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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Over the moon

The day couldn't start any better: a beautiful series of pictures of Baeksa Village, one of my favorite 'moon villages'*. Thank you Robert Koehler!

On Robert Koehler Travel Photography site:
* see previous posts on Baeksa maeul:

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Mosquito forecasts, Convenience Safe Havens, One-Stop Complaining, and The Ministry of Hilly Walks

On our menu today, this bibim of new policies planned for 2014 by Seoul Metropolitan Government's department of civil affairs:

1) "Active implementation of mosquito forecast system and disclosure of citizen guidance for each stage":
  • This insect is much more than a nuisance: a vector of diseases that tend to gain ground as climate changes and international travels boom. Eradicated from South Korea in the late 70s, vivax malaria came back twenty years ago and remains relatively low, but on the other side of the DMZ, 16,000 cases were noted in 2011, and the DMZ itself is a safe haven for our buzzing foes. Monitoring all 'mosquito infested areas' seems impossible when any flower pot can become a nursery, and a vague grade should have an effect similar to UV forecasts: just an incentive to get extra protection on certain days. Made in China or not, smog is likely to kill many more people in the short term, and it deserves even closer monitoring (see "Air Pollution: New Measures, Please").
2) "Establish a Happy Plus Work Place":
  • This is not about bringing happiness to the work place, but about a place to help those who suffer at work. Of course, tackling the causes would be more efficient than curing the consequences, but we truly are in a state of emergency. The center is located in Hawolgok 2-dong, Seongbuk-gu, not far from a new town where a wave of suicides caught many desperate people last year. If in many ways, working conditions have dramatically improved in Korea, a growing proportion of the population is under financial and social stress, and like in most developed nations, the middle class is confronted to the high levels of insecurity it was supposed to have overcome decades ago.
3) "Expand the No-Smoking Zone for restaurants by lowering the condition from above 150 sqm to above 100 sqm":
  • Let's be clear: all restaurants should be smoke-free areas. And the 'separate smoking rooms' are not only porous but disgraceful for both smokers and non-smokers. Yes, Korea has done a great job reducing smoking rates, and Seoul has considerably promoted smoke-free zones, but second hand smoke remains pervasive (see "The Fight Against Passive Smoke Continues").
4) "Create female-safe apartments":
  • Beyond this weird label is something more than a women's shelter program: insecure spots shall become welcoming homes, transforming whole neighborhoods into citizen-friendly areas.
5) "Operate 24-hour Convenience Stores as Safety Protection Houses":
  • If you're not a Seoulite, you must start thinking this city is very dangerous, with swarms of killer mosquitoes and packs of rapists at every corner! Know that Seoul is very safe compared to other big cities, but of course crimes do happen, and adding a 'guardian angel' function to 600 CVS could make a difference. At least it adds sense at the village - local community level, and that's a more positive solution than selling guns to every citizen!
6) "Dongdaemun Design Plaza with 5 facilities: Art Hall, Museum, Business Center, Convenience Facility, Park":
  • Since you already had a "Sneak peek inside Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park", I won't play it again, Sam. This laundry list tells it all: confronted to reality, the initial '100% design' promise evolved into the now classic 'how are we gonna fill these empty spaces?' conundrum. So we line up the usual suspects: art, retail, business, leisure, and hope that someone in the audience will recognize a familiar mug.
7) "Development of Seoul Dulle-gil Trail":
  • 35.2 km added to Seoul mountain trails, that's significant. And this time, instead of focusing on the venerable Seoul fortress holders (Bugaksan, Inwangsan, Namsan, Naksan...), the spotlights honor outer mountain rings: Suraksan and Buramsan (Nowon-gu), Gureungsan and Achasan (Gwangjin-gu, Jungnang-gu, Nowon-gu), Godeoksan and Iljasan (Gangdong-gu, Songpa-gu), and the Daemosan-Guryeongsan-Umyeosan (Gangnam-gu, Seocho-gu). There's always a subway or bus station nearby, surprising views from above, and interesting things to see and to eat in between. I have a special fondness for Buramsan, but again, I love all Seoul mountains... except the overwhelming "Budongsan" of course!
Starting from Northeast Seoul, the Buramsan-Suraksan Course...
... prolonged by Gureungsan-Achasan...
... then, across the Han River, Godeoksan and Iljasan,...
... and finally (?) Daemosan, Guryeongsan, and Umyeosan.

