (whatever mental image you have of this restaurant, scale it down a bit; “fanciest” is relative.) I was told that some of the Penn State brass were investors, and I occasionally had the honor of serving single-malt scotches and filets to university trustees and local luminaries, including, on occasion, Joe Paterno. Those were the only occasions I’d ever been in the man’s presence. To this day, I haven’t seen a football game at Beaver Stadium. I’m sure I never will.

The only presence Penn State sports have had in my life has been a negative presence: I’ve gone out of my way to avoid them. It’s not that I don’t like sports; growing up, we had season tickets to Pittsburgh Pirates games, and my brother was a great baseball and soccer player, so I’ve been to my share of sporting events. And if we had girls’ soccer and/or field hockey teams at my school, I definitely would’ve played. But I never really liked college sports, and I particularly disliked what I imagined — based on those early negative encounters — to be the culture of debauchery and fanaticism associated with some of the sports teams at PSU.

And as much as I, during my high school days, didn’t want to have to attend the home-town college, I have to admit that Penn State offered me a fabulous education. I met some wonderful scientists and mathematicians during my couple years as a chemistry major. And when I eventually switched over to where I belonged, in the liberal arts, I encountered some faculty who’ve changed my life: Rich Doyle and Marie Secor in English, Peirce Lewis in Cultural Geography, Susan Strohm in Research Methods (yes, Research Methods!). And there are many others. I eventually graduated first in my class in 1998 — just as the Sandusky affairs began to surface, although securely behind closed doors.

I’d never admit to having school pride, but I eventually came to appreciate Penn State for all it offered me: some inspiring faculty, a great education, a mind-blowing breadth of fields of study, a beautiful campus, and steeled conviction that it was perfectly okay not to like the same things so many of my fellow students seemed to like.

Every time I go back home to Bellefonte and find myself driving south on Interstate 99, the first marker of my alma mater that I see on the horizon is the football stadium, springing up in all its “technological sublimity” from green, rolling hills, and framed by gentle mountains. How unfortunate that the most immediately recognizable symbol has always been the one that embodies the opposite of my experience there. But still, the stadium was only one element in a landscape that was, for the most part, rather pastoral and evocative of lots of pleasant memories.

That stadium once represented for me little more than wasted time and money, empty calories, and occasional buffoonery. Now it emblematizes pathetically distorted priorities, reprehensible irresponsibility, and tremendous shame. And sorrow — sorrow for Sandusky’s victims, sorrow for what’s become of my school, and for what could become of my hometown.

The repercussions of Sandusky’s and other university leaders’ abominable behavior will ripple out far beyond the stadium. Or course those most directly and profoundly affected are Sandusky’s victims themselves, and it’s their experience with which we should be most concerned. But theirs aren’t the only lives these crimes will impact. “Innocent” football players (I never thought I’d utter such a phase) will find their dreams dashed (I find it hard to get all worked up over this one.). University applications and enrollment will likely drop. State funding could be cut, potentially impacting scholarship students, which I once was. And students, faculty, and staff will have to live with the university’s tarnished reputation — and come to terms with the terrible things that have happened there (it’s such a shame that most current discussion is about rallying the football team — rather than rebuilding the university as a whole, or, even more important, addressing the larger issues of sexual abuse.)

What’s more, the local economy is in jeopardy. I’ve always thought it ridiculous that some local businesses’ financial stability was tied directly to the football team — but, like it or not, that’s the economy we’ve created in Centre Country. Some shops and restaurants need those lucrative football weekends to sustain themselves for the rest of the year. A lot of local condos and apartments belong to football weekend residents, who use these homes solely as a crash pad during fall home-game weekends. Ridiculous, yes — but what happens to the local real estate market when these folks try to dump their game-weekend second homes? What happens to the college students who rely on game-weekend tips at local restaurants and part-time jobs at local hotels? Or to all the other local shops and services that rely on football traffic — or that support these other businesses that serve the football patrons? I reserve part of my sorrow for family and friends who are likely to be adversely affected (through several degrees of separation, via economic ripple affects) by the actions of a corrupt few.

