“Get Real!”

David Lynch, whose conception of ‘real’ is hardly straightforward, uses this phrase to advocate proper cinema over phone or tablet viewing. Peter Ferretto borrows the expression in order to elevate the actual (what happens) to the real (what is genuinely meaningful) about the contemporary city.  The argument of this book depicts Seoul, South Korea, as a local interpretation of a global phenomenon – city-design by the agents of capitalism, rather than by architects or planners.  The resulting collage shares many characteristics with the periphery of European and American cities (or ‘edge city’, since Joel Garreau’s book of 1991); but Seoul is much more compact and intense.  Nor is this book a Korean version of Learning From Las Vegas, 1972, which invoked semiotics to account for representational ambiguities, although it shares Venturi’s skepticism regarding modernism’s ‘prim dreams of pure order’.  Conflicting processes – complexity dominating richness – penetrate much more deeply in Seoul.

Ferretto grew up in Como, Italy, and was educated and then taught in England, before moving to Seoul for five years, where he taught and opened his architectural office.  Very familiar with the European city and its vicissitudes, he appears to have discovered that many of his inherited expectations of hierarchy, continuity with history, relatively obvious distribution of major and minor institutions, etc., were challenged by the urban conditions he found in Seoul (or Hong Kong, where he is presently based).

Intriguingly, this book turns inside out the usual architectural and planning procedures for understanding a city – one or another version of data-mapping, by which pattern hopes to become meaning.  Ferretto has instead collaborated in an open dialogue with a Seoul photographer, Shin Byeonggon, to capture characteristic episodes or themes, arbitrarily limited to a sample of ten, which could establish what might be termed the personality of Seoul.  The mode of research is less didactic archaeology (e.g., Stuart and Revett attempting to establish orthodoxy in the use of Greek architectural order) than it is ethnography.  Avoided are all the ‘monuments’ by which Seoul might celebrate its history or might advertise itself as a thriving commercial or business centre, or by which architects from Seoul or elsewhere might proclaim their adherence to the latest refinements of space-and-form.  The concern here is with the background conditions by which any architecture can speak in Seoul.
The result is a Seoul full of energy, aggressive, alternately messy or tedious, humbly pragmatic or flagrantly kitsch, replete with affirmation and irony.  Where the characteristic music for the Euro-American metropolis was jazz, one hesitates to search for one style of music appropriate to this Seoul.  K-pop reflects only one segment of the phenomenon; Seoul is more like the corpus of YouTube – no identifiable boundaries or over-arching narrative, rather an ever-renewing aggregate of more or less compelling moments whose significance remains enigmatic.  Whilst one shares Ferretto’s enthusiasm for the kilometer-long Sewoon Sangga (architecture as infrastructure) and his abhorrence at the frightful exercise in land-capitalisation that is the new housing in DongTan, the – to me – more curious apparent spiritual common ground between churches, wedding halls and golf must remain enclosed with Korean custom and its efforts to adapt to a city that is effectively only seventy years old, and looks unlikely to cease its vigorous mutation. 

The book raises many questions, among which is the apparent consistency of a process depicted as lacking any particular direction.  I’ve yet to meet a visitor to Seoul who did not express pleasure at the visit – typically with some surprise, as if a city which seemed to violate all the orthodoxies regarding hierarchy and differentiation ought to portend the dystopian Los Angeles of ‘Blade Runner’.  Is it possible that a city could grant dignity and meaning by following Hayek’s dicta regarding markets – that they operate at such scale and speed that no-one could have adequate knowledge to control them, that they are best left to bottom-up, incremental processes?  

Prof. Peter Carl
London Metropolitan University

London, March 2015
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