8) "All new Seoul tourism homepage":
 9) "Development of Sinchon Public Transportation District":
 10) "Operation of integrated management system for civil complaints / suggestions":
  • One-stop complaining / suggestion box soon a reality in a city that usually scores well on e-government issues. And remember that Seoul Global Center gathers the feed back of foreign residents in many different languages.

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

North Korea Academy Award Nominees

It's awards season again, and here are the favorites for this year's Scars:

Best Actor: KIM Jong-un as "Despicable Me 3"

Best Supporting Actor: The North Korean people for "61 years a slave"

Best Actress: KIM Kyong-hui as Sue-Ellen EWING in "Who Shot J.T.?"

Best Foreign Language Film: "Marilyn RODMAN's Happy Birthday, Mr Dictator"

Best Original Score: 120 dogs in "Cloudy with a chance of meatballs 2"

Best Animated Feature: KIM Jong-un's hairdo

Best Visual Effects: Ministry of Propaganda for "Photoshopped Missiles"

Best Picture: JANG Song-taek in handcuffs

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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sneak peek inside Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park

After 8 years, the final (201)4/3/21 countdown.

The Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park will be inaugurated on March 21, 2014, but I had the pleasure to visit it last month with new friends*. A perfect occasion to challenge my initial impressions of Seoul's newest landmark.

As you know (see links at the end of this post), said "initial impressions" were not so positive. Yet I was ready to change my mind, and happily looking forward to discovering Zaha Hadid's work from the inside.


To put it bluntly, at the beginning, I was not convinced by the project selected by then Mayor OH Se-hoon, consistent with his grand World Design City Seoul 2010 vision that would also give us such architectural wonders as a Tsunami City Hall** or the unthinkable yet not unsinkable Seoul Floating Island. Obviously, OH tended to confuse "Design City" with "spectacular displays of design for design's sake across the city", adding a very personal definition to the word "design" itself (who cares about the function anyway).

Frankly, Zaha Hadid's cartoonesque rendering of her DDP didn't help:

And that was already an upgraded version, which (symbolically) integrated bits of Seoul fortress: significant sites and artifacts had been uncovered during the demolition of the old Dongdaemun Stadium***, and the city decently couldn't annihilate them altogether. To me, the project still smelled a bit like design-for-design's-sake spirit, which often proves to be the best recipe for planned obsolescence:
"(NB: about the old stadium) The green giant remained as an embarrassing dinosaur miraculously forsaken by evolution. Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) may well become the next generation embarrassing green dinosaur. I like the idea of bringing disruption, and there is an interesting organic touch to the main building... but instead of environmental friendliness, it evokes (judging by the models at least) a plastic toy or one of the countless attractions recently built in minor league cities pretending to play in major leagues. To me, the gizmo already looks obsolete."
When I wrote these waspish lines, I had Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao in mind: cities struggling to catch attention? hiring superstar architects more known for spectacular protuberances than for discretion? letting them freely play around with their software, without many editorial constraints? ending up with the empty shell of cultural alibis, waiting to be filled with limited resources already stretched beyond their limits?... At least the actual client, Guggenheim, knew a thing or two about design and architecture. And their Bilbao franchise was not centrally located, but in an urban dead-end. Frank(gehri)ly, the result is by no means a sore sight for eyes, but a spectacular venue deliberately put on a pedestal more than a part of the urban continuum.

Speaking of urban continuity... I was also thinking about Paris' Forum des Halles: a 63,000 m² project is more about urbanism than about architecture, and you want to make sure that city respiration is improved by it, not cut. Here, to me, the risk was limited to the big question mark, and more precisely the question-mark-shaped main structure: won't this long, intimidating wall with few openings block the view at street level, preventing a dialog with half the neighborhood?

The big question mark: will the DDP successfully dialog with its surroundings?
This is certainly not Les Halles and East 1er Arrondissement, and the situation can only improve from the car-centric mess I've always known, even when street vendors occupied much of the streets. The new complex is overwhelmingly low-rise and car-free and that's a very good thing, even if the promenade to the East - elegantly sloped - could be lined up with more trees or natural protections from the killer waves of Seoul's summer heats and winter winds.

The western front (Art Hall, Museum) looks a bit overwhelming from across the street: you can't see beyond the giant wave except at the central opening, and you can't see the underground spaces that make the structure much lighter and open.
Pedestrian flows do look more fluid from this angle.

