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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Rem Koolhaas on Seoul and Prada Transformer (CNN)

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was recently Interviewed on CNN Talk Asia in front of his Prada Transformer, an advertocultural event which has at least the advantage to make more people visit Gyeonghuigung. Most Gangnam hypists won't even notice the presence of the royal palace, but many Seoulites will (re)discover the area and who knows, some may even pay a visit to Seoul Museum of History next door (and paying a visit doesn't cost much : you can enjoy many exhibitions for free or just a few hundred wons).

Koolhaas chose the location with taste : Joseon rulers themselves picked a perfect spot with Inwangsan in the background. Note that for his Seoul National University Museum of Art, the Pritzker Prize winner already enjoyed good vibes from Gwanaksan. But if the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art offers an interesting view from Itaewon heights, there's not enough room around the Samsung Child Education & Culture Center Koolhaas designed to appreciate it from a distance. Both buildings are less striking than this Transformer anyway.

What you have here is basically a tetrahedron with one circular face, its metallic structure poking under a light white skin. Not as light as the contents though : an alibi to justify the design and architectural bravado, and to leave some room for the sponsor. Cranes turn the pyramid in various positions, each one hosting a specific event.

The 3 parts of the interview :

Part 1 - "Living differently" (around 1'40" - 2' into the video, the construction of Transformer, with Inwangsan and Gwanghwamun Space Bon in the background)

Part 2 - "Staying relevant"

Part 3 - "Seoul Man" (SNU Museum of Art...) :

Seoul Village 2009

see also OMA's website : (Office for Metropolitan Architecture founded by Rem Koolhaas)

Royal Joseon Tombs Become UNESCO World Heritage Properties

For its 33rd session (to be finalized tomorrow, June 30), UNESCO added 13 sites to its prestigious World Heritage List*, but put 3 on the Danger list and even removed one, the Dresden Elbe Valley, because a bridge had been built in the middle of the heritage zone in spite of strong warnings issued in 2006.

A clear message to all countries boasting such prestigious properties : big responsibilities come with the honor, so take good care of them or else...

Typically, preserving Korea's newly listed property (its ninth**) will require some organization : it stretches over 1756.9 ha (4251.7 ha including buffer zones), and 18 locations scattered across Seoul, Gyeonggi-do (most notably the Donggureung complex in Guri), and Gangwon-do (1 site).

After Goguryeo Tombs, Gyeongju Tumuli, Jongmyo, and even certain Dolmens, the UNESCO is once more celebrating Korean funeral traditions and rites : an ensemble of over 50 tombs of either Kings and Queens (generally ending in "neung" / 릉), or other members of royal family ("won" / 원), including a royal concubine and a 9 month boy. Some tomb names end in "myo" / 묘, the more generic term for cemeteries and graves.

The obligation to preserve buffer areas beyond the sites is excellent news for the environment and the quality of life around the dead : as the UNESCO pointed out, Joseon Tombs are "typically protected by a hill facing south toward water and layers of mountain ridges in the distance"**. One more argument in favor of
the protection of Seoul mountains !

Excellent news also for certain Districts which struggled to build an identity or to draw tourists (ie Unpyeong-gu, Dobong-gu, Nowon-gu, Seongbuk-gu). Tombs are generally well specified in maps and signs, but most of the people leaving nearby didn't care much about those cultural assets (when there's a really nice park or an elaborate complex, that's a different story). For sure, associations which pushed for the UNESCO recognition will feel less lonely now.

Main Royal Joseon Tombs :

In Gangwon-do (1 site, 1 tomb) :

. 1 in Yeongweol (Yeongwol-gun, Yeongwol-eup, Yeongheung-ri) : one more reason to visit Jangneung King Danjong's Tomb (see "King Danjong and Korea's curse") !

