The Shape of the City

There is a shape to every city. Sometimes it’s not visible automatically and it takes time for you to realise it. You can look from above, with a map for example, or you can walk the streets and see for yourself. In Suwon, where I live, the shape is a similar one throughout all the cities of Korea, and that is straight lines and sharp angles. If you wanted you could call it boxy. In Chiang Mai where I am now it is not, it is a bit more of every kind of shape.

From above, taking the map view, if you look at Chiang Mai you could argue that it is not Suwon or Korea which is boxy but Chiang Mai. This is a safe argument. Any map of this city will show the central old part of the city surrounded by its moat and the one way streets which operate as a kind of city blood circulation system.

A look at a city such as Suwon where I’ve lived for the past few years shows a more naturally shaped city, not one dictated by the direction of a wall, despite the fact that there is in fact a very complete city wall in the very centre of it.

On street level thought things are remarkably different.

In Korea I have grown accustomed to the square shape of everything, not necessarily from the streets, but definitely from the buildings which line them. There’s no doubting the density of Korea’s population, and with that density comes a serious demand to use space intensively. Of course if you visit any city you will find that the shape of choice is the cuboid, but in Korea I think that this shape persists throughout the country.

Aesthetics aside, it’s a functional arrangement which seems to suit the inhabitants. Aesthetics considered, it allows for a unique view of the world which revolves around straight lines and right angles, with the occasional curve or triangle thrown into the mix to make things interesting. The city that I live in, Suwon, is certainly a place that this argument rings through. You could say that it is ugly, because it is certainly not what is conventionally termed as pretty, but it is something worth looking at.

Time and people wear away the walls of what was once beautiful the most, and to see an old city still busy with the buildings it was built with is a different kind of aesthetic which is more popular. These parts of the city usually come with their own smells, sounds, and annoyances, but they are as much a part of the visual experience. That you have to take them in while you look or see attaches it to your memory in a different way.

Korea’s cities and towns have a raw and obnoxious feel to them. There is always noise, from engines, shops, shouting, and any number of other sources, and the smells fluctuate with the seasons. Don’t imagine I’m talking about the smell of the food cooking, I’m a bit more inclined to recall the smells of the exhausts and drains which linger differently depending on the weather and temperature outside.

The shapes I spoke about, and which I kind of obsess over, are my own idea of order inside the mess of the big city. These straight incorruptible lines and angles are the only barriers which keep everything within its bounds. In Korea, more than any other country or city I’ve been in, these lines and angles are so pronounced that they invade almost every image you can take from that country.

Chiang Mai is different, and I dare to say the rest of Thailand is different. The uniformity exists on the face of things, such as main streets, shopping malls, and the many condominiums, but here it stops. Behind the main streets, alleys and laneways streak off, and from here I believe it is anyone’s guess what shape will be taken.

The city is not as dense, and is certainly spread out more. This allows for the joys of gardens, and random empty space with no other function but to wait to be filled – if that ever will happen.

The availability of space allows for a different experience, and sees the city form as something less reliant of space permitting more freedom to experiment with form. This is mixed into what is basically a poorer city provides a blend between the robust and rigid shapes of Suwon, and a more laisez faire way of shaping the city.

Time effects every street, and the old seems to be replaced as quickly as anywhere, dust being the most obvious evidence of change. To any observer Chiang Mai is turning into a more cuboid city. Condominiums, although not tightly packed together, and businesses close to the town cramp the arteries in the best way they know, square next to square.

Still, not all the city is immersed in this rigidity, and it is a city worth wandering to see the mix between the old rustic disorganisation and the new cubed order.


These photographs were taken in Chiang Mai University’s Art Museum, an example of how to find the cubed rigidity and of modern architecture in Chiang Mai and the beauty which can emerge from it. To view these photographs and more please visit my set on flickr. 


