Walking the World: Seoul (part 1)
Consumption, brutality, and the cute
Seoul is not a pretty town, not at least by most Western senses of beauty. It is a sprawling mix of the haphazard, with little seeming cohesion, beyond a shared culture. Two hundred and fifty square miles of building after building, of all styles, of all facades (glass, brick, stucco, tile, fake brick, fake stucco), jammed up against each other, all covered in visually loud, bright, large ads.
Two hundred and fifty miles of busy broad roads crowded with buses, scooters, cars, semis, and lined with building after building holding store after store after store, each blaring (sometimes literally), what they have inside.
There is no sense of order or cohesion, not in the styles of buildings, or the types of neighborhoods next to each other. Walking through Seoul means constantly jarring transitions. One second you’re in a back alley of small apartments and trucks selling garlic, the next you’re in a modern business park so sterile it feels like a doctor’s office.
Neighborhoods change in a flash. Impeccably clean, modern, and overly-planned apartment complexes with wide sidewalks, sterile parking garages, and zero personality, butt up against older neighborhoods (mostly on hills) jammed with personality, oddly parked cars, tiny alleys of three-story apartments, and simple homes with grape gardens.
Trying to find architectural order is asking for disappointment. Even within a single building there is at least eight different things and ten different styles going on.
There is no respect in Seoul for the Western aesthetic of consistency. If you’re open minded, you quickly adjust to the clutter, although embracing it, as some sort of higher form of urban planning, is beyond my capacity for acceptance.
Yet Seoul isn’t without an ethos. It isn’t all chaotic and diffuse energy. The underlying driving force in Seoul is the practical. Every building, from the large to small, puts being functional, at the lowest available cost, over beauty.
Which is fine by me. I think the wealthy West puts way too much stock in empowered urban planners, who are so worried about getting everything right they end up doing nothing new. So worried about safety this, and beauty that, that our cities become frozen zones of exclusion. Places unwilling to change even if facing decline. Places where the only thing that ends up happening is fiddling around the edges. Like building bike lanes through neighborhoods where nobody ever bikes.
I would rather we get the big things right, and create cities that work, which means cities people can afford to live in, regardless of if they are pleasant on the eyes.
Still, there is so much chaos in Seoul, so much jarring juxtaposition, that it’s easy to miss the 10 million residents, beyond as a mob pulsing across a tangle of intersecting roads when the lights change, the delivery mop-eds finally stop, and the pedestrians get their turn.
The physical and visual brutality of Seoul can take over, becoming the dominant personality, and leaving everyone else bit players in the game.
Life in Seoul ends up being dwarfed by the the very infrastructure meant to enable living.
Still community happens no matter the setting. Seoul is no different. The visually loud, bright, busy, massive sprawling chaos doesn’t stop people from doing what people always do, which is building friendships, and complex social lives.
In Seoul, you just have to look a little closer, just have to dampen the bright lights, ignore the vast buildings, and focus on people going about being people.
Wedged between an interstate on-ramp, and two massive housing complexes, is a small park where older couples come to play croquet while friends cook them meals of freshly washed vegetables.
In a cavernous over-lit subway stop/underground mall, older folks sit around a pole spending the day doing what old people all over the world do — gossiping, shopping, and spinning stories about whatever.
Mothers still take their toddlers for ice cream, regardless of the garish colors filling the scenery.
7-11’s and other overly lit convenience story chains, act as impromptu community centers, mostly for the marginalized. (more on this in part 2 next week.)
In the tight alleys snaking up neighborhood hill tops, rows of fresh vegetable’s grow in tiny pots clustered along the alleys edges, tended to by the neighborhood retirees.
Life happens no matter the setting, in any city, no matter how it looks, is arranged, or planned. That is part of the reason I am less focused on urban planning than most people who do what I do.
Give people whatever space they can to live in, and they will turn it into a warm community.