In Seoul (6 sites, 11 tombs) :

. Dobong-gu (1 site, 1 tomb) : Yonsangunmyo in Banghak-dong
. Dongdaemun-gu (0 site, 2 tombs) : Sunginwon and Yeonghwiwon are located on Hongneung-gil in Cheongnyangni-2-dong, but associated with Uireung site in Seongbuk-gu. In the former lies the young Yi Jin (1921-1922), son of King Yeongchin, Korea's last Crown Prince. In the latter, King Gojong's first royal concubine Sunheon - 1854-1911).
. Gangnam-gu (1 site, 2 tombs) : Seonjeongneung in Samseong-dong regroups Jeongneung (King Jeongjong - 1488-1544), and Seollung (Queen Gonghye - 1456-1474).
. Nowon-gu (1 site, 2 tombs) : Taegangneung (Taereung and Gangneung) in Gongneung-dong.
. Seocho-gu (1 site, 2 tombs) : Heoninneung (Heonneung and Inneung) in Naegok-dong.
. Seongbuk-gu (2 sites, 2 tombs) : Uireung includes Uireung itself, the tomb of King Gyeongjong (1688-1724) in Seokgwan-dong, and two tombs located in Dongdaemun-gu. Uireung used to be managed (and not so poorly preserved) by the KCIA. I wonder how the other site, Jeongneung (in Jeongneung-dong), ever managed to get the nod from the UNESCO : it now lies at the feet of Naebu expressway before the Bugak Tunnel leading to Pyeongchang-dong, and this poor place often comes up when I think of peaceful areas ruined by development. Unless... could it be a plot to remove the Naebu overpass ?

In Gyeonggi-do (15 sites, 45 tombs) :

. Gaeseong (2 sites, 2 tombs) : Huneung and Joeneung, respectively in Ryeongjeong-ri and in Sangdo-ri, two villages located in Panmun-gun (Panmun county).
. Gimpo (1 site, 1 tomb) : Jangneung in Gimpo-eup, Pungmu-ri (site different from Paju's Jangneung)
. Goyang (2 sites, 16 tombs, including one in the city of Gwangmyeong) : Seosamreung or the "3 Western graves" (Hwireung, Hyoneung, and Yoeneung, plus Sogyeongwon, Uiryeongwon, Hyochangon and Hwimyo) are all located in Wondang-dong, Deokyang-gu. Seooreung or the "5 Western graves" (Changneung, Gyeongneung, Heungneung, Ikneung, and Myeongneung) are in Yongdu-dong, but the "site" also includes tombs in Wondang-dong (Daebinmyo, Sugyeongwon, and Sunchangwon), and Yeonghoewon in Noonsa-dong, Gwangmyeong... a city on the other side of Seoul.
. Guri (1 site, 9 tombs) : the Donggureung complex in Toegyewon-myeon, Inchang-dong clearly stands out for its shape and significance. It hosts Geonwolleung, the tomb of King Taejo (1335-1408), founder of the Joseon Dynasty, and 8 others (Hyeonneung, Mokneung, Huineung, Sungneung, Hyeneung, Wonneung, Suneung, Gyeongneung).
. Hwaseong (1 site, 2 tombs) : Yoonggeonneung (Yoongneung and Geonneung) in Annyeong-dong.
. Namyangju (4 sites, 8 tombs) : Saneung (in Jingeon-eup, Saneung-ri) owes its name to the "four graves" ("sa neun") it boasts : Saneung itself (tomb of Queen Jeongsun, 1440-1521), Gwanghaegunmyo, Anbinmyo, and Seongmyo. Hongyuneung (Hongneung and Yuneung) is in Gumgeok-dong and Hongseondaewongunmyo in Hwado-eup, Changhyeon-ri. Gwangneung hosts the "bad" King Sejo in Jinjeon-eup, Bupyeong-ri.
. Paju (2 sites, 4 tombs) : Jangneung (different from Gimpo's - this one is in Tanhyeon-myeon, Galhyeon-ri) and Samreung (in Jori-eup, Bongilcheon-ri). As the name suggests, Samreung boasts three tombs : Gongneung, Seunneung, and Yeongneung.
. Yangju (1 site, 1 tomb) : Onneung in Yeoju-gun, Jangheung-myeon, Ilyeong-ri.
. Yeoju (1 site, 2 tombs) : Yeongneung in Neunseo-myeon, Hwangdae-ri consists of Joseon Sejongdaewangneung Yeongneung, tomb of the Great King Sejong (1397-1450) and his wife Queen Soheon, and Joseon Hyojong Yeongneung, tomb of the bellicose King Hyojong (1619-1659).

The Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea are working on the best way to cope with this wonderful honor and harmonize the visits. They just opened a specific website (not in English yet but it's a matter of days I guess) :

And of course, don't restrict your visits to UNESCO stars and Joseon royalty. There are tombs all over Seoul, for example in the National Cemetery, or Hyochang Park, and even almost anonymous ones in bits of land clinging to mountains. I even saw one in Sanggye right at the feet of an appartment building. To me, the epitomy of the Seoul tombstone appateu.

