[Letters] Creative decisions about urban environment

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[Letters] Creative decisions about urban environment

On June 17, the Korea JoongAng Daily published an article titled ‘Public Projects Leaving Architects Out.’ It struck me as particularly disappointing, although not a total surprise. The article certainly opened broader questions about the quality of public architecture and urban infrastructure here in Korea.

Architects and perhaps architecture more specifically are looked upon in Korea as a necessary evil. The profession is marginalized at best and architects most often serve limited advisory roles with engineers and other business leaders forging the way for the “image” of the city. Architectural works, as the article suggests, are often plagiaristically hijacked and repackaged in scrubbed-down fashion.

The unfortunate reality in this is what is left for the benefit of the general public, often a leftover side note. Decision makers today in Seoul and throughout Korea, be they of government or private sector positions, would be wise to recognize that society is in fact measured by its physical manifestations — the forms (architectures and infrastructures) and accomplishments of the cities it builds. One has to look no further than great cities throughout world history (and today) to know this reality.

Surprisingly, in Korean society with such high regard for personal image, the built environment, of and for the people, takes a back seat and with little protest. How can this be?

I experience this daily as I walk the unfriendly pedestrian streets with my infant daughter in a stroller. I wonder to myself how even the most basic of public spaces, such as ‘street,’ could be so flagrantly overlooked and under cared for. It is a hostile experience to even walk around the block in my Seochodong ‘upper-class’ neighborhood and of all places where people seem so proud to live.

What is the answer to this? Perhaps it begins with listening to and respecting the professional and critically acclaimed expertise of those in positions to make creative decisions about the urban environment in which we live; namely the architects and urban designers trained and inspired to shape our constructed environments. This must be done in step with the rapid transformational change and modernization of Seoul. Not after the fact in retrospect. We should be emboldened to do it right the first time.

I have often heard the excuse that the modernization of Seoul has happened so rapidly there was no time to consider all of this. Look no further than the city of San Francisco, where I lived prior to Seoul. After being completely decimated by the 1906 earthquake and ensuing fire, the city was almost entirely reconstructed in a span well inside of 15 years, in time for the Panama Pacifc Exposition of 1915! Seoul is not the first city in the world to be built quickly.

As an Assistant Professor of Architecture at a local university in Seoul, I inspire my eager graduate students to look beyond the obvious design choices for ‘making place’ in the urban environment. I challenge them to be critically aware of the urban context, and society in general, in an effort to respond in kind. These young people will be the next leaders in forging the Seoul of tomorrow, alongside other professionals: doctors, lawyers, business leaders, the likes of which are respected for their specialized knowledge and social contributions. So too are architects necessary to the vitality of where we live, work, seek medical attention, find relaxation, amongst numerous other daily activities.

It is time to give Seoul and Korea what it truly deserves from the people who can make it happen. It is time to listen to the abilities and talents of a qualified profession!

Eric Reeder, foreign professor of architecture, Konkuk University, Seoul
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