Desktop versionMobile version
OpenEdition Books

The Asian side of the world

 | 
Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The thing about Seoul: from a thing in which people reside to a place where they live

Benjamin Joinau

Full text

1October 2007

2A recent education campaign in the underground transport launched by Seoul’s city council, was lost among the many advertisements for mobile telephones and miraculous remedies for hangovers. A poster like any other, but its contents was quite strange. It read, “Transform your city from a thing in which you reside to a place where you live”. An almost touching appeal from the authorities to encourage citizens to change from being users to inhabitants. What could have motivated Seoul’s authorities, an urban monster of 11 million souls, to launch such a campaign?

3We could pretend to be the philosopher and wonder, not “what is a thing”, but “what is a city”? It is certainly not a thing, or only slightly. After leaving the physical territory that defines, in administrative terms, the city (itself so mobile, progressive and porous that the facts don’t mean anything much anymore), what remains of the materiality of a city? Buildings, constructions and works of art? One might as well try to define an individual based on his cells, which, like buildings in general, but especially in Seoul, are prone to constant destruction, disappearances, renovations and reconstructions. It is clear that a city is situated both here, in this shifting materiality, and elsewhere, in a sphere that is, in fact, very abstract. A sphere of the representations that it generates, the symbols that it conveys, and its uses, whether they be real or imaginary, effective or utilitarian, for those who make it a city: its inhabitants.

4Trying to carry out the same work on a city such as Seoul, however, would require the courage and tenacity of an archaeologist discovering the temples of Angkor under the jungle, or the explorer looking for the mythical Timbuktu. In spite of the millions of destinies that have been woven there, often intensely dramatic given the history of Korea, the giant, historic city of Seoul arouses only a discrete interest from researchers. Worse still: this is only a reflection of the relative disinterest shown by the inhabitants in their city.

5Elsewhere, strata and the visible levels that it has left in its buildings determine history, but there is almost an unconscious effort to scale down these layers. It is a city that climbs and rises up through its apartment blocks and skyscrapers, but with an incredible horizontality. The many mountains festooning the capital continually pierce the threatening platitude. It is thus understandable the stories that so many people had described when they were interviewed about their first memory of the city. Many of them remembered their arrival at Seoul railway station, the gigantic size of the city (especially in the eyes of children coming from the countryside), its hustle and bustle and then after being caught by the beast and nothing more. It was as if an amnesic mist surrounded them. War, reconstruction, years of military dictatorship, the efforts made for economic development, the struggle as they learned how to build a democracy. In such an environment we can understand that this city, Seoul, was just a setting for most people, a pretext for their lives, more like a commuter town than a real place to live. The use, in the utilitarian sense, had to necessarily prevail over the symbolic and emotional uses, both of which are present when we reside in a space that encompasses the full sense. Hence the scarcity of legends, stories anecdotes and the relative lack of bibliographies. Seoul was highly unpopular and neglected. It was not until the 1990s that systematic and integrated city planning schemes were put forward by a specialised institution. The city was left to fend for itself for a long time, like a war orphan.

6Nevertheless, the city is present. I see it from my windows; huge, busy, unruffled. It breathes steadily, faster and slowing down and then taking a new breath. Even if Seoul evades definition, it most certainly exists. To know what it is, as we have seen, is another story and it is precisely this story that, the citizens of Seoul have been writing for the past few years. In contrast to what we have just said, the past decade has witnessed profound changes in the people’s relationship with their city. This is because they have experienced profound changes in their relationship to their existence in general, slowly transforming their customs and their capital. To briefly summarise, the so-called IMF crisis that had hit the country at the end of 1997 corresponded to a slow and deep break with, and changing of, the paradigm. It was as if the violence of the crisis shattered the arrogance, the feeling of invincibility and impunity that had gripped the Koreans, reassured by their “Han miracle”, in the 1990s. A challenge that marked the beginning of new lifestyles, in line with the desires of new generations who had grown up with globalisation and the internet. People were taking, or at least trying to take, the time to live. The five-day week arrived, and with it came a new leisure society. People also rediscovered ecological issues, which was in line with the times (live better, longer and more authentically). With questions about pollution, crucial in Seoul, came more individualistic interrogations on the quality of life, a common phenomenon in developed countries. Slow food, slow life, and well-being. These questions about environmental issues, could not help, but change the people’s relationship with the city in an ecological and sociological sense. We suddenly realised that Seoul was the area in which we lived and it had to evolve with us. Green spaces, public parks, activities, facilities and public transport, we can see how much the capital has changed in ten years. The riverbanks, which were the focus of large development projects, have become a massive water playground where and all kinds of sports can be played. Joggers pass skaters and cyclists. The city centre’s previous motorway was moved to make room for the Cheonggyecheon, an old stream that had lain dormant under the concrete for more than thirty years. The Americans will soon relocate from their Yongsan base, which will free up an immense space for a park in the heart of the city over the following ten years. Festivals, exhibitions, and fairs attract an increasing number of people in their free time. We have lost count of the number of salsa clubs and groups of scooter fans; there is even a yacht club with sailboats in the Han River, in-between the wake boarders and the windsurfers. The rare old neighbourhoods, which have not yet been demolished, are being renovated and are becoming trendy places for going out, like Samcheongdong in the area of Bukcheon, which was abandoned in the past for being unsafe. The great palace, Gyeongbok, is undergoing extensive renovation, and the city has even reconstructed the Gyeonghuigung, a small palace that was demolished by the Japanese. Even the South Gate, Namdaemun, a symbol of the historical city and the most prized national treasure, has been saved from isolation in the middle of a noisy roundabout. City-dwellers out for a good time can now access it through a small park with a lawn. The same goes for the square in front of the town hall, which was strangely cut off from the citizens in the past, like an untouchable island.

7If the city is not really a thing or rather, like all things, if it only exists through both the material and symbolic uses that we have of it, and if the city, which we call by this name exists only in what we make of it and by what we dream about it, then a certain dualism concept should allow us to think in terms of opposition or inclusion, city/citizen-user, as if one were only the container of the other. The contemporary way of thinking about the environment, upholding a holistic view, confirms to us that there is synergy between the latter and us, exchange and reciprocity, and co-creation. It invites us to de-objective our relationship towards the city-space, and to reinvest in it in order to develop and make it real. Will Seoul, in this recent, and sometimes a little frenetic and irrational turnaround, find a new lease of life? Will the new residents of Seoul finally come to like their city? Will there be a day when, during an interview, they will proudly recount anecdotes and memories, lending depth to their living environment, and substance to the “misty dream” that is the city? In the meantime, let us continue to express interest in Seoul because behind its harsh surfaces, there is more to the city than meets the eye.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

Terms of use: http://www.openedition.org/6540

Read

Freemium

open access

Provided by L’éditeur de ce site