Korean Studies Review has posted a review by James E. Hoare of Seoul, Ville géante, cités radieuses, by Valérie Gelézeau (CNRS, 2003), which reminds us again how much Korea followed Japanese models of modernization long after the end of the colonial period.
Journalists who write about Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, often dwell on the supposedly “Stalinist” characteristics of its high-rise apartment blocks, and their reduction of human beings to ant-like creatures. To the writers, these blocks are clearly a bad thing. Yet some three hundred kilometers further down the Korean peninsula, in the South Korean capital of Seoul, tower blocks seem even more domineering. Clustered together in miniature cities within the greater conurbation, they have become the preferred dwelling place of the affluent and successful. South Koreans boast of their tower blocks and the urban infrastructure of elevated roadways, underpasses and bridges that go with them, comparing Seoul’s Yoido Island to Manhattan. There is nothing negative about this assessment of such buildings….
In this fascinating book, the French geographer Valérie Gelézeau examines how this came to be…. She traces the origins of the modern dwelling complexes to the industrial complexes established in the Japanese colonial period, but argues that the real take-off for high-rise buildings was only practical with improvements in water pressure and the reliability of electricity supplies, for central heating and elevators, that had to wait until the economic transformation of South Korea under President Park Chung-hee began to take effect. It was thus only in the late 1970s that the widespread use of buildings over four-six stories became possible. Before then, the typical Seoul “high-rise” was about five stories, with no elevator and with a water tank on the roof. In a society where few people owned their own cars, there was little or no need for parking places. Some of these low high-rises survive, now updated, with the water tank used only for emergencies, and where possible, with parking spaces for the explosion in car ownership since the mid-1980s. In general, however, the mighty blocks that now dominate so much of the city have replaced these early efforts….
Gelézeau also sees the development of the high-rises as an important part of Park’s commitment to modernize South Korea. Perhaps drawing on his experience of Japan’s Manchukuo experiment, Park equated the traditional with the countryside and the countryside with the backward. Not only should people move off the land, but they should also change the way that they lived. And the new blocks with their “Western”-style bathrooms and kitchens were a potent symbol of that modernity. But as so often happens when one probes into developments in Korea, the inspiration for the new blocks that began to appear from the mid-1970s came from Japan rather than from the West, despite the Western-sounding nyu t’aun (New Town) appellation that the Chamsil first mega-complex received. The chaebol [conglomerates called zaibatsu in Japanese] built their blocks following what had become the standard modern Japanese layout, “LDK” – that is, a set of bedrooms around a “living, dining, kitchen” area….
While her contacts praised the apartments for their comfort and safety, some at least look back positively on older styles of housing because there was more contact with neighbours. People clearly miss the friendly greetings of the old communities. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the world that Gelézeau describes is how isolated people seem from each other. Community, and even family, life hardly exists. The staff charged with looking after the buildings complain that the residents will not sort their rubbish or take responsibility for the communal areas. Yet these blocks are not the bleak social housing that has given high-rise buildings such a bad name in Europe, but the acme of middle-class living …