Voids, stars

An hour east of Seoul, Byoung Soo Cho’s ‘Earth House’ explores notions of positive and negative space. The subterranean home was built in honour of Korean poet Yoon Dong-joo, who was arrested as an ‘intellectual criminal’ during the Japanese occupation. Yoon’s death while imprisoned lent poignance to his posthumously published collection of poems ‘The Heavens, the Wind, the Stars & Poetry’.

The Earth House balances solid and void

A reading of Yoon's work within the open courtyard
The house is a subtle celebration of nature.  An open courtyard of equivalent volume to the six small, enclosed rooms receives the sky and balances the whole.  Rammed earth floors and interior walls make use of the soil displaced by excavation.  Slices of a pine tree cut down during construction are embedded in the courtyard’s concrete walls. 
Earth, sky...
Cho has described the house as a place for self-reflection and stargazing. The comment put me in mind of Murakami’s ‘The Wind Up Bird Chronicle’, a novel that meditates partially on Japan’s role in WWII and the nation’s suppression of painful wartime memories.  The main protagonist climbs into a disused well and experiences sanctuary, confusion, estrangement and ‘time undivided and unmeasured’.  More vividly for me, sitting at the bottom of the well he discovers how clearly he can see the stars – even during daylight.   

A place to watch the stars...


Maps (briefly)

A hand drawn map of the world marked the starting point of my research project – an immediate way of identifying a nascent theme from recent travels.

For me, maps as a means of representing ideas beyond geographic delineation are endlessly diverting and so, briefly, some relevant and recently discovered* cartographic representations: 

POLITICAL AMBITION: 'Outline of (the) Post-War New World Map' 1942 created by Maurice Gomberg*
Created at the time of the US’s entry into the Second World War, Maurice Gomberg’s map envisages the victorious Allies as leaders of global factions.  The USA, USSR and British Commonwealth are appointed as the dominant powers. Korea is subsumed as part of the United Republics of China, (a federation including all parts of present-day China, Korea, Thailand and the former French colony of Indochina).  Japan has been ‘quarantined’ along with the fellow axis states of Germany and Italy, in anticipation of eventual readmission into the family of nations that make up the New World Order.

PHOTOGRAPHIC DEDUCTION: The palpable economic disparity
                                                   between North & South Korea* 
South Korea’s economic assent, achieved in opposition to the Communist North is immediately tangible in the night-time satellite image above.  The massive conurbation of Seoul is an exploding star beneath the border.
Above the contentious 38th parallel, only the capital Pyongyang is distinguishable as a solitary speck of light.

GRAPHIC SYMBOLISM: Korea as a tiger*
I’m unsure about the origins of this image whereby geographic boundaries have been appropriated to the promote idea of a strong, powerful (and united) nation.  Apparently, in some Japanese maps from the colonial era Korea was depicted as a rabbit.  Though I have yet to see one myself, I imagine it might look something like this...

*Courtesy of strangemaps


Let's begin...

Recent travels, both independently and as part of my formal education in architecture have encouraged me to consider the related issues of empire, colony and what comes after.

The Free Unit presents the unique opportunity to bring the topic into focus and to critically discuss and analyse the question of national identity, specifically in countries that have been subject to foreign imperialism in the 20th century.  In this context the ideals of a nation may still be formative or subject to competing symbols and allegiances.

Korea was annexed as a colony of the Empire of Japan in 1910 and occupied until 1945.  I propose to conduct research in Seoul that will consider the role of urban development in defining post-colonial national identity.  In comparison with colonies of European Empires, the Japanese occupation was relatively short - I aim to determine it’s scale of influence on the built environment and subsequent architectural language.  I am interested in identifying traces from the period of occupation and uncovering the friction between what is retained and what is removed*. 

Capital cities act as a focal point from which a determined identity disseminates.  The term ‘capital’ takes on a dual meaning when considering Seoul, a global city and bastion of Capitalism in the Far East.  This positioning is manifest in the high speed, high rise development of the city, defined in opposition to the Communist North Korea.  The city has played a role in national, financial and ideological empires.    

I propose investigation at a variety of scales. Public spaces, monuments and administrative buildings play a key role as reference points of a shared identity as interpreted by government. But how much Seoul’s new architectural language has been directed at the human scale by it’s inhabitants; both deliberately or even by accident?