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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Benjamin Barber, a Citizen Without Borders (Asia Institute Seminar)

Why do so many Americans feel the need to put everybody in boxes and categories? Mind if I feel less "Caucasian" than "African"? When someone eventually manages to put us in real boxes, it means that we won't be alive to see the result.

Benjamin BARBER, who happens to be American, loves to get rid of the boxes and walls that pollute this world of ours, that artificially prevent us from seeing far, from reaching different people, from growing into citizens without borders. After all, if you want to think out of the box, why not kick away the damn thing in the first place*?

Which Benjamin Barber are we talking about, by the way? The philosopher? The scholar? The political theorist? The playwright? The lyricist? The environmentalist? All of the above, and much more.

This 73 year young man is in Korea for several reasons: Seoul Mayor PARK Won-soon invited Barber the author and researcher to discuss his future book "If Mayors Ruled The World", CITYNET invited Barber the civil society and global governance activist to inaugurate its new Secretariat in Seoul**, and Emanuel PASTREICH (another American with a taste for holistic approaches) invited Barber the multifaceted agent of change and environmentalist to an Asian Institute Seminar ahead of this summer's Global Climate Fund Youth Climate Summit.

There, it was also Barber the father who shared with Korean parents about the future of education in an interdependent world, or the need to see the formidable universality of sports or music among young people find their equivalent in such fields as justice, environment, or citizenship.

Barber - Pastreich
"Our children have the global tools - especially the internet - but we have to help them use these tools to solve global problems" (Benjamin Barber, here with Emanuel Pastreich - photo by Arthur E. Michalak)

The word "citizen" comes from the word "city", and even more now that most humans live in them, cities have to stop being the problem and to start being the solution, particularly when states are often crippled by more levels of constraints. "If Mayors Ruled The World", indeed: I liked the way he said that learning about the UN at school was nice, but that along with lessons about failures or cynicism, the youth needed also to hear about the successes of C40 or CITYNET.

Hard to tell how many topics were raised during the lively discussions we all enjoyed over lunch, but among them was the question of university departments. Talking about boxes and the complexity of compartementing in multidimentional, interdependent times... Barber wondered in which box people like Diderot or Voltaire would land today, provided they'd be declared fit for our sometimes over-formatted education systems. I suggested on the campus lawn, discussing with everybody coming from all horizons.

Mercifully, high school students have not yet been put in this kind of boxes, and both the Asia Institute and HOBY (Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership) Korea believe in the importance of involving them in the global debate for change. That's why they're organizing the 2013 GCF YOUTH CLIMATE SUMMIT for High School Students (July 12-14 in Songdo, see program and details). Students will not only listen to inspiring lectures but share, collaborate on issues and solutions, and hopefully show a leadership that is not meant at overpowering all others, but at lifting up the whole community to new levels.

That's not just wishful thinking from self-declared American optimists: simply the conviction that the solution starts here and now, and that we all have to be part of it.

We the people, we the citizens without borders.

Pastreich - Barber - Hyun
Benjamin Barber between Emanuel Pastreich (Asia Institute) and Hyun Chul Hwang (HOBY Korea)

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* mind you: if there are so many innovators in America, that's not because there are more boxes to kick away, to the contrary. 
** the organization is moving from Yokohama to Seoul. Another interesting development for the region following the selection of Songdo for GCF HQs (see "Songdo on the world map (Green Climate Fund)").
ADDENDUM 20130328:
. Dr Barber's website:
. Added 2 photos by Arthur E. MICHALAK (Asia Institute) - thank you again Arthur!

Mot - Barber
Yours truly with Barber the man of wit (photo by Arthur E. Michalak)

Monday, March 25, 2013

This Time Is Different - Six Decades of North Korean Follies (The Umpteenth Final Countdown)

Nuclear threats, cyberattacks, rumors of coups and collapse up North, the end is nigher than ever, repent, and don't forget to update your V3 antivirus before their V2 rockets rain down... We've seen that drama before, particularly in KOR/US military drill season.

Yet at the same time, and to anti-paraphrase the Reinhart-Rogoff post-Lehman bestseller "This time is different: eight centuries of financial folly", we're as always tempted to think "this time, that's it", the gimchi will really hit the fan, the North Korean regime is done.

