ARCHITECTURE OF THE GANGNAM STYLE

 

In summer 2016, I was in Seoul for the first time to interview some local architects. For three weeks I lived in three contrasting areas. The first was Jongno, pulsating high-density urban soul, with small-scale, old and new constructions, restaurants and sooty bbq alleys; then it was the turn of Yangcheon, with houses nestled on hardly accessible green hills; and finally Gangnam, the extensive urban development of the 80s, embodying the economic boom, wealth and yuppies.

 

It was Saturday. I left Yangcheon, descending along the steep hills with the omnipresent image of the Seul Tower. Public transport did not enter here. I crossed the Han River by subway, then changed at Chongshin University, and arrived at Gangnam. Outside the station, I met with a colleague from the University of Milan, who has worked his way up since the experience in Fuksas in Rome before returning here to Seoul.

 

We ramble alongside the tower with an undulating facade for which he worked before coming to Italy to study. We passed in front of the predictable building by Mario Botta, a massive self-referential brick tower. Everything was chaotic, contradictory but in constant constructive ferment. The megastructural scale combined with the Asian—and in particular Korean—microscale showed the suffered materialization of the "FAR Game" (Floor Area Ratio), exploiting the limited and overpriced land to the fullest.

 

We wandered just off the 8-lane streets, and the superblock designed for cars, then entered inside, with a drastic change of scenario. Tiny pedestrian streets, where two people could easily clash into each other, lead to multistory districts with labyrinthine internal passages. Within these agglomerations, public and private became indistinguishable and impossible to clearly identify any specific function.

 

Meanwhile, some critical thoughts appeared on the surface to the mind, probably echoes of the classical "pastime" of committed and critical architects, denigrating a priori this neighborhood and any attempt of modernization, as a predictable symbol of speculation and corruption... But living it in the first person, it was strangely pleasant. Entering the confined spaces, I savored a colossal city with a complex internal human scale pulp.

 

'I do not understand…' I continued 'I've heard such harsh criticism, but undoubtedly it has an enviable intrinsic quality.' my old friend nodded, pensive and respectful. 'It's absolutely amazing what they were able to imagine, from scratch, producing such a strong character.' I continued talking while he kept nodding.

 

Upon an escalator, we cruised through a building complex, which revealed an open-air underground. I look up, and while a couple of raindrops hit my eyes, a cluster of buildings showed a perfect outline, unveiling a tiny framed cloudy sky. Then we descended to a plaza, molding rapidly into a back alley. 'A total contrast between two worlds, colliding two parallel heterotopias...' I thought out loud. But another one, more deceitful, was soon added... On the ground, some yellow lines delimited an area, and people piled up in a limited space for smoking, I stopped and looking up at the building. Its structure caught my interest.

 

‘You know what's this building for?’ my friend started ‘It’s very contradictory but generic, like the rest of the city, after all… residential?’ I said ‘Yes, but there are just women inside’ ‘Why?’ ‘It's a well know condo for escorts.’ I laughed, but waiting for more details ‘The executives go out at night and comfortably meet their “friends” closely to their offices. In these terms, the entire area changes impression, right? Do you remember that girl, with plastic surgery that clashed on you before without a bit concern? Well, she is probably one of those living upstairs.’ I nodded and kept listening ‘Do you know the meaning of Gangnam Style? Well, it's describing somewhat this yuppies' life of prosperity: as noble at the daytime and going crazy at the night time... The lyric says: “I am the right guy for the lady who is like that”.’