Letter from Korea, May 2010

Like many “western” countries or “westernised” countries, Korea is perceived as a modern democratic nation, a country that represents the development and organisation expected of the young twenty-first century. It is a country, like many countries at all points of the compass, that has suffered from the over zealous ambitions of its neighbours and rivals.

I’ve always found Korea to be quite Americanised, unlike its neighbours who have more visible influences from Europe. I take it that this has a lot to do with the influences of European colonialism throughout the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This is definitely the case with China, and also Japan which seemed to legitimise its own colonial ventures by replicating the efforts of the colonial powers that dominated the era, who were of course Britain, France, Russia, and to a certain extent the United States. Korea’s greatest ‘foreign’ influence came in 1950 with partition, civil-war and the taking of sides previously unthought-of. Ironically, South Korea went east over the Pacific Ocean and the north looked west to China and the then USSR.

Gyeongbuk Palace, Seoul

During the period before Japanese occupation, specifically speaking the nineteenth century, Korea attempted to keep its doors closed and to prevent foreign intervention. But, the more I think about this period, I wonder how much truth lies in this. The outcome of the Russo-Japo War of 1906 laid the foundation for the Japanese protectorate and furthered its claims to colonial dominance. The war itself, a key event in international power politics, allowed Britain, and possibly France, to concentrate their colonial defence closer to home while relying on a treaty with Japan to police the seas around East Asia. Britain, France and Germany had considerable economic interests in this part of the world and Korea, known as a closed kingdom, lay in the middle. While there may have been no foreign merchants (there certainly were missionaries) carousing the streets, there was no doubt a select few representatives scratching at the Gyeongbuk Palace gates itching for the ears of officialdom. What foreign intervention there was before the 1905 war appears to be celebrated as brief interventions on behalf of convention, as was the case with the French expedition to Gangwha Island in 1866.

Korea maintained its resolute stance against foreign interference only to become the object of  colonial expansion with no say in its own future. Surely any previous arguments in favour of foreign association were quashed once this reality set in. Some may argue today that opinions against foreign involvement still hold in modern day Korea.

The entrance to the very funky Passion 5, a bakery...

The “western” influence in Korea is new and is most clearly seen in the buildings of Seoul. What old western styled buildings do exist in Seoul came from Japan’s colonial authority suffering from its own crisis of identity attempting to meet the criteria of a colonial power. The monolithic ‘nice’ European buildings littered around Seoul are a testament to this.

In the five years since I first arrived in Korea, Seoul has become more self assured of the image it wants to portray to the world. A skyscraper littered cityscape is no longer enough to convince visitors of Korea’s economic prominence. International travel by Koreans has only been permitted since the 1980s and even still it has taken some time for the effects to sink in. Now, governmental delegations regularly visit international partner cities and confer over planning and administration strategies and techniques. Having realised that an open door is a sound method of achieving success, Korea is reaching out.

People here have travelled the world and seen that buildings all go up and a tall building will always stand out, but to really stand out a tall building must look good while standing tall. Koreans, as a society, are very image conscious and it comes as no surprise that this consciousness coupled with the demand for global success has earned Seoul the title of World Capital for Design 2010.

Downtown Seoul from the Namsan cable car.

Yes, there are still many gruesome eyesores all over the city, some crumbling and some that look like they will never go away. These eyesores are slowly losing attention, being replaced (not yet outnumbered) by fresh modern and adventurous design ideas that any city in the world would be proud to own.

Like Seoul, Dublin has been criticised for the numerous dated buildings which dominate the once modern blemishes which now make up Georgian Dublin. Seoul and Dublin both have the intention of becoming cities that are looked on for inspiration by the rest of the world. Both can learn from each other through design which, although modern, must be able to last beyond the next phase in the always fickle fluctuating tastes of design enthusiasts.

When I came back to Dublin in 2008 after three years in Korea I got the feeling that the capital had learned its lesson. Can it be said that Seoul has learned from its mistakes and the lessons of others, or will we have to wait and see?