An unusual take on urban renewalThe crowd was surprisingly calm when two male performers from “City Mongkey” showed up on a Seoul subway train last summer, carrying a noticeably large red sofa in their arms. There were people who laughed, and others who gave strange looks at the two men as they laid their furniture in the middle of the aisle, facing the passengers on both sides. But as they continued to watch the men sitting on the sofa, the passengers loosened up and went back to their activities.
After a short while, the two men stepped off the train, placed their sofa on the subway platform and waited for people’s reactions. No one seemed on alert or showed an extreme response.
It was a two-hour performance. But if it weren’t for a man holding a video camera to record the scene, most people would have easily dismissed it ― a typical example illustrating the dynamics of a city subway.
“It was funny how nobody really seemed to care,” says Mun Hun, an architect who was one of the two men in the subway performance. “For us, it was an opportunity to overcome shyness.”
Kim Seung-gui, the other performer, is an architecture critic who, with Mr. Mun, came up with the initial idea of “City Mongkey,” the name for an urban project group and a city magazine that was recently released here.
After the performance, one of the major scenes ― a rear shot of the two male performers sitting on their plush sofa on the train ― was pasted with an image of a blonde Barbie doll, and used as the magazine’s cover. The main theme of the first issue was the Seoul subway, everything from redesigning the subway walls to replacing the benches on the trains with plush sofas. The idea was simple: to use the subway as a metaphor for the city, which flows like a moving train.
City Mongkey is an open-ended project. It’s a jumble of funky ideas and images about the city that may seem radical and distant from the point of view of a functioning city architect. The group, which is made up of a collective of architects, artists and cultural insiders, meets irregularly to share everything from drinks to debates on urban issues.
The subjects the group brings up, which sometimes take the shape of science-fiction novels, tackle some pointed issues about Seoul’s urban projects by raising a lot of “what if” questions. For example, what would a city look like with traffic lights in the shape of cats and dogs? Instead of spending millions of won on reviving a traditional fence in hanok villages, Mr. Mun suggests it’s possible to create the same line of a wall through light, by simply installing street lamps.
The magazine itself looks into the cultural context of public spaces in Seoul, like the sexual connotation of a Seoul subway and a travelogue by a Korean architect who explores the historical significance of public monuments in North Korea based on his visits to subway stations in Pyongyang.
One of the writers in the book tries to articulate why subways came to represent an icon of a “sexual sewer” in the city, saying it’s considered “romance” when your eyes meet those of a stranger on a train or an airplane, but you are treated as a pervert if you gaze at someone on a subway.
The book is insightful, without a tinge of elitist pretension. For a pair of Korean intellectuals who graduated from prestigious schools and teach at universities, it is almost an academic risk.
Mr. Mun, the magazine’s art director, received a master’s degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mr. Kim, who has spent half of his adult life abroad, majored in art at London’s Chelsea College of Art before moving around major cities of the world, including Osaka, Shanghai and Seoul, as well as living in Florida.
Mr. Kim, who has always been critical of the city’s efforts at urban development, points out that the problem of Seoul’s urban landscape is an apparent lack of creative energy on the part of those who are actually involved in changing the city.
“Either nobody cares or only the city officials who are related to the project can afford to pay attention to public facilities in Seoul,” Mr. Kim says. “Things are still done in the form of giant propaganda. The government decides to make sudden changes in the city, and everything else needs to revolve around that condition.”
Mr. Mun doesn’t beat around the bush either. “It’s like one day a bunch of officials are happily playing hwatu in a sauna and suddenly come up with an idea of building an opera house,” he says. “They think it’s a great idea, and hire experts to build it like the Sydney Opera House, because that’s all they’ve seen.”
As an alternative to leaving such projects entirely up to government officials, the group recently handed out a survey asking random people in Seoul to come up with ideas of what they would do if the Seoul subway were their personal facility.
One subway engineer in Seoul adamantly replied, “If the Seoul subway were mine, I would use it very carefully.” A high school student said he would permit the unemployed elderly to open flea markets on the trains. Pascal Buervon, a French diplomat, says, “The Korean subway is a real window on Korean modernity.. but now is the time for expression and creativity. Giving the Seoul subway a soul is a new challenge.”
Others suggested that the length of the tunnels used to transfer from one subway line to another needed to be reduced at some stations.
If Seoul is the way it is now because of the city’s rapid development, and if planting a few trees on the city’s streets may not prevent the destruction of the ozone layer, the group believes that perhaps the money for urban redevelopment should be spent on other things ― like having traffic lights in the shape of cats and dogs.
“Or maybe we should just accept this city as it is instead of having huge redevelopment projects,” Mr. Kim says. “Because what would it mean to revive an old tradition in a city if it needs a major reconstruction? What exactly do we want to restore? For whom?”
Indeed, City Mongkey is a metaphor for urbanites who live by their primitive instincts in the jungle of desire. In the name, of course, there is a reference to a utopian dream, as “mong” means “to dream” in Korean.
“We didn’t start this project to make Seoul one of the world’s top cities,” Mr. Kim says. “It was a spontaneous decision. That’s why we chose a subway. We liked it, because it wasn’t so grand.”
Perhaps that is the beauty of living in a city. Even in our mundane reality, people can experience the changing reality that is not fixed to a single tradition or culture.
“People tease me that I don’t settle in one place,” Mr. Kim says. “But to me at least, there is a common settlement called a city.”
by Park Soo-mee