I’ve always found it so baffling that a local culture and economy could allow itself to become so dependent upon one industry — and an industry it is. It’s big-time, commercial-supported, televised sports. Equally dismaying is that any university could allow something so non-essential to its core mission to become its key money-maker, its signature program. Dismaying, yes — but surprising, no. Penn State certainly isn’t an isolated case in this regard. But this, too — the political economy of the entire county, and undoubtedly other parts of the country with Big Ten towns — is the product of misaligned priorities.

Everyone — everyone in that verdant valley that I love so much — has to reassess their priorities. When we wail and tear our clothes over the dishonoring of a man who ignored the suffering of dozens of child victims — and are so consumed by our grief that we forget to acknowledge the trauma endured by those victims, something’s wrong. When we sweep injustice under the rug in order “to save face,” something’s wrong. When “for the good of the team” is regarded as the greatest good, something’s wrong. When we erect statues and create ice cream flavors honoring a freaking football coach, something’s wrong. When we keep building new sports facilities but have to cut our liberal arts education, something’s wrong. When the cancellation of a silly three-hour game means the ruination of your business, you’ve got a bad business plan.

Come on, Penn State and Centre Country, acknowledge your screwed up priorities and fix yourself. Recognize that you’ve got a lot more going for you than football. And that goes for you, too, rest of the country. There are probably Penn States out there everywhere; it just happens that an example has been made of mine.


Sounding Towers on CCA’s Site

Richard Pare, photographer. The Shabolovka Radio Tower, Moscow. 2000. Digital print, 102.2 x 112 cm. CCA Collection. PH2001:0119 © Richard Pare

While I was a Visiting Scholar at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in June I delivered a public lecture on “Hearing Infrastructure” and wrote a short piece, recently posted to the CCA’s website, on two such sonic infrastructures represented in the CCA’s collection. My post, “Sounding Towers,” discusses Richard Pare’s 2000 photo of Vladimir Shukhov’s Shabolovka Radio Tower and El Lissitzky’s “Lenin at the Podium” — both infrastructures for vocality.

Unknown photographer. Photograph of a drawing of El Lissitzky’s Lenin Tribune. c. 1924. Gelatin silver print, 23.5 x 17.5 cm. CCA Collection. PH1984:0124

Seoul: Week 2

Buam-dong’s profundities

Most of my time this week was spent finishing up this book chapter; meeting with my RA, who arrived on Monday, to finalize our research plans; and conducting our first day of field research and our first interview at Paju. When I wasn’t doing that,I was doing this:

I went with Minhyoung on Sunday to Yongsan, her neighborhood, for dumplings, and then to the National Museum of Korea. It’s interesting to see that they’re building a calligraphy museum (or something of the sort) next door. We also swung by the Han River because I had read an article in Arch Daily just the previous week about Seoul’s Floating Islands, and I was intrigued:

H Architecture in New York and Haeahn Architecture in Seoul collaborated and won a design competition to create the floating islands that will become a cultural icon of Seoul. Programmatically, the islands contain several cultural, educational, and recreational functions. They will be the venue for many featured events in the city. The design concept stems from the stages of a blooming flower: a seed, bud, and blossom. Each of the islands take on the form of one of these stages, manifesting as delicate yet bold structures of glass, wood, and steel. When completed, the islands were named “Sebit Dungdungseom” which translates to “3 Floating Lantern Islands.”

via Haeahn Architecture, by way of Arch Daily

Sounds lovely. But what Arch Daily didn’t tell us is that those islands  — along with the hideous new City Hall addition by iArc — are apparently a sore spot for some locals. They blame previous administrations for pushing through these and other unwanted and unpopular projects. And a day after the Arch Daily post ran, the Korea Times ran a story about the “grave errors” in the Floating Islands project:

Seoul City’s special audit team announced Thursday that the previous municipal administration bypassed proper procedure to recklessly press ahead with a controversial Floating Island project.

The team said that the construction project for the island on the Han River turned out to be riddled with “grave errors” and that it had decided to take disciplinary action against 15 officials in charge of the project. The action will include layoffs, salary reductions and reprimands.