Now China joining the US and South Korea in a united front, that could be a game changer.

1) KIM Jong-un has achieved little more than using up the arsenal of war premilinaries....:

There's not much he can do to top himself, except pushing the red button:
  • Rethoric-wise, KIM The Third has already reached Armageddon territories: the ceasefire is already over (almost), the Red Telephone is already cut (but still working), and America is already going up in flames (on YouTube videos). Now KIM The Third seems prisoner of his own PR, supported by a zimbabwean inflation in provocations and an almost constant red alert mode even his daddy didn't need. And it took KIM The Second four years to claim all key powers, he a much more trained and legitimate heir who'd been around long before the founder of the dynasty passed away.
  • Military-wise, Jong-un has already bombed South Korean land (see "We need to talk about KIM"). To top that, he needs either a bigger target, or bigger bombs...
  • Nuclear-wise, Junior went beyond dad's "Jucheterrence" by betting all on the missile and nuclear programs. He announced more trials but basically, the message has already been transmitted. And if he doesn't show spectacular improvements next time, local supporters might cool down. Considering the country's limited resources, "if the North Korean regime doesn't renounce the program, North Korean elites will eventually renounce the regime - unless one of the regime's last friends steps in and does it all by itself" (see "Hell is other Democratic People's Republic of Korea").
  • Cyberwar-wise, there's still room for manoeuvre. Whoever carried out last week's attacks*, they delivered a clear warning about how far they could reach: we can disrupt your media and finance sectors, we used your security system to do that, and we even left a message to let you know that it was just a small IED left by the weakest elements of our infantry, nothing compared to the waves that will follow (the "Hastati" reference). It works and it's cheap, but unless a full-fledged cyber attack is lauched, that truly cripples the South ahead of a real offensive, these operations will appear like recurrent drills to train response teams.
  • A Nukie Monster for Baby Kim?
  • More conventional asymetric warfare? Abductions, sabotage, terror, guerilla? Not very expensive either, but been there, done that. And North Korea would somehow lose its standing as a rogue nuclear nation. Furthermore, maintaining sleeping cells below radar surface isn't that easy with fake defectors actually defecting to the South (or to China).

2) ... and alienating his last allies:

The regim seems weaker than ever at home:
  • Compared to North Korea's doomsday arsenal, the international community's rudimentary weapons seem to have significantly hurt the regime. Pyongyang has more trouble funnelling illegal funds into the country, and the nasty business model of North Korea Inc, or rather North Korea Offshore Unlimited, has been fully exposed in South Korean media, including the way "diplomats" spend their time traveling or visiting casinos to get rid of counterfeit money by small bundles**. 
  • That money is paramount for a regime that needs to corrupt at home as well, to keep full support from the military and a nomenclatura... and they have learned how to develop their own illegal sources of income. Recurrent purges or calls for denounciations cannot solve everything now that almost two million individuals have a cellphone. Even foreigners can use one now.
  • Like his dad, KIM Jong-un is rumored to have survived at least one assassination attempt. If repression and fear remains, full containment and trust belong to the past.
And NK's top sponsor Beijing is moving closer to the rest of the international community:
  • China does continues to provide food and energy, to allow transfers from friendly banks, and to send defectors back to the North (particularly when they're soldiers, like recently), but it supported significant UN sanctions, along with Russia***.
  • China also started to control closely North Korean restaurants in the country. This may seem trivial, but restaurants are a key entry point for illegal workers and imports, and a steady source of undeclared currencies. NB: I presume propaganda is not threatened by the crack down - the closest thing to a trip to North Korea I ever experienced was not in the DMZ, but in a restaurant where patrons fully dressed in NK army uniforms karaoked on a song to the Dear Leader before the dinner.
  • XI Jinping seems definitely more open to collaboration with the South and the West than HU Jintao, a hardliner I considered more sympathetic to Northeastern Project / "Hanschluss"**** approaches. XI's past in the US is well documented, but we only recently learned that he'd met PARK Geun-hye back in 2005, a meeting that wouldn't have happened hadn't a PARK aide told her this Zhejiang official was likely to become the next top guy. XI wanted to know more about the Saemaeul movement, but PARK seized the opportunity to raise the North Korean issue, saying China should reconsider its position versus the regime.

