A long way from apartment utopia

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A long way from apartment utopia


Le Corbusier, the father of modern architecture, dreamt of an apartment utopia. He wanted to create a space to rest, eat, play and enjoy life that not only satisfied the needs of humanity but also inspired people. His concept went beyond mere housing and towards something of a community. Le Corbusier promoted a large apartment complex as a redevelopment project in Paris in the 1930s, but his proposal was declined because of political opposition.

His apartment dreams came true thanks to World War II. The Provisional Government of the French Republic commissioned him to rebuild the war-torn city of Marseille. He developed Unite d’Habitation, a residential housing project that became the first modern apartment complex. Apartments have since transformed the world’s housing culture. Then-Minister for Cultural Affairs Andre Malraux praised Le Corbusier as one the three architects of humanity along with Phidias of ancient Greece and Renaissance master Michelangelo.

But what would Le Corbusier think if he saw the apartment buildings in Korea? He may regret that he came up with the idea at all.

In terms of sheer numbers, Korea may be close to apartment utopia. Sixty five percent of the population lives in multi-unit buildings. Eighty percent of those in metropolitan cities live in apartments - one of the highest levels in the world. However, life in those flats is less than ideal. Apartments are nicknamed “chicken coops,” “matchboxes,” “carbon copies” or sometimes “concrete boxes for human storage.” There is no space for the “inspiration” and “humanity” that Le Corbusier dreamt of.

It reminds me of a depressing story I heard from an IT company executive a decade ago. We’ve all heard it before. He told me that it’s largely thanks to all our apartments that Korea became a IT power. It costs less to install broadband networks here because the population is so highly concentrated, and our apartments limit the personal interactions between neighbors and contribute to the spread of Internet culture. Korea has the highest broadband penetration in the world. But a lack of real communication is hardly something to be proud of.

Neighbors get into violent disputes because of the noise between floors in apartment buildings; in one recent case it led to a double murder. We’ve all had sleepless nights because of the loud stomping from upstairs and tried to keep our kids quiet after protests from downstairs. The main cause of all this is the high cost of noise-proofing. Some resident groups make noise control standards and keep watch on each other.

Can we turn this into an opportunity for improvement, just as apartment culture led to a boom in information technology? Affordable and effective sound-proofing technology can be developed, and communication among apartment residents can be fostered. Then, maybe Le Corbusier would take a better view of Korea’s apartment culture.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yi Jung-jae
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