Gangham Station, Gangham District, Seoul, South Korea
What is Gangnam Style? Well, it's more than just the video that has hit so many nerves that it's actually caused people to forget about Lindsay Lohan and politics for a moment; and it's more than a dance that imitates riding a horse (though I pity the horse subjected to those movements). It is a paean to a way of life in a neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea, but it should be a paean to a designed environment.
Yet, we see only flashes of the place in the video, making it difficult to recognize where the action is taking place exactly. Most of the interiors could be anywhere: parking garages, stables, discos, subways; these places seem Korean to us English speakers only due to the occasional presence of what are unreadable runes, and also a penchant for certain blues and off-pinks in graphics and wall colors that remind me, at least, of my trips to that part of the world.
Only when the singer, Psy, pretends to whip and leer at women exercising on a terrace by a body of water do you get a sense of the context in which this style has arisen—housing towers rising over meticulously swept public space. Even then, you could be anywhere in Asia. Psy has purposefully stayed away from showing any recognizable landmarks that might ground the song in a particular place.
This is part of a larger strategy in K-Pop, the name for the practically machine-made music that dominates most Asian music charts and is making inroads in the Western World. It is also one of the characteristics of other elements of the Korean wave that is washing over us: There is nothing that marks Hyundai or Samsung products, or even Korean fashion, as coming from a peninsula far, far away.
That might be a smart marketing ploy for a small country that sells to all parts of the world, but it is also a mark of what is going on in design, in general: The globalization of our economy and culture means that things look more and more not the same, but not of a kind, place, or even time. We live in a reality of Zara and H&M, Lady Gaga and Renzo Piano buildings. In a bad sense, everything is the same. In a good sense, everything is an assembly of the bits and pieces that make up our collective world.
Part of what makes Gangnam Style work (OK, it is hard to get that tune out of your head, which is what really makes it work) is the fact that, unlike most recent music videos, it doesn’t just show the star lazing in a haze of champagne and women. Psy is slightly pudgy and maybe even ungainly. He surrounds himself with beautiful women and leads the good life. But he also shows himself on the subway, in a bus, being submissive to a cowboy-hatted guy in an elevator, and being upstaged by a seemingly richer guy who then exits the parking lot where they are dancing in a fancy car, while Psy stays behind. The scenes feel like hallucinatory fragments of a daily life, not like fairytales.
There is no rhyme or reason to the various scenes, nor to the incomprehensible lyrics. This is not a fantasy world, but a slightly altered and perhaps sanitized version of the environments we inhabit, made fascinating by exactly those hints that make us realize that it is not our daily scene, but someplace else. For me, as always, it begs the question: What does this mean for architecture? Who is the Psy of that discipline ... or what is Gangnam Architecture? Stay tuned.