Urban makeovers: Where to start?

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Urban makeovers: Where to start?

Every day, Korea’s urban residents are living amid a maze public facilities ― manhole lids, telephone boxes and toilets, to name a few. In many cases, these things blend into the city blur, but in bad cases they look awful, marring whatever they touch.
A country’s public design reflects its cultural sophistication. The following are a few of the places in Korean public design that have room for improvement.
Mr. Kwon is the chairman of the Korea Society of Public Design and a professor of design at Seoul National University.


Beautifying from the ground up

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The streets look simple ― long and flat ― but underneath them is a web of infrastructure that moves waste, transmits electrical power and facilitates communication. Manhole covers symbolize the border between the invisible complicated underground and the surface.
The style of a manhole cover depends on its function and location. But often, it looks wrong, a blip on an otherwise clean surface. Aesthetically, it breaks the unity with its surroundings because it is made of a different material than the road surface.
By using similar materials and making a pattern that blends with its surroundings, manholes can made made to almost disappear.
In many other cities of the world, manhole covers symbolize the image of the region or at least are in harmony with the area. For example, a manhole cover in Hong Kong’s Disneyland has a Mickey Mouse in the center, and lines are carved on the lid to connect with the lines of the blocks on the pavement as if it were a part of the pavement. In contrast, manhole covers in Seoul say nothing about the city.


There’s no place to sit if the benches burn you

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Benches may look like a simple public facility, but they require many considerations: safety, convenience, aesthetic appreciation and ergonomic adequacy.
Stone benches in Insa-dong, Seoul’s traditional neighborhood, are there in part to show off Korea’s stone artisanship. They fit into the street atmosphere, and also block cars from going onto sidewalks. But the corners are sharp enough to hurt any passerby who bumps into it. The granite material makes it look very cold, so that one isn’t tempted to sit on the bench. In addition, it’s too hard to be comfortable.
In Chungmuro, central Seoul, is a beautiful bench that looks like a sculpture. But, embarrassingly, the bench ― which is made of bronze ― carries a warning: “Be careful, you might get burned if you sit on this in summer.”
Contrast this with a simple bench in London, which gives an impression that it was designed to offer a comfortable and safe place to the public. The 2-centimeter-thick urethane rubber that wraps over the body not only cushions it, but also protects it year-round, whether the weather is hot, cold or rainy.


Ugly construction sites? Wrap them up neatly

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Even amid a forest of skyscrapers, it’s easy to find new buildings going up or being remodeled. The dust and noise from construction sites are an unfortunate byproduct, which is why most sites use building wraps.
Building wraps, which cover a site under construction for months, even years, are greatly effective both environmentally and emotionally. The material of the wraps ranges from nonwoven fabric to vinyl to steel sheets.
Artists, design students and residents participated in making the wrap for the Seoul Foundation for Arts & Culture building, which is being remodeled in Yongdu-dong, central Seoul. This artful wrap comprises paintings by residents and colored cloths to form an artful image. But it would have been better for them to try to harmonize the wrap with the building’s surroundings rather than use it to show off the building itself.
In contrast, a building wrap in Venice mirrors the image of the building under construction, both blending the construction into the environment and making citizens curious about what’s going on inside the wrap.


Tin boxes do little to make a city more beautiful

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The word “kiosk” comes from Turkish and means a pavilion or gate. Kiosks are virtually urban necessities ― where else can commuters quickly and easily purchase newspapers, magazines, snacks and cigarettes? The downside is that too many or too large kiosks can result in clogged sidewalks and annoy pedestrians.
Kiosks in Korea all tend to look the same ― a tin box with a newspaper rack in front. Often, the product display is disorderly and its surroundings are dirty and messy.
In comparison, kiosks in some foreign countries are not only convenient, but also make the city more aesthetically attractive. Kiosks in Paris harmonize with their surroundings; some are even architecturally interesting. Their colors, shapes and designs reflect the city’s architectural style and accentuate the beauty in the city.
Korean kiosks are in serious need of a scrubbing, reorganizing, and in some neighborhoods, complete remodeling.


A city without buildings, only signboards

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There’s a saying that you can’t see the forest from the trees. That just as true in public design. If a building’s composition is discordant, even remarkable elements fail to appeal to the eye.
Earlier this year, the public design cultural forum of the National Assembly surveyed what hurts the city’s aesthetics the most. The answer? Signboards.
Korea’s cities seem to be built entirely out of signboards. Looking at the slew of signboards ― each with different colors and styles ― it seems that they are screaming to be looked at. With so many signs shouting for attention, however, pedestrians hear and see nothing.
Many Korean store owners believe that the bigger the signboard, the more effective, and will keep creating bigger and bigger signs until the building disappears and the neighborhood is overwhelmed.
On the contrary, it is much easier to read signboards when they have only their own brand name, as seen left on the facade of an electronics complex in Japan. Notice that the signs don’t even use florescent colors.


by Kwon Young-gull
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