Korea's cities of the future

By Daniele Pestilli on May 8, 2012
Rendition of Seoul's "pixelated cloud"

The prominent Italian anthropologist, academic, ethnologist and writer, Fosco Maraini once wrote

[A] detail that is characteristic of Japanese cities, which Westerners never fail to notice in shock even upon brief visits, is the complete absence of squares, exedras, open spaces, fields and, essentially, of the Agora. Japanese cities are made primarily of roads, and if by chance there were to be open spaces, these are immediately occupied by bus stations. Apart from the locations that are blessed with the Imperial charisma, one lives in a vacuous horror. One feels constantly pushed to move forth, move forth, without breaks or rests, without ever a moment to contemplate or an invitation to reflect. It is the city-machine; a monstrous assembly line.

Fosco Maraini's extremely critical perspective of modern Japanese cities is important, and is something we should bear in mind. It is important because the concept of a human-sized city with an Agora – the fundamental gathering space in ancient Greece's city-states – was and is imperative for mankind's peace of mind. Not only were Agoras – or Forums, in ancient Rome – the center of political, religious and economic activities, but also vital for the development of democracy itself. They are as crucial to city life as the fables and stories we are told as children: just as the morals of those stories serve as one’s moral compass, so too do gathering spaces provide a returning point for socialization with our peers.

However, in its race to restlessly expand, grow senselessly bigger, outdo its economic competitors, or, to quote author and professor Woo Jung-En’s book, participate in a mindless “race to the swift,” South Korea is now falling into Japan's same steps.

Experts worldwide are gathering in the East Asian peninsula to architect the cities of the future: megacities built for commerce and marketing with unbecoming, gargantuan skyscrapers.

One such building, whose construction is to start in 2013 and end in 2015, is the so-called “pixelated cloud,” two towers combined by box-like extensions that form a nebula around the skyscraper's center.

An article in 2011 on BBC says that the building caused a “furious response from critics” given its resemblance to New York's World Trade Center during their collapse on the 9/11 attacks.

One such response was by American conservative radio host, Glenn Beck, who said: “If they build these two buildings, I say we close our bases in South Korea. This is the most offensive building I have ever seen [...] Libertarians, you want a good case to pull our bases out of South Korea? Here it is. These towers have been built to look like they're exploding and it's exactly the picture you remember of the world trade center.”

But responses have been mixed: one Korean commentator said, “I know there's been some criticism of this, because it looks like the 9/11 attacks, but in my view it's a piece of architecture and I don't think there's a problem with it. I think it's a fantastic design.”

MVRDV, the Dutch architectural company that planned the building, issued an apology that stated, “MVRDV regrets deeply any connotations The Cloud projects evokes regarding 9/11. [...] We sincerely apologize to anyone whose feelings we have hurt, it was not our intention.” Whether its design was truly meant to resemble the falling towers or not is subjective and besides the point.

What must be pointed out, however, is the lack of a more human element in the planning of these constructions, which was obvious to and of utmost importance for the Greeks. These super skyscrapers, like towering beehives, are built for efficiency and increased productivity. They are built, as Fosco Maraini wrote, to “move forth, move forth” and allow subjects of an expanding economy to function as better cogs in the machinery of a global market.

Songdo buildings, South Korea
An image of Songdo buildings in South Korea

Cultural Perceptions

Perhaps, as PR chief at the Yongsan Development Company, Seo Hee-seok, said, the construction of these buildings is not a matter of insensitivity but of diverse cultural perceptions.

In fact, as Fosco Maraini points out, Latin-based languages perceive cities as “communities of people” (civitas, cittá, city, cité, ciudad) where civilization reunites. It is not by accident that the Latin word for citizen is “civis”, and community, “civita”, which resembles that for city, “civitas”, as well as the word for civil, “civilis”.

Contrary, the Korean (doshi), Chinese (chéngshì) and Japanese (toshi) ideograms for “city” all contain one, fundamentally different concept: “market.” In other words, the city in East Asian civilizations is understood as a gathering for business, a locus for transactions, a meeting place for exchanges, a production and productivity center.

This can be observed in one of the world's most ambitious construction projects: Songdo International Business District. It is a $35bn city-market planned to be erected west of Seoul by 2016 that aims to “attract companies wanting to do business in the region,” according to Cisco's YouTube video.

Built from scratch on what used to be the sea, 6,070 km2 (1,500 acres) of water had to be reclaimed in order for Songdo's 400 skyscrapers to come into being.

Songdo will also house South Korea's tallest skyscraper, which will stand 305 m high (1,000 ft). It will include cutting-edge technology that will allow systems within the buildings to be controlled remotely. It will also offer telepresence in every office, home and school. One of Songdo's goals is to reduce carbon footprint by reducing people's need to travel. In short, it is the perfect assembly line.

Technology in a Songdo building elevator
Technology in a Songdo building elevator

In an interview with Cities of the Future, Chairman and CEO of Gale International, Stan Gale, says, “I think the way [Songdo] is going to change the life of people is to take the anxiety out of 'where do I need to be at this point in time?' You're always there.” He would like Songdo to become the main focal point for large-scale companies looking to do businesses in China, Japan and Korea. Mr. Gale boasts that Songdo is in an optimal location for trade and business. And where would Songdo’s agora be? Televisions. The city's estimated 65,000 residents and 300,000 commuters will all be interconnected with screens and cameras, without having to move a whole lot.

Another such behemoth is the towering apartment block designed by Danish architects at BIG, which is meant to resemble a hash-tag. According to Dezeen, it will be located in the Yongsan district, just around the corner from the “pixelated cloud.” With an area of 21 km2, it will provide over 600 apartments, a library, a kindergarten and a gallery. Although there are arguably nicer characters than the hash-tag, this design was chosen because of skyscraper height limitations in Seoul: the two horizontal pieces compensate for what cannot be built vertically.

The hashtag building
The hashtag building

Whether these cities or skyscrapers of the future truly become models for other cities worldwide, only time can tell. What is clear at this point, as Seo Hee-seok argues, is that there are indeed different cultural perceptions. The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the Agora and the Forum as one's basic right as a social human being. On the other hand, in China, Japan and Korea, where collectivity has always been favored over the individual, the (imported) word for “right” is the unhappy combination of two ideograms: “authority” and “profit.” Viewed under this light, it is no surprise that these somewhat eerie city-markets should be built around profit, not the individual.