3) A united front, now - a game changer?

In a perfectly orchestrated way, key messages have just been issued by China, South Korea, and the US:
  • For the first time, China agreed to join multinational maritime drill next year, along with the US, South Korea, or Japan. In spite of all other geopolitical and territorial tensions in the region. Sixty years after the Korean War, that's really big.
  • For the first time, South Korea and the US have exposed their counterattack plan. Korea would lead, and the US add their forces only if needed. They've been very specific when they mentioned the "provocations" that would lead to a full-fledged response: "violation of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto inter-Korean maritime border; shelling the northernmost islands in South Korea’s Yellow Sea; infiltration by low-flying fighter jets into the South’s territory; infiltration by special forces of North Korea through the front-line units; surgical clashes between the two Koreas near the Military Demarcation Line; and torpedoing South Korean submarines" (see "U.S., South agree on joint counterattack" - Korea JoongAng Daily 20130325). IMHO that's too specific: technically, NK can still harpoon South Korean submarines. Likewise, now that KOR/US have pledged to destroy statues of KIM Il-sung and KIM Jong-il across the nation as priority targets to send the message to the population that regime change has come, you can be sure flocks of human shields will "spontaneously" wrap themselves around the effigies of their "beloved" tyrants.

More than ever, China holds the key. And KIM Jong-un has no choice but to negociate. He shot his last dud with his last nuclear trial ("Release the NKraken"), but the more he waits, the more surely he'll fall.

Time for the Nukie Monster to consider an exile from the Kermit Kingdom to Rodmanistan?

Seoul Village 2013
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* presumably from North Korea, following a supposed "false flag": Pyongyang claimed to be victim of a cyber attack from Seoul and Washington.
** see for instance "How N.Korean Diplomats Launder Counterfeit Money"
*** Note that neither Russia nor China had their say in the recent creation of a human rights commission, which will build the case against North Korea abuses, a potential first step towards the International Criminal Court which may help members of the elite up North distance themselves from the most rotten apples.
**** see for instance "China-North Korea : the Great Hanschluss still the base case scenario"

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Old Seoul, Old Seochon

donA just published the first volume of a history of Seoul written by Professor CHOI Jong-hyun (Hanyang University Urban Planning and Engineering) and KIM Chang-hui (dongA Ilbo), centered as it should be around my favorite Seoul neighborhood: Seochon - Inwangsan - Gyeongbokgung - Sajik-dan... Volume 2 will lead us towards the East (Dongdaemun) and Southeast (Gwanghuimun), and volume 3 along Cheonggyecheon and other parts of Jongno.

The book is said to be very lively, and to make you feel as if you roamed the alleyways of old Seoul, like in "Les Miserables". And you know how I feel for Seoul alleyways*!

I can't wait to read it, and I hope the book will soon be available in English. Why not in French (personal message to French readers who love Seoul and work in / study / teach urbanism)?

Old Seoul / "오래된 서울"
Written by Choi Jong-hyun and Kim Chang-hui
364 pages, dongA publications
ISBN-10: 8996787221 - ISBN-13: 9788996787228

Seoul Village 2013
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* "Seoul needs alleyways. By "alleyways", I don't necessarily mean the last capillaries irrigating the actual "Seoul Intra Muros" ("Sadaemun", the original city surrounded by its fortress), but also the kind of inclusions that extend Seoul, the places where the city can freely and randomly stretch, grow more complex, and reach deeper, these intimate scars where your own mind can't help but wander." ("Magok District: SIM City as in "Seoul Intra Muros"? Alleyways as in "Seoul Inter Muros"?"). PS: I just finished a short story about alleyways for my collection of fictions devoted to Seoul...

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Teaching Geography - Dokdo Inside

A Yonhap article* almost made me believe for a moment that the CNRS (Centre National de Recherche Scientifique), my country's most prestigious research center, had validated the facts that Japan distorts history and that Dokdo is Korean, but after reading the report the truth is more subtle.