“The project will be recorded as the most problematic private investment project in Seoul’s history,” said Kim Sang-beom, deputy mayor of the city government. “We will correct the inappropriate parts of the contract.” Ouch. I revisited the Han River again today — our first “sunny” day (ha!) in a while — to get a closer look at the Islands.

Anyway. Earlier this week I revisited that little village north of the Blue House that I happened upon last week, and discovered that it’s called Buam-dong. I found the Whanski Museum hidden in the hills. It was designed by Kyu Sung Woo, but it looks a bit like the Kimbell Art Museum. I couldn’t find a vantage point to get a good shot:

On my walk I also encountered a Navkingdom “streetview” car taking panoramic photos for some company’s mapping system; and a construction site about which I can find nothing online: half is a museum-ish contemporary building; the other half is built into a hill.

The following days involved some more art. At the Seoul Museum of Art Ran and I saw the “Mapping Realities” show (which mapped Korean politics to art movements) and “Hidden Track” (which I didn’t really get, but which included a few interesting pieces), and then we sat for the entirety of a really nice screening of Asian shorts (about which I can’t find anything online! — but I do remember that Apichatpong Weerasethakul was among the filmmakers).

Art Press translations from the 70s
A tower of boxes. I couldn’t find the wall label, so I have no idea who’s responsible for this.

Several works at in the “Mapping Realities” show were drawn from the archive of Pool art space, in the northern part of my neighborhood, so we headed up there — after some awesome patbingsu at Cafe Spring (our food and the place were so lovely I regret not taking photos!) — later that afternoon. They had a really interesting, if not entirely cohesive, show called “25hr sailing,” which “looks into the Euljiro area for image projection and picks out 3 vanishing points to focus on…: cinema business, printing companies and moon snails.” Disappearing media spaces: right up my alley.

25hr sailing
I liked this row of chairs.

I also dedicated a couple hours one afternoon to a Koolhaas tour — but we had a bit of bad luck. We went to see his art museum at Seoul National University but found a sign on the door indicating that it was closed, unexpectedly, for several days. I’ll have to settle for an exterior view because I’m not heading all the way back to campus again.

Seoul National University Museum of Art

Then we headed to Leeum, the Samsung Museum of Art (I’ve discovered that there’s an implied “Samsung” in front of every institution’s name here), a totally chi-chi space for which R.K. designed one of the three main buildings — but it, too, was closed, for two openings: Art Spectrum, featuring emerging Korean artists; and Pippilotti Rist. The stream of fancy cars kept us from examining even the facilities — so this trip was a complete bust. But I was resolved to return. I couldn’t miss these buildings — nor Pippilotti, namesake of my cat. (Leeum follow-up visit photos below)

The following day we began our interviews, and when they were over we went for lunch nearby in Insadong — which happened to be near Samcheong, where there were a few recently opened shows I wanted to see. So we took an hour to visit Cheng Ran’s “Cinema of Silence” at Arario; Jungmin Ryu’s “The Path of Error” (photocollages we really enjoyed) at Trunk Gallery; and “Desirable Routine” (mostly-Danish-modern-furniture-and-art vignettes, which, again, I enjoyed) at Gallery Hyundai.

Cinema of Silence
Close-up of “The Path of Error”
Desirable Routine

The following day we were “in the field” at Paju (about which I’ll write separately) — but before heading back to Seoul, we swung by an observatory to catch a glimpse of the neighbors to the north. Off there in the mist is an Axis of Evil. Can you feel it?

North Korea!


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UPDATE: Ran and I revisited Leeum on Sunday. It was well worth the trek. What an impressive space — with three buildings, each of distinctive character, designed by Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel, and Rem Koolhaas — and what fantastic shows! I understand that some folks think of the museum as rather extravagant and showy — and there is indeed a haughty air permeating the space — but I can’t deny that it’s a fabulous museum, and very much accommodating of a wide variety of art forms. I seemed to get in trouble every time I tried to take a picture, so I have few photos to share — but there are plenty of images on the Leeum website.

