Brief Histories

The Urban Canvas

I am an architect, currently living and working in Seoul, Korea. Without exaggeration, modern-day Seoul is a city in constant transition, or more appropriately described, an entropic city. Within its very limited boundaries, the city has developed in unbridled fashion. Just twenty-five years ago the incredibly dense district where I live and work was lush forestland. Walking the streets daily, I can hardly believe this possible. Buildings rise in all possible locations. Every gap is filled with some makeshift function. A sliver of space between two nearly touching buildings is occupied by a storage shed and toilet. I wonder if the improvised use of this interstitial space (and many others like it) is even known to the person that owns the property. “Void” is not in my language here, nor do I think it is a part of this concentrated culture.

Seoul’s dense composition is constantly reborn, leaving behind traces of brief existences. Ever-changing advertising appendages and decorative frou-frou masks any permanency in the city. Architecture here appears little more than a structurally supportive background for a collage of foreground announcements, a true urban canvas. With the passage of each tenancy, buildings here often accumulate fragments of the past. An old sign and rusty hardware puncturing the remains of a tattered awning are common reminders of another time.

I pass my favorite street corner two blocks from my office, a vibrant commercial district packed with traditional restaurants, bars and karaoke bars. Looking up, I am faced with facades of intertwined messages. Despite city regulations on acceptable display, tacky neon signs, plastic stick-on characters and faded posters are everywhere. It is at this corner, a convergence unmistakably characteristic of Seoul, where building appears secondary to omnipotent ornament and decorated facade.

Cities in this part of the world are seductive. The flash and glitz of neon nights draw thousands of leisure-time seekers every evening to hopping commercial areas around the city. For me, these districts were initially shrouded in mystery and excitement, mostly extending from my lack of understanding hankul mal (the Korean language). It did not take long to recognize a common urban trend. Within the chaotic urban plan exists a latent horizontal hierarchy, an unplanned organization that is only discovered by venturing off into the successive horizontal depths of this endless place.

To describe the city in simple terms, I consider Seoul’s double identity, the first defined by the primary urban arteries and the second being the incredibly complex inner blocks of commercial districts that punctuate the city. Primary roads are fronted with the modern presence of the city: high-rises and smaller multi-story structures line these through-ways. Proceeding toward the center of the block, away from main thoroughfares, is like moving toward a chaotic unknown. Anything goes.

I see much of Seoul on foot, exploring commercial district back roads, saturated as I wander by competing sights, sounds and smells. As I walk past a familiar twenty-four hour convenience store, I’m distracted by the shouts of neon signs above and booming music just ahead. Neighbor outdoing neighbor in order to be heard and seen is the name of the game. I make my way past numerous other establishments to a popular restaurant for dinner. Some are accessible at street level, while others are entered via narrow corridors that lead to mysteriously unseen above and below worlds. Possibilities for entry appear as infinite as the number of vibrantly lit advertisements, each linked to some unseen and uncertain location buried within the layers of city.

Observations on Twombly

The canvases of abstract artist Cy Twombly have a density of another kind, but much like the city of Seoul, they are layered with their own history. Each work is a record of its own making. Twombly’s abstract language, in works such as The Italians and many others, takes the form of distorted words and letters, shapes and figures, scribbles and gestures, all painted and re-painted, and all frozen within their sequential deliverance to the neutral field of the canvas.

The Italians manifests a palimsestial quality. Layer partially washing out layer, as if the attempt to erase is done to emphasize previous intentional mishaps. The end result is a field of manipulated and bungled form that leaves the viewer searching for some way to connect with the original title. Critic Roland Barthes, who has written extensively on Twombly, observes that the marks and splotches of color “remain solely as things,” independent of representation. In Twombly’s paintings, Barthes suggests, “materials exist as matter.” Through shifts, overlaps, and adjacencies of material, Twombly masterfully manipulates a limited palette. He pulls an oil-based crayon through an undisturbed neutral ground of latex paint, the act itself cutting through and exposing layers of making.

Twombly’s paintings are brief histories, fragments of words and form that record and reflect moments in everyday life. Each fragment has its own story to tell, however obscure and concealed it may be. Twombly’s paintings echo the city in the way they resemble the urban fragments, leftovers, and short-lived existences that punctuate Seoul.

Brief Histories in Conception

Like Twombly’s canvases of manipulated form and color the Seoul urban experience leaves much to the imagination. Expectations and realities are quickly dissolved. The shift from one physically manipulated existence to another continually reshapes the city and spaces that I inhabit. Rapid change is a way of life here. It is the instability of Seoul that inspires me most.

Another evening meal in the local Korean soup house: an old man and his wife sit cross-legged on the floor under the cold glow of fluorescent lights. Each is slurping down spicy Tcheggae as if life has existed and will continue to exist unchanged in this small establishment without end. This small eatery appeared to me to be open briefly in the evening and noontime lunch hours for business. I typically paid little attention to this particular place as I tend to pass so many private establishments just like it. Adding the splash of color, light, and vibrancy that otherwise might be absent amidst mundane high-rise buildings these are truly the places, however, that make Seoul what it is.

Walking past the same restaurant the following morning (as I had nearly every day for three months), I find to my astonishment a demolition crew removing the last of the debris from this once popular neighborhood eatery. Plumes of dust and smoke bellow from the gaping hole that just a moment ago was the front entry. No trace of the previous evening exists inside. Only the sun-bleached red and blue sign above the entry remains—one last fragment of a brief history.