1) About the document and its authors:

The article "Géographies scolaires à l’épreuve du Monde, éléments d’approche comparée des cas sud-coréen et français" ("School geography confronted to the World, elements of comparative approach to the South Korean and French cases") was published in december 2012 in ESO #34, the publication of ESO. Espaces et SOciétés - UMR 6590 is a Unite Mixte de Recherche (a research unit pooling university and CNRS ressources) that focuses on the spatial dimension of societies (coupling architecture, geography and urbanism with sociology, environmental psychology...) - typically seoulvillage-friendly subjects!

The article is signed by Saangkyun YI and Jean-Francois THEMINES for the ESO-Caen, the ESO branch at the Universite de Caen Basse-Normandie, where YI, a research Fellow at the Northeast Asian History Foundation, wrote the thesis that provides the elements for the South Korean case in the article: "Une discipline entre nation et empires : histoire de la géographie scolaire en Corée, 1876-2012" ("An academic discipline between nation and empires: history of school geography in Korea, 1876-2012"). Professor Jean-Francois THEMINES works at the Maison de la Recherche en Sciences Humaines (MRSH - Universite de Caen Basse-Normandie - CNRS), where he contributes to two programs: ESO-Caen and CERSE (Centre d'Etudes et de Recherche en Sciences de l'Education).

Interesting topic, interesting article, and interesting insights (eg the reasons behind the adoption of the US "social studies" system in Korea, or the parallel showing how the Prussian and Japanese models impacted teaching systems following the Franco-Prussian war / Treaty of Ganghwa humiliations of the 1870s). It also confirms how school geography and its iconography can echo evolutions in geopolitics, supranational / global entities or aspirations, the concept of nation...

Now about that Dokdo thing.

2) The truth about Dokdo:

First of all, the Northeast Asian History Foundation - Dokdo connection didn't come as a surprise: this organization aiming at peace in the region by "resolving historical conflicts" has from the start focused on this issue, and even organized essay contests about it. Each time you visit their website (, you get this pop-up "10 truths about Dokdo - not known in Japan":

Saangkyun YI doesn't seem to hide his sympathy for the Dokdo cause in his own posts, and I respect that transparency**. I also think that mentioning Dokdo and the way it is treated in Korean geography textbooks is relevant for this article. The question is: is the article fair about the issue?

The answer seems to be positive.

If the words "Takeshima" or even "Liancourt" don't appear anywhere, the Dokdo islets seem properly presented ("considered as hers by South Korea" (...) "but Japan claims their sovereignty"). Note that they are "situated off the Eastern coast of the Korean peninsula", which conveniently skips the "East Sea - Sea of Japan" part of the equation, even if it doesn't leave a clue about the relative position of Japan.

Two sets of iconography are used for the South Korean case: a reproduction of a full page about Dokdo (the titles hammering the usual message "Dokdo is a Korean territory", subtitles are translated in red over the page)...

... and a less verbiose extract about Pyongyang (only images with descriptive titles - translations appear in the caption below):

Furthermore, Pyongyang is only mentioned once in the text compared to half a dozen times for Dokdo. Does it mean that the city is only used as an alibi for an article meant to push the Dokdo agenda? No: this is not an article about Dokdo, but Dokdo illustrates perfectly "a logic of state school iconography" (consistent with the not very "post-national" instructions from the Ministry of Education also quoted here***), compared to the more classic and positive presentation of Pyongyang.

Again, we don't have a full picture of the Pyongyang presentation to compare completely. And if  the South Korean state agenda is exposed, its content is somehow published and translated (along with non-state players, since VANK is also mentioned). We are explained that the discipline was prevented from emerging in Korea under Imperial Japan rule, but we don't see the actual propaganda except for this cover of a Japanese textbook imposed to Koreans in 1944...

schoolbook for 6 to 8th graders - vintage wartime Imperial Japan

But let's not start a hair-splitting contest by decrypting potentially asymetric iconographies in a study of the history of selective iconographies. I was simply showing how difficult it is to manipulate such sensitive topics, and here, the editorial line respects a scientific approach: this article certainly cannot be seen as a promotion of Korean interests, and it doesn't solve the Dokdo conflict either, because that's not the subject.

Where's the problem then?

That Korea was led to beef up its nationalist rethoric, that's a problem.

