Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Laying blame

The Joongang Ilbo has an article (which crashed firefox) here about the historic Jeong-dong neighbourhood behind Deoksugung, where many European and American legations (as well as the precursors of Ehwa and Baejae Universities) were founded in the late 1800s. I thought it well worth a read, as it's a subject I'm interested in, having written about it before here and here. For current photos of the remnants of the western settlement there, Robert Koehler posted a collection here. I couldn't help but notice this quote at the end of the article, however:
“Architecture is about identity,” Cho says, pointing out the lack of architectural continuity between Western buildings in Jeong-dong and traditional Korean buildings. Hundreds of hanok, Korean houses, were pulled down to allow the imperial powers of the late 19th century to erect their baronial buildings, she points out.
To see the area being talked about, this (circa 1920) map shows the Russian, U.S. and British consulates behind Deoksu (there "Keiun") Palace. Add another square centimeter or so to get an idea of just how much of Seoul was destroyed by the rampaging westerners erecting their "baronial" buildings. Forget the Japanese and the hanoks like these which were destroyed while Korean presidents ruled the country, blame the westerners!

For some reason this reminded me of this quote from the director of the upcoming Nogun-ri movie (which I mentioned here):
It is going to tell the relationships that people had in the small community and how intimate and beautiful they were, and ask them (the U.S. military) if they knew what they were doing. They were destroying these beautiful human beings.
Best to forget the fact that South Koreans noncombatants were overwhelmingly victimized by their own army, or partisans, or North Korean soldiers and look at the beauty destroyed by the U.S., which would have been responsible for a tiny fraction of those killed in the south (though far more in the North, due to 3 years of saturation bombing).

Considering the number of historic areas in Seoul being wiped off the map regularly (because they aren't old enough to be considered historical or, if they are, are not in the proper area that has been set aside for preservation), complaining about the destruction of hanoks in a tiny fraction of Seoul due to the presence of westerners seems ridiculous. How can someone complain that “Western architecture competes with nature, but Korean architecture tries to blend with the landscape,” in a city where traditional Korean architecture exists only in sealed off tourist areas where it serves no practical function, and where communist-style concrete apartment blocks dot the landscape? In this context, the old buildings the Europeans and American missionaries - and Japanese - left behind now make for some of the genuinely oldest and most beautiful buildings in the city.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice work,Matt. Everyone needs to start getting articles like these translated and (attempt to) put into the newspapers or the big Korean web portals. Otherwise, we all continue to look at one another and just shake our heads. How else will Koreans get a chance to see some other opinions than the same old inflammatory nonsense put out?