[VIEWPOINT]The political nature of buildings

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[VIEWPOINT]The political nature of buildings

Robert Moses was the architect and administrator who designed the structure and spectacle of New York City from 1930 to 1950. He built many parks around New York, but the odd thing about Jones Beach Park was that the overpass spanning the park’s entrance was very low. This meant that white people of middle class or above could easily get through the entrance in their cars, but black people, who usually took the bus, could not enter the park at all. Moses’ racist intention of making a pleasant park just for white people was subtly shown in its structure.
Revolutionary forces in Paris were able to take over the city with a comparatively small army because they found it easy to put down barricades in the narrow and curving streets of the city. Louis Napoleon took notice of this weak point and improved the city’s streets by making them wider, which made it harder for the rebel army to occupy Paris. The reason why the Constitutional Court of Germany was located in Karlsruhe instead of Berlin, and why the Constitutional Court of the former Czechoslovakia was placed in Brno instead of Prague is because they wanted constitutional hearings to receive less pressure from the legislature and the administration.
As seen from these examples, buildings and structures are not built on neutral values. The most common form of discrimination seen in the construction of buildings is the position of the front door and the back door. Women professors of German universities until the middle of the 20th century could not use the front door, but had to use the back door to access their offices and laboratories instead. Also, the Royal Institution of Great Britain was built in 1801 with the purpose of holding science lectures for London citizens of all classes, but the first design draft for the building included a front door for the upper class to use, and a back door to be used by the working class.
This design received much criticism and was rejected in the end, but if it had not been, and this discriminatory structure had been made into an actual building, Michael Farraday, who was originally from a working class family, might never have been able to become the head of the Royal Institution or contribute to science as immensely as he did.
High walls or fences and exclusive areas are also structures of segregation and discrimination. The high walls of prisons symbolize an area for people who are segregated from the rest of society, and the high fences of high-class residential areas symbolize the privilege and haughtiness of the rich who pursue a life that is different from that of the common people.
Toronto University, where I worked until last year, did not have an exclusive parking lot for professors, but Seoul National University strictly divides the parking areas for the professors and graduate students. Graduate students are sure to feel a wall of “status” every time they park out on the ring road, instead of close to the buildings, where the professors park.
One place where the discriminatory front door and back door, high walls and exclusive areas all exist together is the National Assembly building. It has a high wall restricting entry, a location and structure that make it difficult to access on foot, coercive security and police, an authoritative routine of checking identification, an exclusive parking lot paved with marble, a red carpet signifying the privilege of a member of parliament, as well as elevators and entrances exclusively for members.
It is no exaggeration to say that the National Assembly building has all the privileges that a building can have. The average person must walk another five minutes after he reaches the front of the building, in order to go through the back door. Such rules are stipulated in the “Regulations Concerning the Entrance to the National Assembly Government Building.” The National Assembly, which should be reflecting the will of the people to make laws, is not only concerned about making a complex building to show off lawmakers’ privileges but has even enacted laws to make sure those privileges are protected.
Public opinion over the reform of the 17th National Assembly treats the problem of entering the building as a small one compared to “political” reform problems, such as stopping the misuse of the privilege of immunity or sitting lawmakers’ exemption from arrest without the Assembly’s approval.
But people need to know that awareness of privileges leads to buildings that have privileges, and having such buildings in turn leads to even stronger awareness of privileges.
Privilege judgments are then swayed and lead to social decay and secret chamber conferences. Buildings are political structures, and changing the incorrect structure of the National Assembly building will ultimately lead to political reform.

* The writer is a professor of history of science and technology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Hong Sung-ook
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