Voids within Voids

Walking around the city I started thinking again about the space between objects, with the Earth House (a view of the sky) still on my mind I took photos with my lens pointed upwards, where Seoul's highrise landscape creates newly defined voids within open space of the sky.

After, looking at the images, I was reminded again of the Hangang Park, where the scale of urban infrastructure creates huge cavities that dwarf the scale of human activity beneath. 

More Maps

I spent a probably inordinate amount of time poring over ‘600 Years of Maps of Seoul’ – a hefty compilation of colour plates discovered by Victoria in the KNUA library.

I wanted to get a sense of how the city had evolved; I hoped to uncover traces of its iterations as; the royal seat of an ‘hermit kingdom’, an unwilling protectorate, an ideological battleground, a modern metropolis.  The earliest map in the book dates from 1750.

Map from the Capital Wall to Han River (Cha-Tosŏng Chi-Samgang-do), 1750 
overlaid with a satellite image of the city, 2010
Perhaps it was because I had just been to Gyeoungbokgung, but the most arresting markings seemed the timeless cataract of mountains that ring the city; Seoul is literally contained by the landscape.  I was reminded of Kevin Lynch and his assertion in 'The Image of the City' that:
 'A striking landscape is the skeleton upon which many primitive races erect their socially important myths’
The city is contained by the mountains  
The city’s relationship with its geographic limit is accentuated in pre-colonial maps of the city, which retain a pictorial quality even up to 1900 and lack accurate scale or precision.

Map of Seoul, 1900, an illustrated landscape...
Japanese maps obliterate this emphasis early on; by 1910 the landscape is no longer an illustration, the mountains are expressed through meticulous contours.  The map is precise, just as it should be.  
Map of Seoul and Yongsan 1910, a measured landscape
It is a clue about the complexity of the era in question; one that attempted to sever a nation from its traditions but also installed the infrastructure that enabled modernisation.


Gyeongbokgung; Harmony/Emptiness

Seoul’s iconic royal palace complex at the foot of the Bukaksan Mountain in the north of the city is a souvenir of bitter Korean-Japanese relations.  A legacy of the Joseon dynasty, Gyeoungbokgung has remained a constant landmark since the 13th century.  

A constant landmark; Gyeoungbokgung Palace in 1750, 1840 & 1950
Heavily razed during the 15th century Japanese invasion, extensive restoration in the mid-1800’s saw the number of palace buildings swell to over 300 - ruthlessly reduced to ten during the occupation.

With its succession of ornate entry gates, Gyeoungbokgung is defined by its axis with the mountains to the north and Han River to the south.  On visiting, this relationship with the landscape is immediately tangible.

It is easy, then, to read the positioning of the Japanese General Government Building between the entrance gates as a deliberate act of provocation. This obstruction of views upset the delicate harmony of the palace, and by extension, the city. After much deliberation, the colonial relic was finally demolished in 1996, the palace buildings continue to be restored. 

Walking within the grounds, open space weighs heavily between the ornate structures; the whole is a quiet celebration of intricacy and emptiness.


A Surprise

I’m in Seoul and so far it has confounded my expectation of:
    >a choked and grimy city
       >swarming with people
          >racing in every direction

…in fact, the streets are clean, the air is fresh (with just a rumour of winter crispness) and the people walk slowly, infuriatingly slowly.  This global city, home to nearly 8 million people feels surprisingly spacious, in places desolate even.  Supernaturally tall apartment blocks hover at every turn, but it doesn’t feel like there are enough people to fill them…

This emptiness, a flooding of in-between space, is most apparent along the Han River.  Cycle paths, outdoor gyms, fishing platforms, water, grass, flowers have found capacious homes beneath massive concrete highways.  It is London’s Westway dreamily reimagined.  The voids of city infrastructure as a canvas for generous public realm.  Above, the city commutes, grinds, produces.  Here, it plays. 


Mirage City

Dubai must be the easiest target in the world to venture a critical opinion on, but predictability aside the unnerving sensation of being in a totally manufactured environment cannot be underplayed.  I’m not sure I’d ever seen anything but aerial photos of Dubai but beneath the towers it’s surprisingly dense.  Crawling traffic where once was just sand. Out on the street it’s too hot; inside every building it’s too cold. The city is one thunderous discord between nature and construct. 

In fact, it is just incredibly boring.  Short on cash, there is little beyond wandering about a vast mall (shops, restaurants, aquarium and ice-rink) in a jumper.  Well, there is the Burj.  It turns out the viewing platform is not at the top, but it reveals a mesmerising sight nonetheless - a hallucination of spirals and blocks etched in the sand, evenly spaced trees, bright chlorinated pools that aren’t for swimming in. 

With my nose pressed against the window it occurred to me just how oddly passé the idea of building the world’s tallest tower is.  Out in the Arabian Sea, I spy that crudely drawn atlas insisting Dubai is not merely a small city within the world, but an empire that contains the world.  So; monuments, territory, hubris, perhaps Dubai really is an empire. 


In Praise of Shadows

I was prompted by Byoung Soo Cho’s ‘Earth House’ (as mentioned in my previous post) to re-read Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows.  Throughout the essay, the desire of Western culture to reveal, to illuminate, is contrasted with Eastern traditions that celebrate darkness and subtlety.

Tanizaki’s remorse on the effect of Western progress on his own culture seemed of particular relevance:
‘…there can be no harm in considering how unlucky we have been, what losses we have suffered, in comparison with the Westerner.  The Westerner has been able to move forward in ordered steps, while we have met superior civilization and have had to surrender to it…’
A beautifully melancholy lament:
‘…And had we invented the phonograph, and the radio, how much more faithfuly they would reproduce the special character of our voices and our music.’
And briefly, though it doesn’t quite revel in Tanizaki’s understated darkness (‘I wonder if my readers know the colour of that ‘darkness seen by candlelight’’) there is, to me, something peculiarly Eastern about the rich geometric shadows and golden light in this striking image from Sympathy For Lady Vengeance.