Revisionist textbooks in Japan, armies of pseudo historians and geographers in China rewriting history and redrawing maps, that's a bigger problem.

Terminating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Korea, turning school history into a simple option, and allowing creationism in school****, that's not a small problem either.

Time to build a future based on a mutual respect and understanding of the past. Time for a Global Truth and Reconciliation Network*****.

Seoul Village 2013
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* "佛학술지에 독도논문.."일제가 지리 왜곡" (Yonhap News 20130320)
** you already know my position (see for instance "Claiming Dokdo as Takeshima equals claiming Seoul as Gyeongseong")
*** note that the case of Dokdo is not the only one: the Ministry also highlights the Kando region in today's China
**** see "State-condoned creationism in Korea? A cold-blooded murder against King Sejong"
***** see "We reject as false the choice between revisionism and nationalism - for a Global Truth and Reconciliation Network"

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Am I My Hanok's Keeper? Peter E. Bartholomew's Defense and Illustration of Korean Architecture

Like many Westerners appalled by the hanok genocide in Korea, I'm often playing God blaming Cain ("Where's your hanok?" - "I don't know, am I my hanok's keeper?" - "What have you done? Listen! Your cultural heritage’s blood cries out to your lineage from the ground"). Of course, this gallic brat cockily ranting around is not only useless but undermining the cause.

Hopefully, the cause of hanok preservation did progress dramatically, thanks to voices that carried much more than sterile criticism: true love for Korean architecture only actual hanok's keepers could manifest. And "The Guardian of The Hanok" managed to bring change because he could reach both Korean authorities and the general public.

Last Tuesday, Peter E. Bartholomew faced a large and already won-over audience for his lecture organized by the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch: "Catastrophic Losses of Korea's Architectural Heritage from 1910 and Continuing Today". He could have continued for days and much more this vibrant defense and illustration of Korean architecture.

Peter E. Bartholomew, a.k.a. The Guardian of Hanok

The "Guardian of the Hanok" started his love affair with Korea's traditional architecture in 1968, when he arrived from the States in Gangneung, Gangwon-do. For five years, Bartholomew stayed in Seongyojang, an amazing three-century-old residence which, still today, belongs to a former royal family. Emerging from a sea of lotus, here's the pavillion where a younger (and, judging by his own pictures, a hairier) Peter had his first experience of hanok restoration:

Bartholomew illustrated his exciting presentation of the science, aesthetics, philosophy, and poetry of hanok with hundreds of pictures covering all periods, styles, and regions, including from his own hanok in Dongsomun-dong, Seongbuk-gu, where he's been living for more than 30 years.

I will simply add this spectacular view over Ikseon-dong, Jongno-gu for three reasons:

- First, it shows a key yet little known element of hanok architecture mentioned by Peter: the reddish layer of dense clay under the roof tiles, which are here about to be rearranged.
- Second, that's the opportunity to say hello to Robert J. Fouser: another great hanok keeper (just finishing his lovely home in Seochon), Robert recently wrote about this most charming but endangered neighborhood in Seoul Magazine (see "Seoul's Hanok Island: Unhyeongung Royal Residence and Ikseon-dong" and Robert Koehler's photographs)
- Third, it exposes at the same time the beauty, the strength, and the fragility of Korean architecture, as it is in the nude. Note the tile 'backbones' marking the roof lines, and the roof at the lower corner of the picture ("georgeous curves", would probably say "The Guardian of the Hanok").

Peter E. Bartholomew painted an impressive census of the 15 to 20,000 architectural treasures directly controlled by Korean administrations in 1910, from royal palaces to local governments or military compounds. He then told the sad story of annihilation. Not even one percent survived after three man-made tragedies: the Japanese occupation, the Korean war, and of course, the architectural and urban genocide that followed and still today continues.

This story became even more personal for him when he had to lead the resistance against the planned destruction of his neighborhood's last traditional houses. Bartholomew showed us the 2004 official document proving how hanoks were specifically targeted to pave the way for a major development across Dongsomun-dong. The group of hanok keepers managed to save the neighborhood - making many speculators unhappy -, and eventually won in court against the Seoul Metropolitan Government (an episode mentioned in "The Empress's Last Bang").

