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. 

 

Looking Up


You come to Korea from where I’m from and you can’t stop looking up. Always up. At the sky without so many rain clouds, at the trees forever in a constant pattern of change, and at the buildings which stretch above everything I’ve ever known. It takes a lot of concrete and steel to make a megalith as complete as the Korean urban space, and event then it never seems complete. There is always some mason tapping away at some finer piece chiselling another groove in the pursuit of perfection.

And inside every groove lives another person, perhaps with their family, perhaps not. There are over 48 million people in this country, and it is one of the most densely populated countries on the planet. You would think that you can never escape elements of the human here, but it is possible. You just need to close your eyes and try.

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Suwon where I live is small compared to other cities in Korea. I think I get confused when I hear the population and think of whether or not a city is big because I am prone to making comparisons. Like suggesting that a city of one million people is not big because there are plenty of cities around the world with populations over great than ten million souls. Comparatively we will never be happy with the populations of cities as we will always find one which is greater by some degree in some means of classification.

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Even then a city as an urban space cannot be properly understood at any one moment as it is forever changing. Its people die, businesses close and open, some policy creates some new complaint or cause for celebration. You know how it is. A guess can be made at the next best option but the streets that make up the urban space always aim to surprise, and I can only blame the people who make up the inhabitants of cities for this very welcome phenomenon. 

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Cities with their intensive concentration of people, constantly viewed by some as anti-human, are as human as everything else humans decide to make a part of their lives. Since I’ve come to Korea I’ve thought of both cities as both the anti-thesis of humanity and as the epitome of what humans live for. It is now that I understand or accept cities for what they are. They are an animalistic reaction. Cities are the home of the herd, and it is the herd which comes together as a means of supplying itself with more food, increasing protection, and to make finding mates a simpler process so as to increase the chances of the survival of the species. The highrise in Korea is nothing more than stacking more people in to provide higher odds of survival.

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It is no surprise that few homes come in the shape of a cylinder or sphere. Soul after soul compressed into blocks of concrete and steel without the honeycomb simplicity and complexity of a bees hive, but still everything continues to spread. I look up. It can’t be helped. Stack after stack of rooms on top of rooms, lives lived and thrived inside, happiness and tears, arguments and heartbreak, and more memories than atoms in between each neatly organised and tidily ordered set of walls. Each stack of rooms neatly slotting in between its neighbour, some growing from others, some torn down and new seeds laid for new rooms to grow eventually. There are a few dead with carcases shrouded in plywood and graffiti.

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But you will never know this if you live in a place like this, and I mean really live. Don’t stare at this grand blue print of a metropolis and dissect each block with demographics. Know each window hides a face and a past and a story and a future. And know that without any one of these this place would not be the same.