SM 2009

* see "13 new sites have been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List which lost one site while three were placed on the Danger List" (UNESCO 20090628)

** Korea now owns 9 of the list's 890 properties (8 cultural properties and 1 natural property) :
. 3 since 1995 : Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panjeon, depositories for the Tripitaka Koreana Woodblocks (see Seoul Village focus), Jongmyo Shrine, and Seokguram Grotto + Bulguksa Temple
. 2 were added in 1997 :Changdeokgung Palace Complex and Hwaseong Fortress
. 2 in 2000 : Gyeongju Historic Areas and the Dolmen Sites in Gochang, Hwasung and Ganghwa
. 1 in 2007 : Korea's only natural property, Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes
. 1 in 2009 : Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty

*** UNESCO's description of the property :

The Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty (Republic of Korea) form a collection of 40 tombs scattered over 18 locations. Built over five centuries, from 1408 to 1966, the tombs honoured the memory of ancestors, showed respect for their achievements, asserted royal authority, protected ancestral spirits from evil and provided protection from vandalism. Spots of outstanding natural beauty were chosen for the tombs which typically have their back protected by a hill as they face south toward water and, ideally, layers of mountain ridges in the distance. Alongside the burial area, the royal tombs feature a ceremonial area and an entrance. In addition to the burial mounds, associated buildings that are an integral part of the tombs include a T-shaped wooden shrine, a shed for stele, a royal kitchen and a guards’ house, a red-spiked gate and the tomb keeper’s house. The grounds are adorned on the outside with a range of stone objects including figures of people and animals. The inscription of the Joseon Tombs completes the two earlier series of Korean Peninsula royal tombs inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List: the Gyeongju Historic Areas, Republic of Korea, and Complex of Koguryo Tombs, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Taco Chili Chili (Seoul)

In L.A., Taco + Korean cooks = Kogi. But since Kogi truck isn't roaming Seoul yet, we'll have to wait before enjoying their fusion marvels this side of the Han river. Heck - here, even classic tacos are not a commodity.

But today, as the thermometer read 31 celsius, I felt like having fajitas. Or lamb doner kebab.

And in Seoul, fajitas + kebab = Itaewon. A few minutes later, here I am. Still undecided, but even more ravenous after a mouthwateringly thorough SWOT analysis.

So I quickly settled for both treats, with a digestive walk in between. Featuring a stop at Itaewon Book Store to fetch an old picture book on North Korea cultural heritage.

Just meters away from this Shakespeare & co upon Han sans auteur books ni poetry (fellow Parisians will get the general idea), Taco Chili Chili had set up a few tables outside. Obviously as a pedagogical tool to explain to every driver caught in the traffic jam on his or her way to Namsan tunnel that, whether you're a Korean or a foreigner, eating a taco is by essence jawbreakingly complex.

I took a seat inside with the opposite view on the performance... and the full, tragic understanding of becoming part of it.

Tacos, quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas, nachos... if the food tastes more Korean-Cal-Mex than Tex-Mex, it nonetheless does the job. They kindly added a coriander twist to their fajitas, which made me feel less guilty for eating a double whammy junk food combo.

And my digestive walk turned out to last over ten kilometers under an unforgiving sun.

Taco Chili Chili (Mexican snack)
527, Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel : +82.2.797.7219

IFB / Itaewon Book Store
533, Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel : +82.793.8249

A very small place and a second hand books place like many others (ie on Cheonggyecheon or near Dongmyo), only featuring more English literature... well... there again, more the "& co" than the "Shakespeare" kind of literature.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Wonjo Ddeokbokki - a.k.a. "Ddeoknimmun" (Seoul)

Yeongcheon Market (영천시장) is a classic alley roof Seoul market starting on Euijuro, halfway between Seodaemun Station and Dongnimmun, and leading to the small garden at the crossroads, under the overpass, just opposite the gate.

These days, Dongnimmun his half hidden by a fence : Seoul city is making the area more suitable for pedestrians and visitors to the adjacent Seodaemun Prison park. Unfortunately, the overpass shall remain, casting its massive shadow over the monument.

Some day, Yeongcheon Market will disappear. Unlike many old indoor markets, slowly dying across Seoul, this one looks very much alive and boasts all types of food, including excellent quality vegetables, and even an old cryptic bookstore. Furthermore, Gyonam New Town shall bring scores of new customers from the other side of Euijuro.