This decision of justice (and the media coverage it caused) was a defining moment in the fight for preservation: being associated to the destruction of hanok clearly became politically incorrect, and really bad PR at the international level, particularly following the global outcry over the mass destruction of hutongs ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics*. Sign of the times: Seoul mayor named the "Guardian of the Hanok" a honorary citizen the year following the battle in court.

If much pedagogy remains to be done to change mindsets, mainstream media are now more and more often documenting cases, serving the cause, and the perceived value of hanok has clearly evolved, even if that's not always a good thing (see "Stop The Hanok Genocide... And Stop Revival As Reenactment" or more recently "Build a hanok and they will come - Marketing impostures and genuine slow urbanism"). Maybe recurrent programs could help: in France, for instance, such TV programs as "Chefs d'oeuvres en peril" (1960s) or "La France defiguree" (1970s) helped raised public awareness. Preservation movements gained momentum, architectural treasures got saved, and ultimately more sustainable policies emerged.

Korea's Cultural Heritage Administration ( and other organizations are already doing a lot for the architectural heritage, but there's an emergency to save treasures that are neither in protected areas nor under the spotlights.

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* NB: I'm pretty sure similar architectural tragedies are happening across Asia. Keepers of the world, unite?

ADDENDUM 20130331 - RASKB video of the conference:

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Build a hanok and they will come - Marketing impostures and genuine slow urbanism

Sorry for posting yet another focus on urban developments - following last Thurday's "Sudogwon New Town Blues" -, but even if you're not among the (more than a few) researchers and experts in urbanism who roam this excuse for a blog, this is about Seoul villages, old and new. Yeah, I also suffer from hypergraphia*, but that's not the issue.

Anyway. Korean "model houses" are always worth visiting for at least three reasons (see "Inhuman, all too human Seoul"): to follow housing market(ing) trends, to measure gaps between different levels of reality and their representations, and to explore ethnological goldmines. 

Yesterday, the piece de resistance was a rather classic project, this 3885-unit section of Ahyeon New Town:

see this Tweet on Tweeter

We'll get back to it later. Now check this medium-sized apartment block, also in Mapo-gu, and by the same developers, but this time solo (they partner with another chaebol on the previous project). As you can see, a brand new "hanok guest house" and its "hanok playground" sidekick are highlighted as star assets at the feet of the apartment towers, and in a pop-up that dwarves the rest of the mock-up:

see this Tweet on Tweeter
This "traditional" corner belongs to the condominium: all residents can enjoy the playground anytime, and a preferred rate when they want to rent the guest house, for instance when relatives visit for a special occasion.

If traditional pavillions or walls multiplied in the middle of new apartment complexes well before the real estate crisis**, the 'hanok fad' really caught in major commercial projects at the end of the naughties, from "hanok style interiors" to whole hanok complexes (see "New Towns : hanoks in Eunpyeong, a desert in Wangsimni", "Hanok New Town in Seongbuk-dong").

Most of the time, it's more a "Hanok Alibi": residents still opt for the usual "apateu" experience, and the traditional house only comes as a "feel good" factor, a marketing gimmick, like in a "Hanok Inside" campaign. Yes, we destroyed the old neighborhood but see, we respect traditional architecture. And if we can afford such a costly low rise construction on our very expensive land, it tells a lot about the value or our community and the values of its members. Anyway these days promoters seldom sell all apartments as easily as they used to, and for them cramming as many units as possible is not a winning proposition anymore...

On a more positive note, not so long ago, many prospects and customers would have been revolted by the idea of wasting money and space in this kind of old stuff. The fact that hanoks can "sell" confirms encouraging trends: at long last the general public is reconsidering Korea's architectural heritage, perceiving preservation efforts as positive (as long as they don't hinder your personal real estate projects, of course). And hanoks do sell: their market value has sharply risen in certain neighborhoods, where Seoul promotes and sponsors their creation and renovation.

At the individual level, building or restoring a hanok remains a statement, a long but rewarding process, and a perfect example of slow urbanism in a city where short term rules like a despot.

To a major development project, the "hanok touch" adds sense, anchors with the city's cultural continuum. But it works better when it's heartfelt, sincere, conceived from the start. 