Mario Botta’s building, with a Feliz Gonzales-Torres installation in the rotunda
Looking out the window from Jean Nouvel’s building

I really appreciated the modern and contemporary Korean art, much of which I wasn’t familiar with, in this wing. I especially enjoyed Bahc Yiso, Bae Bien-Yu, Jung Yeondoo, and Kim Hong-Joo’s work.

Koolhaas’s building, w/ a great black-box theater where Pippilotti Rist’s fantastic work was shown

The Koolhaas wing housed the two special exhibitions: ArtSpectrum and Pippilotti Rist. Both were excellent. My surreptitious photos can’t do justice to the multiplanar projections of Rist’s work in the black-box theater. And there were several intriguing and entertaining works in ArtSpectrum: Oak Jungho and Jun Sojung’s work was particularly memorable.

My failed attempt to capture the “inhabitable images” of Rist’s installation

While I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Leeum, I couldn’t help but sense the tangible agency of the architecture and the institution itself. Guards, ready to offer not-so-gentle directions regarding the proper way to navigate the space, were everywhere. Circulation was carefully calculated and clearly marked, and the space “disciplined” me into compliance. Textures and colors and floor coverings offered material cues regarding proper behavior: you knew where you were supposed to go, how you were supposed to act, where you were supposed to stand to appreciate various works, etc. It was a bit oppressive — but still very much impressive in its punctilious planning and “total design”-ness.


Seoul: Week 1

Gyeongbokgung Palace, not far from where I’m staying

I’m here in Seoul, on a Korea Foundation fellowship for (most of) the month of July, to study Paju Bookcity. I arrived very early in the morning last Sunday, got attacked by mosquitoes (at least 25 bites!) outside Incheon airport while waiting for the bus; settled into my apartment in the KF’s guesthouse; explored Gyeongbokgung Palace; wandered around the hilly streets of Bukchon Hanok Village (where they have a Museum of Chicken Art); then went shopping for some basic supplies that were for some reason missing from my apartment. On the return trip from the store, I had some trouble relaying my apartment address to my cab drivers, which resulted in my hopping from cab to cab before I found someone who knew where I was going. In the process of my cab-hopping (while juggling big bags stuffed with pillows, sheets, towels, etc.) I lost my purse, and with it, with my iPhone, rental phone, wallet, credit cards, cash, etc. Thanks to kindness and diligence of an anonymous cab driver, an absolutely lovely information desk attendant at a department store, three compassionate police officers, and a saintly translator for the police department, I miraculously retrieved my bag and all of its contents (excepting all my money) within a few hours. Crisis averted — but man, what an inauspicious way to start my trip.

The following days have been much less stressful, but no less exciting, I’m grateful to say. I’ve of course done some of the work that, according to my grant, I’m here to do: I’ve been prepping for my field research, which begins this coming week, when my research assistant / translator / thesis advisee, Ran, a Seoul native, arrives from the U.S; drafting lists of questions for our interviewees; and reading through some publications that the Bookcity Culture Foundation sent to me. And on Friday I led a master class at Korea University, which was a fantastic experience.

I’ve also spent lots of time exploring the city. For my own benefit — and for the entertainment of anyone else who might care — I’m going to document some of my adventures:

I’ve found that I can walk in pretty much any direction from my apartment and, within an hour at most, be in “the woods.” I love that. I’ve climbed two “mountains”: Mt. Namsan and Mt. Inwangsan. I didn’t intend to tackle Inwangsan: I went for a walk, was drawn in by lovely wooded trails, and eventually found myself stuck on some rather precarious stairs carved into steep stone walls. Realizing there was no turning back, I pressed on and reached the summit, where I found a couple rangers in a lookout booth and a handful of other hikers all decked out in climbing year. Apparently, this was a real “hike” — the kind of undertaking for which walking sticks and hiking boots seem to be in order — and I just tackled it in my gym clothes and sneakers. Oops. Then a few days later I ended up in the foothills of Mt. Bukaksan, but because I was due to give a lecture a few hours later, thought it best to resist the temptation to press on, and instead headed back to my apartment.

(Speaking of gyms: thanks to mine’s “tightly edited” K-pop playlist, “Electric Shock” and “Heaven” are now permanently lodged in my brain. God help me.)