But if the long and thin triangle forming the Eastern side of Yeongcheon Shijang doesn't seem to be rushing towards redevelopment, change is clearly coming from the Western side. Since former inhabitants disagreed on modalities, only the Northern half has already decided what to do : this derelict area is to give place to a couple of towers combining shops with appartments.

Theoretically, the ddeokbokki house at that Northernmost entrance of the market may survive this major change... but it will never be the same for them.

"House" may be too grand a word to qualify this shanty tent where an old adjuma serves the usual street snacks (ddeokbokki, odeng, nakji, kimbap, mandu...) while her husband sits on a couch, talking to visiting merchants.

Besides losing the other half of the entrance to the market, this old couple will lose the small alley which cuts right in front of them. I don't know the name of that path but I call it "Ddeokdaero" because it hosts a dozen of tteok manufacturers and that's probably where they get their exceptional ingredients. You can walk up the alley (towards Dongnimmun Samho Apt) and get your fix for a song (even if you're not in a cooking mood, "raw" ddeok is an excellent snack - of course, there's a lot of varieties to choose from). But keep that for later.

What makes "Wonjo Tteokbokki" ("Original Tteokbokki") special is of course the ddeokbokki : seasoning is just perfect (strong but not too hot, tasty and not too sweet...), and the texture exactly the kind you expect from the snack (chewy but not "plastic", keeps its sauce as well as its resistance...). They also make white ddeokbokki, but you don't want to miss the red pepper version. One portion comes for KRW 2,000.

"Original" is not an original name for a restaurant or a street food place in Korea, but this one deserves the label. They've been selling this miracle for over 35 years and I hope their receipe will survive them and Yeongcheon Market (whichever lasts longer, hopefully as long as possible for both).

I'm quite a tteokbokki fan, but it's hard to find a really good one. I've been highly disappointed by "Shindang-dong Tteokbokki" and anyway, this is street food, not something to enjoy in a restaurant. Every market has its tteokbokki and this one is easy to spot : at its gate, and at THE gate. That's why I knicknamed it "Ddeoknimmun".

SM 2008

Wonjo DDeokbokki / 원조 떡볶이 (Snack)
Yeongcheon Market, Yeongcheon-dong, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel: +82.2.312.5436

A silver lining over Seoul mountains

Seoul is rediscovering its streams and that's a wonderful thing. If only it did more to protect its beautiful mountains...

Few cities can boast such assets. They play a considerable role in Seoul's regulation from visual as well as environmental or cultural points of view. Granted, they create lots of congested bottlenecks, but they also provide fresh air you cannot find anywhere else, and give to the city its unique skyline. Skylines and landmarks do not necessarily consist of skyscrapers, remember ?

Mountains are a defining feature in Seoul's identity. The city should protect them and particularily their elevated forests, lungs of great esthetic value and key to Seoul's differenciation from other Capitals.

From where I'm writing, I enjoy everyday beautiful sunrises and sunsets on natural elevations, but still, bits of blocks of "appateus" spoil the view, emerging from behind the fortress.

Now most elevation points are artificial. Twenty years ago, every little hill had already its red neon cross at its top but at least, you could tell the shape of the land under the buildings. In too many parts of the city, I saw charming hills flattened, mountain tops chainsaw-massacred, forests of wood replaced by forests of concrete... This frenzy goes much too far beyond the normal "domestication" of a rather challenging landscape.

Natural mountain should be protected as natural treasures, and they are priceless for a city that intends to become an international touristic hub. No construction should be allowed beyond a certain point, and many atrocities should be removed. It was done on Namsan**, but less prestigious elevations are of the same importance for Seoulites.

I'm pleased to notice that recent real estate projects involving towers at mountain tops were turned down, the city recommending low rise constructions. This was only in order to enhance the visibility of the city fortress, and it won't deter all speculators (luxury positioning will further exclude former inhabitants), but that's a positive start.

Over the past few months, a few regulations brought some hope for the future :
- dividing a lot will not necessarily multiply the number of rights owners : this easy way of gaining a status of former resident will disappear, seriously curbing speculation
- associations of owners pooling for a redevelopment will have to be approved by the city : we may no more see competition between rival factions, and transparency should gain (some) ground over corruption
- obligation of devoting a significant proportion of low rise villa areas to public gardens : Seoul is literally suffocating in large areas completely covered with such compact buildings
- protection of certain areas with a high proportion of hanoks (traditional houses) : this stopped a few projects, like in Gahoe-dong
- ...