Yet there is brutalism in Seoul, but isn’t really about the architecture, but about the consumption. It is a thoroughly modern global, even Western secular city, where buying stuff, and having lots of stuff to buy, is at its core.
It is a city filled with commerce. From the old school single story markets, to the newer shiny escalator packed shopping malls.
Spaces meant for simply existing, not consuming exist in Seoul, but are after thoughts.
Churches and temples, far rarer than in most cities, are wedged into tiny hard to see and find nooks.
The statues and historical monuments, nods to Korea’s long impressive past, are quarantined to a few sections of town, where they are dwarfed by huge and growing glass towers all around.
It all feels so mechanical, like everything has and will be bulldozed for a better, brighter, wealthier, and more stuff filled future.
The result is the residents of Seoul become small-bit actors in a grand TV ad. Buy this. Buy that. Do this. Do that. Vote for this. Vote for that.
This is especially true of the younger generation, who seem particularly obsessed with the materialistic. The remaining pockets of traditional communities are confined to people over 60.
The Croquet clubs. Walking clubs. Gardening clubs. Get-togethers at the 7-11s. Guys playing Go in the park. All the elderly.
It doesn’t bode well for Seoul’s future. At least the transcendent part.
The younger generation seems to be dealing with the rampant consumption and materialism, and the emptiness that results, by embracing the cute.
If you make anything and everything a lovable character, that dampens the edges. Makes a life of buying and selling stuff a little less dreary. A little less pointless.
I am all cool with anthropomorphizing anything and everything. But when turned into a worldview, its pretty depressing.
And in Seoul, its close to being a worldview. The culture of the cute is younger Koreans way of coping with a dystopia soulless future thick with consumption and thin on the transcendent. A quasi religion of fuzzy things, that replaces prayer and meditation with the awwwwwwwwww.
That is a shallow way to build a culture, but one that makes perfect sense in a consumer society. Collect more fluffy cute characters to find deeper happiness. Buy more collectables to be fulfilled.
I have never seen a functional society that is happy and content, that doesn’t have some form of religion, faith, meditation, or the aesthetic. Some way to provide meaning, guidance, and community, while also elevating life about the mundane and above the material.
Trying to do that with the cute is like putting lipstick on a pig.
Or putting lipstick on an Octopus. A cute Octopus. One that that you will eventually kill then eat.
Seoul Part 2 ( Coming next week): Good Food. Places I like to eat, hang in, and explore. Like 7-11s, bars, and baseball games.
Seoul Part 3 (Coming in two weeks): A few people of Seoul, a lot more pictures, and a video tour. For paid subscribers.
For paid subscribers. Click the link for over two hundred full res pics of Seoul for you to download and use as you like. More to be added. Click for link
Logistical Walking Issues
Seoul, despite not being built for pedestrians, is remarkably pedestrian friendly. There is always a path, sidewalk, underpass, overpass, designed for walkers. You can always get from point a to point b, on foot. It might be a tad weird. But you can always do it. With well marked and timed crossings. It might take a while to get a chance to cross, but you will eventually be allowed to cross. At some point.
The coolest thing about being a pedestrian in Seoul is the blue/red crossing strips at many intersections. You can tell, simply by looking down, if you can walk.
The least cool thing is the constant buzz of delivery guys on motor scooters. They are in every neighborhood. Big, small, busy, empty. You are always at risk of being whacked in the back by a guy delivering sushi looking down at his Waze.
The metro and bus system is absolutely top notch. Buy a single pass (choose your cute character to have on it), fill it up, and you can ride anything with just one swipe.
It is a wonder anyone owns a car in Seoul. Driving, and parking, looks horrendous, while the bus system is one of the best I have ever ridden. You can go almost everywhere on one of the super clean green buses. With a single swipe. Stops are well marked, and have nice shelters with info on what is coming when. It’s how a bus system should be.
Also. It is a very very safe city. So. If that is your issue. All is good.