Mt. Namsan, w/ some good infrastructural attractions on top!

A view from up top.

I also spent an afternoon in the galleries of Samcheon-dong. Gallery Hyundai was showing Il Lee (I need to go back to see their new “Desirable Routine” show); and Gallery Hakgojae’s “Cynical Resistance” featured works from Chinese artists. The Kukje Gallery’s three buildings were all undergoing (is that the right verb?) installation, but even if I didn’t get to go inside, at least I got to see the new K3 building, with its gossamer chain-link wrapper, by SO-IL.

Il Lee
Cynical Resistance – artist unknown!
Kukje’s K3 gallery
K3’s chainmail

Gallery Chosun offered an interesting show called “The Rule of Reproduction,” and Artsonje Center featured two great exhibitions: Wanderlust, and photographer Sandgdon Kim’s “Healing Water”:

Rule of Reproduction, Chosun
Marcel Broodthaers, Jardin d’hiver II (Winter Garden), 1974
I really enjoyed this illuminated scroll, although I’m not sure who the artist is — and my photos can’t do it justice!
Illuminated scroll, close-up

In the process of my art-seeking, I happened upon a few nice design stores —  notably, Market m* and MMMG — and an arcade filled with food stalls.

Market m*

Prepared Food in an Arcade near Market m*

On another day I visited Art Center Nabi and (on Ran’s recommendation) the Lock Museum, which is housed in a fabulous Cor-ten steel building by Seung H-Sang, who was deeply involved in Bookcity. The museum has been a highlight of my trip thus far. Ran and I will be meeting with Seung next week.

Seung H-Sang’s Lock Museum Building, Jongrogu

Turtle lock

On one of my long walks I also stumbled upon a really cute neighborhood in a valley just north of the grounds of the Blue House, the presidential residence. And last night Minhyoung and I walked through Insadong. Today it’s raining — again — but I have plans to stop by the Seoul Art Museum… and finish writing a book chapter I meant to wrap up weeks ago.

Bookshop in Insadong

Credit + Context in Design Reviews

via Brain Pickings:

I’ve been quiet lately because I’m suffering a bit of “liminal paralysis” — “in-between” on so many projects, places, and positions that I’m not quite sure where I am, what I’m doing, or what I think. I recently left a fellowship in Montreal and am now here in Seoul, digging into a completely new research project (without finishing what I started in Canada). I’m “half-way there” on a half-dozen assignments. I still haven’t received word about my tenure review, and the lack of closure on that front is a little unsettling (although I’ve been told by “reputable sources” not to worry).

Because I’m finding myself incapable of making decisions, I’m currently in absorption mode: just taking in new experiences, new languages, new ideas, new foods, etc., without exercising much critical judgment. I’m doing a lot of reading, too — but even though, for the most part, I’m just letting all the new ideas percolate, I have felt some little pricks of annoyance with a few of the texts I’ve read lately. There’s some shadiness out there in the design review world.

A decade-or-so ago, when I was working on my dissertation and reading tons of stuff about Koolhaas and the Seattle Public Library, I regularly had déjà vu: “Wait, did I read this article already?” I chalked it up to four years of extreme sleep deprivation. But I eventually discovered that that déjà vu was for real: quite a few of the articles I read in major design magazines lifted paragraphs from one another and copied lengthy passages from press releases and architect’s statements, verbatim, without citation. A handful of Asian design magazines — which, granted, were better known for their images than text — even copied articles wholesale without attribution. I was a young, conscientious grad student, and was thus shocked by this unscrupulousness.

via I Am Kio:

Here I am now: wizened and disillusioned, and I’m experiencing that effrontery all over again. In the past week I’ve read dozens of articles about Paju Book City, subject of my current research project, and noticed a ridiculous amount of lifting, pilfering, and passing-off-as-one’s-own. This morning I read, in a reputable magazine, a stylishly written article with a rather provocative thesis — and I thought to myself, My, that’s an interesting interpretation. Then tonight I read a book in which the architect himself puts forward the very same thesis that had so intrigued me hours before. Using the same metaphors and everything.