Prices did go down last year, as a combination of the worldwide crisis and measures taken by late President ROH Moo-hyun. But the bulk of the housing bubble remains, and its expansion seems to be even resuming.

As the housing market almost stalled last winter, President LEE Myung-bak tried to revive it by loosening regulations : reducting vital green belts, allowing higher constructions, lower proportion of green spaces... But now and at last, he seems to understand the necessity of cooling it down and prevent a massive and brutal collapse. During his mandate only, of course : it seems a little bit too late now. You cannot find any place in Seoul unspoiled by new town or renovation speculation fueled under his tenure.

As a Seoul Mayor, LEE did initiate some major projects with overall positive environmental impacts (Cheonggyecheon, Seoul Forest, bus corridors...), but he also unleashed too many private developments with tragic and long-lasting consequences.

Mayor OH Se-hoon doesn't have as many opportunities to shine as his predecessor, but he seems to follow a more impressionist path, multiplying small local projects, bringing change at a more human level.

Seoul is breathing a little bit better when overpasses are removed or about to be removed (ie Hyehwa-dong Rotary, Hoehyeon-dong Sagori, Seodaemun Station...), when car lanes are replaced by tree and bike lanes plus wider sidewalks (ie Bongcheon-ro in Gwanak-gu), when kids can play and cool down in water spring fountains everywhere, even if they can't afford overcrowded pools (which I dub "Salamtang").

Yes, water spring fountains are not necessarily environmental friendly (what to say about the latest Banpo Bridge extravaganza !).

Yes, sometimes the "Wellbeing" fad goes grotesque (ie these days : miniature rice paddies frying in their flower pots in front of Gyeongbokgung).

Yes, building a "green park" often deviates into replacing big old trees with pine trees that don't pump much CO², covering large patches of soil with a concrete plaza and disgracious metal sculptures.

But that's the way Seoul breathes, embracing change at an amazing pace, redoing things before they are even completed. And we've been waiting for this positive if clumsy trend for too long.

Let's hope that in the process, collateral damage will not prove too great and irreversible.

* a pair of old green appartments for foreigners was destroyed. Too bad they turned the tower in a color-shifting squid (the new and improved N-Tower should be called the 오징어 Tower).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

KIM Jong-nam, Beijing's puppet ?

Persistent rumors* have Kim Jong-il's eldest son, nowadays in Macau, defect to China.

This wouldn't come as a surprise : Kim Jong-nam, a compulsive gambler, knows perfectly where the odds for him not only to survive**, but to lead North Korea would be the highest.

Daddy officially picked Jong-nam's younger brother Kim Jong-un as his successor, and China literally enrages at this official declaration of independence*** : Kim Jong-nam could become Beijing's ideal puppet to prepare a coup against the ageing leader or rather his younger son.

Kim Il-sung's and Kim Jong-il's blood runs through Kim Jong-nam's veins, which could grant him legitimacy to rule. Beijing could try to discredit the Pyeongyang regime and host a "resistance" movement home. After all, the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was in exile in Shanghai.

But here, you would expect some location more consistent with the infamous Northeastern Project : according to this official revisionist propaganda, such a puppet resistance government would not be in exile but reside in the Chinese part of Korea, because Korea could only reunite as a Chinese province****.

Not The Last Emperor, but the first governor.

* and the Shankei Shimbun (May 1, 2009 edition), mentioning sometimes inebriated phone conversations between Kim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-il's sister, Kim Kyung-hee. The rehabilitation of her husband Chang Sung-taek by Pyeongyang could further isolate Kim Jong-nam.

** rumor has also it that Kim Jong-nam, confused with another man, escaped from an abduction attempt

*** see on blogules V.F. "Kim Jong-Un Deux Trois" (20090602)

**** see "the great Hanschluss"

20090617 update : in an informal interview (NHK), Kim Jong-nam played a very low profile, distancing himself from politics and confirming his little brother must have received the paternal benediction. Time for appeasement from Pyeongyang as well : Kim Jong-eun paid a visit to Hu Jintao. Rattle can only last for a limited period of time when pressure mounts from everywhere... Rumor has it the attempted assassination of Jong-nam originated from Jong-il's sister, and that China prevented it... Ever wondered why dramas were so popular here ?

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