[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Concrete can be beautiful - but isn't

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Concrete can be beautiful - but isn't

The city of Seoul really takes a beating in opinion polls and other such subjective ratings. Just last Monday our own paper carried an article about the third annual Seoul Town Meeting, at which foreign residents aired their complaints about our gigantic metropolis. As usual, traffic and transportation problems topped the list of annoyances. That same day, a rival English-language daily began publishing a volley of readers' I-hate/love-Seoul rants.

Some of these people clearly need a reality check. For example, participants in the town meeting bemoaned the "ex-tremely low level of English spoken by bus drivers." Come on, folks. People with high English proficiency would not remain bus drivers very long. In any case, one of the adventures of living in a big city is learning the transportation system, and the Seoul system is especially easy to catch on to since all destinations are given in Roman as well as Korean and Chinese characters.

The gap between opinion and reality was also apparent in a survey of executives at 500 multinational corporations in March. It asked their perceptions of five Asian cities: Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, Singa-pore, and Tokyo. Seoul was consistently perceived as being at the very bottom, even in categories such as tax rates, in which it was in fact the median city among the five.

In many areas -- increasing parks and rest areas, restoring streams, and planting trees come to mind -- the city de-serves credit for making im-provements; but in one regard I agree with the naysayers: concrete. In architecture and infrastructure, concrete continues to be overused and misused, ad-ding to our city's unsightliness.

My neighborhood is pretty typical. Whenever they need to fix the water mains or lay a new gas line by one of our local "villa" apartments, they just jackhammer things up haphazardly and then pour on new concrete when finished. The site is never blocked off in any way, so the kids can't resist stepping in the wet concrete to leave their footprints for posterity in a sort of Grauman's Chinese Theater of the unknown juveniles of Donam-dong. Ah, well, they are providing archaeologists of ages hence with superbly preserved "fossils" of the patterns on the soles of early 21st-century sneakers.

Once a series of burst water mains, clogged sewers and new gas lines led to the complete repaving of a couple of our back alleys. The kindest description of the way the concrete pouring was done would be "organic." It simply followed the lay of the land. To put a positive spin on it, let's just say that all the little ridges and irregularities will provide extra traction in slippery weather, and the larger un-dulations can serve as a closely packed series of speed bumps, making this school zone a safer place to walk and increasing business for garages that replace automobile suspensions.

Here future scientists will find not only sneaker-sole fossils but also evidence of the local fauna, including paw prints of half a dozen canine breeds and the footprints of a neighbor's chicken, which though normally a stay-at-home type had for some reason succumbed to an uncontrollable urge to cross the road on that particular day. All is framed by amorphous blobs of concrete spilling over here and there against utility poles and the sides of -- you guessed it -- concrete-slab buildings.

Believe it or not, concrete need not be ugly. There are ways to use better materials in molds to give concrete surfaces a more appealing look. By techniques little used today, concrete walls can have tile, stone or other facing materials embedded in them when they are poured. The ancient Romans knew these and other methods for making the best of concrete.

Not many of us realize that all the greatest structures of the Roman Empire were built of concrete, including the Colos-seum, the Pantheon with its concrete dome, the Baths of Caracalla, the Basilica of Max-entius and many more. Con-crete was one of the most commonly used construction materials in ancient times, but strangely, after the fall of the Roman Empire everyone seems to have forgotten about concrete, or at least abandoned it, until its "rediscovery" in the late 18th century.

Because concrete is so durable, so inexpensive and easy to make, and so easily molded, we are probably going to be stuck with it as our most common construction material for a long time to come. Since we can't dig up a dead Roman, let's hope that some Korean architectural genius comes along soon to teach us how to make concrete beautiful again.

* The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Daily. His e-mail address is gary@korealore.com.

by Gary Rector

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