I know this problem isn’t unique to design publications, but because I read a lot of design pubs, it’s where I see it most often. I hope the “authors” of these pieces aren’t getting paid by the word.

Another, perhaps less insidious, tendency is the attempt to provide historical and cultural context for a design, but falling back on a bunch of myths and misconceptions. Example: there have been quite a few recent articles and blog posts about “little libraries.” I contributed one such article a couple months ago; in that article, I commented on the flurry of giddy attention paid to these projects. There’ve been plenty more since then: see this and this and this and this.

A47 Mobile Library, via Domus:

Don’t get me wrong: I love these projects and completely understand the enthusiasm. What bugs me is how they’re historically contextualized — or miscontexutalized. Consider this Domus article about Alumnos47/ PRODUCTORA’s Mexico City-based A47 Mobile Library:

At a time when digital information is replacing almost every kind of printed document, iPhones, iPads, Kindles and other similar portable devices have become books.

Okay, we’ve heard this before. But I think we’ve also recognized that it’s not quite so simple. There are plenty of printed documents that haven’t been, and won’t be, digitized. And iPhones haven’t “become books”; they can hold books, among many other media forms, but the phones themselves aren’t books.

It is hard to imagine the concept of a mobile library without immediately thinking of downloading its volumes from the Internet.

Are books themselves not portable? Have we not read Benjamin? He must’ve moved those books before unpacking them, no? And what about bookmobiles? Mule libraries in Appalachia? Biblioburro? Traveling lighthouse libraries?

Many people would regard it as an anachronism to think that a library could still have any relevance as an architectural typology in the face of the digital upheaval that has changed the ways we approach information and objects, transforming entire industries, such as the video, music and printing industries.

<Sigh> Do we have to do this?

How do you take something so opposite to a piece of architecture as a lorry and turn it into not just a library, but a structure capable of hosting an entire spectrum of cultural activities? Looked at in this way, the archaic idea of building libraries started to regain a sense of modernity. Working on this premise, Mexican architecture studio PRODUCTORA came up with the design for a cultural centre within a 20 square metres space on board a Freightliner M2 20K lorry — a travelling building.

So Productora modernized the library by reimagining it as a site for an “entire spectrum of cultural activities”? Rather than heroicizing the designer, again, let’s give some credit to the librarians who already figured this out. The Carnegie libraries hosted an “entire spectrum of cultural activities” — as did, to some degree, the Library of Alexandria.

And here’s another recent “small collection of little libraries” post: To set up a contrast with the informal libraries they’re about to profile, Architizer paints the following picture of the traditional library:

Originally built to protect books from ruin, libraries are generally gigantic bunker-like buildings. Inwardly focused, they restrict access to their treasure troves to those who whisper and can thrive without sunlight.

Maybe a hundred and fifty years ago that was the case — before Labrouste, before open stacks, before children’s rooms, etc.

With the advent of the internet, however, all of the world’s knowledge is available instantly to anyone who desires it.

All of it? Really? I bite my tongue.

Books are no longer precious for the information within them, but rather for their physicality: you can’t hold the internet or turn a webpage (discounting the swipes of an iPad). This frees libraries to pursue another of their functions: to foster dialogue and investigation.

Have not libraries been fostering dialogue and investigation for millennia? Sure, for a good portion of their history, when books were scarce and valuable, protecting the books was a prime concern. But that era ended quite some time ago — unless you’re talking about rare books libraries, which I don’t think they’re thinking of here.

In short: Yes, I understand that you want to ascribe some historical and cultural significance to the design projects you’re reviewing — by suggesting, say, that a team of up-and-coming designers has revolutionized a thousands-of-years-old institution by proposing a new program and making it mobile; or by painting a really bleak picture of the status quo, to which your featured design offers an alternative — but let’s try not to fabricate that context.

And in regard to the previous issue of lack-of-attribution: Yes, I realize that the popular press isn’t beholden to the same standards of citation that we adhere to in academia. But still, I think a little credit when it’s due, and a little less reliance on press releases and rehashing designers’ own proclamations about their work, couldn’t hurt.