Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Republic of Apartments

Even as the "apateu" model is coming to an end (see "Inhuman, all too human Seoul"), Korea remains "The Republic of Apartments" as much as "The Republic of Samsung". But beyond hardware or software, humans always take center stage in Seoul Museum of History's exhibitions, and the original title of this one ("아파트 인생") could be translated as "Apartment life", or maybe even an attenboroughesque "Life in apartments".




"The Republic of Apartments", another great (and moving) @SeoulMuseum show. Gyonam-dong a special guest
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As is often the case in my favorite Seoul museum, you can enjoy two exhibitions for the price of one (anyway, bonus: the entrance is always free!). And as an appetizer to the main dish, I started with the art gallery curated around a theme that, logically, permeates Korean culture.

Note this installation recounting decades of standardization (what I dubbed "the industrial revolution of housing") by timelapsing apartment maps, sizes and prices:



I browsed so many hundreds of "apateu" brochures and ads that I feel like I recognize them all!

More classic, AHN Sekwon's "Lights of Weolgok-dong" triptych, shot between 2005 and 2007, tells the sad and classic story of a charming Seoul neighborhood replaced by a dull new town scenery (as it happens, probably the Wolgok Samsung Raemian or the Wolgok Doosan We've):


Weolgok-dong series by AHN Sekwon (2005-2007)

Come to think of it, Hawolgok-dong is very close to Jongam-dong, also in Seongbuk-gu, where the first apartment blocks were erected in 1958 (Jongam Apartment)*.

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Which leads us to the main show, a retrospective on the apartment phenomenon focusing on socio-cultural dimensions. Like often here (e.g. Jongno, Gwanghwamun, "Made in Changsin-dong" expos), it features a real interior that was still inhabited a few months earlier. The pensioner who lived in this one had to move because of the redevelopment:




At least, this time, the victim sacrificed on the altar of this urban nonsense was an "apateu" block, not an architectural wonder.

As expected, a lot of tributes were paid to one of the latest victims of Seoul's caricature of urbanism: Gyonam-dong lies (lied) just hectometers away, on the other side of Gyeonghuigung and the fortress walls. There's even a picture of our "Samdong Samgeori"! (by the way, I was very pleased to learn the other day from Robert J. Fouser that this amazing curved-roofed hanok has been, after all, protected and saved for good). 

Scenes of devastation and gutted hanok are nothing new, as this 1966 bird's eye view of demolished shacks in Inhyeon-dong reminds us.

And a whole section is devoted to the people displaced by evictions, including naturally the familiar images of Kim Dong-won's cult documentary "Sanggye-dong Olympic".

But as always, you're not in for a pure tearjerker. First, there's a lot of hope, love, and happiness - it's about humanity and humanness, life spaces rich in personal histories, with fair testimonies from ordinary citizens and middle class Seoulites. Second, the aim is to share with the visitors the experiences of insiders, help them understand the context and accept all sides of the past, reconciling citizens with their city and history.




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Seoul Village 2014
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* special mention to Haengchon Apartment (1969)!



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