As we saw, the hanok village was only a late addendum to Eunpyeong New Town, but without it, the project wouldn't be much distinguishable from any bedtown. And if it comes more as a transition to Bukhansan national park than to the cityscape, that's because the New Town is not contiguous with the rest of the district, except by the road and rail connections - mainly Tongil-ro, and Subway Line 3 between Yeonsinnae and Gupabal. Even if we are in Seoul, this is more a "greenfield new town", built in a valley of its own: the one carved by Changneungcheon, the stream that marks the Seoul-Goyang border in Jingwan-dong.

If I can't be satisfied with the destruction of part of Seoul's greenbelt for yet another real estate development, this looks much better than your usual tombstone "apateu" towers:

Eunpyeong New Town's hanok village: a new touristic entry point to Bukhansan... 

... but also a new neighborhood with over 200 private residences

Bonus: Eunpyeong Museum, yet another concrete dent into Seoul greenbelt (if you find it ugly, wait until you see the new Eunpyeong-gu office, on the other side of Tongil-ro)

If you prefer more intimate entry points to Bukhansan, you'll have to follow Bukhansan-ro further eastwards: not long after the T intersection with Yeonseo-ro, a streamlet will lead you up to the temple of Baekhwasa.

With its pedestrian highway of a paved road, this new gateway to the mountain is clearly meant for the masses. Environmentally debatable, Eunpyeong's hanok village shall become a touristic asset for the district and draw visitors from far away, among which some who would have never considered Bukhansan otherwise.

Hopefully, Eunpyeong new town shall not be just a residential dead end, or a bedtown lost in the outskirts, but a touristic destination, a neighborhood visitors will cross with a purpose, and - yes - a village with its own cultural life.

Again, time and the way humans behave will tell if this urbanistic and architectural project succeeds. Preferably, Eunpyeong Museum shouldn't be an empty shell, and the hanok village should become a neighborhood where real people live actually, not yet another artificial folk village.

Let's wait and see.

I told you I'd get back to Ahyeon New Town. I did, and here as well, you can find a hanok at the feet of the towers:

Not a part of the development, but a survivor:

Will it be transformed into a restaurant? Will it merge with its neighbors and grow into a five story building with a PC bang in the basement, a convenience store on the ground floor, and scores of non-descript offices or one-room units all the way up?

Let's wait and see.

We can wait as long as we want, we'll never see again some charming places of the old Ahyeon and Bukahyeon-dong.

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* and Seoul Village is only the tip of the iceberg ("HGTP (Hypergraphia Transfer Protocol) Turns 10: 03/03/03 - 13/03/03")
** Gwanghwamun Space Bon went as far as to throw in a stone bridge and a mini walled historic site... but they don't compensate for the lost hanok village at the heart of Sajik-dong. Note that the planned redeveloppement of Sajik heights, between the tunnel and Gyeonghuigung, also includes a "traditional" corner.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sudogwon New Town Blues

I've not always been kind to Korean New Towns in general, and to doomed "greenfield" projects in the Incheon - Gyeonggi area in particular (see for instance "From urban mirages to urban decay", or "Wet eyes for wetlands and urban mirages"*), but today Korea JoongAng Daily didn't mince their words in this title: "Collapse of Incheon new town is end of era" (Korea JoongAng Daily 20130308).

The article was triggered by a decision from the Korean Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs to strip part of Geomdan New Town from its New Town status, consequently allowing residents to follow new projects of their own. The journalist mentions other new towns struggling in the capital region (a.k.a Sudogwon = Seoul + Incheon + Gyeonggi-do): new ones - such as in Dongtan or Paju - as well as old darlings - Yongin and Bundang lost 22 and 25% of their value over the past 5 years.

The 10 projects listed in the article** are expected to deliver 613,000 apartments for 1.6 million people between 2001 and 2020. I think most dwellings have already been completed, but they only represent a portion of all Sudogwon new towns - the ones with national government support (for instance not a single one in Seoul, not Incheon's Songdo and Cheongna, not Gyeonggi-do's Namyangju and co...). And of course there's the competition from yet other new towns: property value in Sejong City jumped by almost 22% last year, compared to a disappointing 2.18% for Sudogwon, and net migration into Sudogwon nosedived from 209,000 people in 2002 to 8,000 in 2012. And of course, new towns themselves represent only a portion of all urban developments***.

