DEATH IN THE CITY
As Seoul grew rapidly, the government hurried development, marking the crematoriums and cemeteries that were in or near the city as “urban hate facilities” and kicked them out of the city or shut them down. Only 0.1% of the total land area of Seoul is for death infrastructures, such as university hospitals, crematoriums, hospices, and cemeteries. Not only are they sparse, but also they are far from the central part of the city. The worlds of living and dead are strictly segregated in Seoul, people need to travel hours to visit their deceased loved ones. Death became less of an everyday life and added more fear to the subject.
In modern Korea, graveyard shortage is a serious social problem and the rate of using ossuary instead of the graveyard is increasing. The only place where the remains of the deceased can go in the narrow country is the cubicle-like ossuaries. Families have to pay more to enshrine them in a “better cubicle,” just so that they can have their backs straightened while they mourn for their loved ones. Consumer taste for the architecture of death is significantly lower than in other sectors. In Korea, architecture is more of a concept of real estate than culture, so it’s very unlikely that a cemetery and ossuary will have a meaningful architectural design. This indifference is surprising given the high level of taste in other design fields. The funeral is a representative example of architecture that goes only by economic logic regardless of design and culture. If one deviates from the packages made by the market, they will have to pay a huge cost even at the moment of death. So people are only left with one option, to choose a nicely designed urn. The lack of proper architecture of death is adding negative perceptions of death. There is an urgent need for architectural imagination.
"The public realm can be simply defined as a place where strangers meet. The difference between public and private lies in the amount of knowledge one person or group has about others; in the private realm, as in a family, one knows others well and close up, whereas in a public realm one does not; incomplete knowledge joins to anonymity in the public realm... The public realm is, more over, a place."
Sociologist and urban theorist, Richard Sennett defines a city as "a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet." For Sennett, a city is a place where individuals encounter and expose themselves to diverse strangers, ultimately learn how to tolerate those who are different from them. However, modern citizens are abandoning this ideal and flighting to closed communities of people like themselves. Gated apartment complexes and closed tech communities that offer everything to keep their employees inside their building are just a few examples of modern living typologies that block individuals to encounter. People navigate from one guarded door to another, they lost opportunities to meet people unlike themselves. This aspect of modern cosmopolitan life is not much different from that of nineteenth-century Chosun where people were segregated based on different social classes. The lack of exchange and communication intensified conflict among different generations in Korea.
In the book Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City, Sennett suggests an ideal cosmopolitan city, which he calls "the open city." He writes, "Ethically, an open city would of course tolerate differences and promote equality, but would more specifically free people from the straitjacket of the fixed and the familiar, creating a terrain in which they could experiment and expand their experience." He emphasizes that public space must hold novel social and cultural value. "Exclusion isn’t just a matter of keeping out Jews or other Others, it also involves simplifying the look and construction of the place so that the place fits one kind of person, but not others. Mixed forms and uses invite mixed users. Whereas in a stripped-down environment, the more form becomes simple, clear, and distinct, the more it defines who belongs there and who doesn’t."41 Sennett suggests a more flexible way to design cities, than the International Style devised by Le Corbusier; which aimed to simplify urban design, by applying a strict and rigid formula.
THEN HOW CAN SEOUL BE A BETTER CITY?
Seoul consists of two competing districts known as Gangbuk, "North of the Han River" and Gangnam "South of the Han River." Wealth imbalances between the two districts have been a social issue for the last forty years. Gangnam, which is often called Gangnam "Special" District is the richest neighborhood in Korea. Living in Gangnam is a status symbol that many Koreans aspire to have and a throng of people are waiting outside Gangnam for their chance to squeeze through the tiny entrance. Once people go in, they refuse to go out. The development of the upper-class culture and the gradual increase of income and education opportunities are centered around this district. In the book The Birth of Gangnam, the author Jong-su Han argues that the inequality in Gangnam and Gangbuk is the result of "ascribed inequality," not "achieved inequality." In other words, class movement through one's ability and education is no longer possible and social class is pre-determined by inherited capital, which is an apartment in most cases. Gangnam children, whose parents have a lot of money and apartment to pass on to them, naturally become the next wealthiest; wealth brings wealth. As a result, the “cultural division” between Gangnam and Gangbuk, is as wide as that of South Korea and North Korea.
What if we turn one of the bridges to a pedestrian-friendly space that encourages random encounters and serendipity? Would this help people to learn how to understand people who are different from them? Would it begin a movement towards "the open city?"
EXPOSE & EDUCATE
South Korea's urban death facilities operate under an invisibility cloak, with minimal exposure to the public and outside the boundaries of the living. This separation increased hatred for death and oblivion over the course of death.
WHAT IF WE REMOVED THE INVISIBILITY CLOAK?
Waste power plants are also considered "urban hate facility." Although the fact that it burns waste to get energy is a positive thing itself, it reminds people of dirty trash. People feel a bit leery of having it in their neighborhood.
Bjarke Ingels Group has set a goal to make this object of disgust the most interesting public place in Denmark. To achieve this, the power plant had to be a place where people can enjoy all year round. They came up with multiple design strategies: covering the entire building surface with a vertical green module and turning the surrounding industrial wasteland into a park, tilting the roof and using it as a ski resort, and designing the hateful but inevitable chimney to puff out donut-shaped smoke whenever a ton of carbon dioxide is emitted(unfortunately, this technique had failed to be realized.)
By hybridizing the waste plant and a ski slope, BIG tried to attract as many people as possible. By allowing them to travel to the top of the hill through a transparent elevator that overlooks the process of generating energy inside the plant, they tried to create a space where "learning" naturally occurs. Moreover, they made the parking lot circular to use it more efficiently as a multiuse space. So that teenagers can ride rollerskates and use it as an ice-skating rink in winter and as an outdoor theater in summer.
The city of Uppsala in Sweden invited BIG to design a biomass power plant to supplement the city's existing energy infrastructure during the peak load seasons. Similar to the Amager Resource Center Project, BIG intended to radically transform the public perception of a power plant visually and functionally. The architects decided to hybridize two conventional industrial archetypes: a power plant and a greenhouse. And utilizing the building as a festive space during the Summer when the demand for energy is low.
Unlike the Amager Project that concealed the facade, the Uppsala project is exposed completely through the transparent solar dome. This openness invites citizens to explore and educate themselves by allowing them to take glimpses of what happens within the dome. Moreover, the plant becomes an educational center during the Winter, by offering a public path that goes through the machines.
However, these exposures to the process of energy generation in the waste plant do not guarantee visitor's gain of knowledge or change of perception once they leave the plant and return to their normal life. Therefore, multi-sensorial activities other than visual engagement must be introduced to lead to a change in attitude and behavior.