[In-depth interview]Public design enhances nation’s image

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[In-depth interview]Public design enhances nation’s image

Korea’s metropolitan cities are filled with “violence” ― visual violence, that is, from crude signboards covering buildings, billboards with vulgar slogans and garish lights that make pedestrians’ heads swim, says Kwon Young-gull.
So, Kwon, 56, dean of Seoul National University’s arts department, has been leading campaigns against such violence.
Kwon’s campaign has led the city government to take an interest in the issue.
Last week, the Seoul Metropolitan Government launched a design headquarters, which will specialize in managing the overall design of buildings and facilities in the city. The city government appointed Kwon to head the office, a vice-mayor level position. The JoongAng Ilbo recently met with Kwon, who has been writing a series of columns about public design in the newspaper.

Q.I am not very familiar with the concept of public design. What is it?
A. It is design for the public ― ordinary citizens.
Commercial designs are focused on individuals’ tastes and preferences. But public designs are different. They are designs of the public, by the public, for the public. But actually all designs, including commercial designs, have public characteristics. For example, you buy a tie entirely on your taste. But when you go out, the public will see the tie. How about signboards? The signboards of stores belong to the store owners. But they also have public characteristics. Pedestrians cannot walk with their eyes closed. They have no choice but to see the signboards, even if they do not want to see them. Accordingly, too many signboards with hideous design can be considered social violence.

Are there no regulations to prevent such “violence”?
The relevant laws have not been executed well. As for the signboards that stand in the middle of streets, most of them are illegal, actually. Now, ordinary city dwellers should resist that phenomenon. Some civic groups are urging the introduction of a system in which they can summon government officials who made decisions about unpleasant-looking public facilities. And the owners of stores also should change their attitudes. In Japan, residents are operating an adjustment system, through which store owners make agreements on reductions in the number of signboards. And city governments in the country apply very rigorous standards to nighttime illumination, the color of buildings and the artwork that decorates the buildings.

What kinds of public design are there?
There can be public designs for space, facilities and general views. As for facilities, traffic signs, streetlights, public lavatories and others are included in the category. In addition, this category even includes the uniforms of police officers and street cleaners. And the spaces include educational institutions, resorts and even airports. General views include colors and lights of the city.

I read that light, water and color are important factors for the design of cities. Is that true?
Yes. Human beings basically love water. Water is life. So every city builds fountains or other water facilities in public spaces, where its citizens gather. And human beings react to light. A city’s night views with well-designed lights ennoble the city. Color is also important. Cities of developed countries all study what colors will be in harmony with the city’s natural features, such as the soil. They even study the color of the air. The color of the air in Mediterranean cities is full of sunlight and is different from those in Scandinavian cities.

Can you give examples of cities with excellent public design?
Curitiba of Brazil is a mecca for those who study ecological design. Another paragon is Copenhagen, which gives priority to pedestrians and bicyclists over cars in the streets. And there is Salzburg, which abstains from using artificial light and vivid colors to harmonize city views.

How about the level of Korea’s public design?
I am unhappy to say it is very low. If Korea’s whole design industry were weak, I would be less unhappy. But look at the designs of Hyundai Motor’s cars and Samsung Electronics’ cellular phones. Some local companies are getting design orders from other countries. Despite those abilities, Korea’s streets are in bad condition. It seems Koreans have not sufficiently learned the ethics of harmony and cooperation due to the rapid industrialization of the economy and cutthroat competition.
It is a serious problem because a city’s public design is closely related to its competitiveness. The French philosopher Guy Sorman said Korea is a country with no image. Even foreigners who stay in Korea for a long time leave the country without a strong visual impression of Korea. Public design projects are important to enhance a nation’s image.

By Moon So-young Staff Writer [symoon@joongang.co.kr]

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