At night, the LED enabled facets amp up the feeling that a giant alien squid has just landed in the middle of the city (to make for the one missing in the awful movie version of Watchmen?):

The giant ojingeo by night,flashing its colorful lights.

One part of the DDP has dramatically changed since the early stages: its logo, now a much more digestible evocation of the project (exhibit B) than the initial Keith-Haringesque erection (exhibitionist A):

DDP logo 2007

DDP logo 2013

So, how was it inside?

If we only went through a few empty halls and staircases (the stairs being the only square angles, even the cases are round), we already enjoyed an impressive display of architecture, and that's pretty much what I felt when I first visited the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, back in 1998: from the inside as well as from the outside, the impression of browsing a 3D Pritzker laureate brochure. Perfect, aseptic aesthetics. A finite, computer-generated world where every single atom is edited:

Somehow, I felt at the same time drawn further inside, and kept outside. A foreign contaminant tolerated behind the pod bay doors, fearing the moment when the suave voice of HAL9000 would resonate: "I'm sorry Steve, I'm afraid I can't do that".
Visiting 's Dongdaemun Design Plaza ( DDP), but where is ?

If the purpose is to showcase the power of sheer design, I guess this does the trick.

Humans shall eventually find ways of fitting in.


See all posts related to Seoul DDP, including:

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* Global Seoul Mates, and comedian KIM Young-chul / KIM Yeong-cheol - a great, eventful day along Seoul Fortress, ending with a dinner at Seokparang with the Mayor who will eventually deliver the DDP, PARK Won-soon:

** see for instance "Seoul Old Towns or New Human Towns? New City Hall or Tsunamheat Wave?", following "Seoul Tsunami City Hall, The Other Korean Wave"
*** which, again, I was not too sad to see removed. The sad part was how Cheonggyecheon and Dongdaemun merchants were treated by Mayor LEE Myung-bak (from Cheonggyecheon to Pungmul Market), and his successor (from the old soccer stadium to the Seoul Folk Flea Market in Sinseol-dong).

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Season VIII - Ad Absurdum

It's "good resolutions" and "bad hangovers" time, my friends (warning: navel-gazing ensues).

On the good resolution side, I just updated my list of posts (2007-2013 complete, Season VIII starting right now).

The sobering news? Again, I excreted more than 100 ill-written and embarrassing pieces over the past year.

And again, from this tasteless bibim emerged the usual main 'verticals' ('obsessions'?): culture, politics, and cityscapes.

Fewer posts about food, sorry: I'm still experiencing fantastic moments on that front but now, even the tiniest hole in the most remote wall is covered (if not by my favorite blogs devoted to that noble cause, at least by one of my favorite mobile apps). So if nice spots continue to disappear, there's always a place to remember them... and always stimulating new marvels to save the day.

Besides, I still have Twitter for the odd "selfoodie"(?):

Healthy . The flowers and 칡닙 tasted nice too. (20130913)

Back to the main verticals, now. Starting with politics, since the most viewed- and most controversial - post of the year fell into that category. Many found "Can't top that? Shinzo Abe posing as Shiro Ishii, the Josef Mengele of Imperial Japan" a tad exaggerated, but back then (May 2014), I was barely highlighting a few facts about a very extreme character... who kindly obliged by confirming all year long his deplorable nature*.

I know, I know, the same could be said about this excuse for a blog where, even on serious issues (particularly on serious issues?), I often end up posting resolutely absurd stuff: "France claims the British Isles at the United Nations", "Rise Of The Nork Zombies", "Exclusive interview with KIM Jong-un"...

Note that "absurd stuff" also works for the urbanism / cityscapes vertical, but this time I'm not the main culprit: in this part of the world, "urban planners" tend to botch the "planning" bits of the job. Yes, "criticism is easy and art is difficult"... but perusing my unreadable triptychs about Songdo or Seoul's latest rapid transit projects, THAT was heroic (and very kind of you, faithful urbanists!).

Of course, whatever the topic (politics, urbanism, architecture, food, business, literature...), it's always about culture. And procrastinating more serious writing.

At least, last year, I did what My Beloved Seoul begged me to do**, and completed my first collection of fictions about Her. 

Absurdist fictions, naturally.

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* until the very end, and in spite of a fierce regional competition: "With neighbors like these..." ("Abeignomics" definitely the keyword for 2013)
** in her answer to my love letter (see "Alleyways")

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