By 2020, the population of Seoul Capital Area is expected to be the same as it is today, about 25.5 million souls. Of course, household structures do evolve, and change in North Korea could radically modify the equation, but again, you can't beat demographics, and this is a non-zero-sum game: even if, by miracle, all these New Towns were to succeed, some Older Towns would necessarily fail.

And again, this is "the end of an era, but not yet the end of the real estate dream"*. The "apateu = guaranteed jackpot" illusion is not completely dead, and new mirages keep popping up.

From the start, Geomdan New Town was not the sexiest project. And even downsized, it will struggle next to Gimpo New Town, a huge bed town recently delivered, and not very far from Magok District (see "Magok District: SIM City as in "Seoul Intra Muros"? Alleyways as in "Seoul Inter Muros"?"). Something's gotta give between all the residential projects, but also between their industrial sidekicks (over 2.2 M square meters for the new and improved Incheon Geomdan General Industrial Complex). Geomdan's New Town status was granted in October 2006, at the peak of the bubble, and many projects have been reconsidered in the years that followed, but I don't remember seing any strategic vision laid out regarding the big picture following the big collapse. Only more denial, and new non-vital projects specially designed to help friendly constructors keep busy and afloat.

Today's KJD article

At a time when financial products propose yields barely superior to inflation rates, Sejong City's +22% could sound sexy, but this project was a walking dead not so long ago, and remains subject to political hiccups. Furthermore, Sejong City demonstrated once more the limits of urban planning in Korean new towns: after lobbying against a KTX station that would have allowed many civil servants to commute to Seoul instead of settling down in the new adminstrative center, authorities are now complaining about the lack of connections with the capital.

Nothing new under the sun: I was flabbergasted to learn that the subway between the future Incheon International Airport and Seoul would be on purpose delayed until years after ICN's inauguration, just to spare cab drivers. And outraged to see how Pangyo had been designed against all elementary rules of urbanism****. I once discussed with Seoul urban planners about the need to take into account all the impacts of a new town (for instance on traffic) from the earliest stages of the conception of a project, instead of trying to catch up and fix things after the delivery, and they said it would be nice if directions could work together to make that happen... When they do exist, impact studies are seldom comprehensive, which shouldn't come as a surprise when structural decisions regarding pharaonic projects can be made and unmade on impulse, ahead of a last minute press conference.

Yesterday, George W. Bush was invited for a few hours in Seoul to boost some real estate project. One could have expected a more relevant anti-real-estate-bubble lucky charm for Korea.

Seoul Village 2013
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* I didn't spare Seoul new towns either, including in my 2011 essay "Inhuman, all too human Seoul":
One megapolis, a hundred villages, a thousand faces
1)The industry of a dream - the ideal city
- Industrial revolution of housing: from the virtuous cycle to the bubble
- From mass market products to fashion and services, from utopia to dystopia
2) Humans in transit
- Communities and shared spaces
- Life and survival of Seoul villages
3) The Ideal City 2.0 and new utopias
- The end of an era, but not yet the end of the real estate dream
- From "hard city" to "soft city"
- From New Town to Human Town, villages are back in favour

** Geomdan, Gimpo Hangang, Dongtan 1, Dongtan 2, Pyeongtaek Godeok, Gwanggyo, Pangyo, Wirye, Yangju, Paju Unjeong

*** Sign of the times: today, in the paper, there was a leaflet for an apartment block from the "premium" brand everybody fought for just years ago. Now the sales pitch highlights the fact that the price tag is KRW 250 M below that of the neighborhood, and there's even a coupon to claim a gift if you visit the model house...

**** see "Pangyo from scratch to crash". Note that even if Pangyo New Town is becoming a laughingstock for urbanists, wealthy investors keep purchasing land around it to build their private mansions, the latest fad for a flock that previously migrated from Hannam-dong to Apgujeong-dong to Bundang. They'll probably join the lobby pushing for a new airport East of Seoul, the perfect vehicle to boost land value back to pre-bubble levels in a distressed area.

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