Rooftop view of Gangnam, South Korea.
Chingazo/Flickr via Creative Commons license Rooftop view of Gangnam, South Korea.

One of the challenges that Asia offers us—though it is a minor and perhaps nerdish one—is how to interpret the cities that are arising there while we use standards we developed in Europe and, to a certain extent, the United States.

Last week I was in Seoul, South Korea, which I happen to think is a beautiful city. It is messy and full of problems, it sprawls and is jammed with traffic, and its building stock is not that great—but it is the kind of metropolitan construction that seethes with energy and variety. What is particularly interesting is that it is not correct in the traditional sense of what conventional cities are meant to be: It devolves into new towns and it has a boring center. I think that is perfectly O.K., not just for Seoul, but for cities in general.

Courtesy Seoul International Biennale on Architecture and Urbanism

I was there because the city of Seoul organized a get-together of architects, planners, curators, and others to discuss the possibility of hosting the Seoul International Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism in 2017. It seems like a good idea to me, but only if it will be a Biennale that lets us learn from the city, rather than bringing notions of urbanism to the place.

At the conference, the urban planner Hans Stimmann—he who, for many years, stymied any creativity in the Berlin he ran with an iron hand as its city planner—told us that Seoul was ugly and was at the same point now that Paris was before Georges-Eugène Haussmann drove his boulevards through the French capital, opening the place up for real estate development at a vast scale. The whole city should be a grid of the same height, he told us.

A panorama highlights the legacy of G.E. Haussmann's reconstruction of Paris.
Panoramas/Flickr via Creative Commons license A panorama highlights the legacy of G.E. Haussmann's reconstruction of Paris.

The stupidity of such an idea was, I think, evident to almost all there. Instead, we heard more interesting ideas from the assembled experts, including those developed in Medellín, Colombia, where small-scale civic improvements in poor neighborhoods are married with transportation improvements and now a string of connected parks; ideas about participatory planning being developed by Indy Johar in the United Kingdom; and lessons to be learned from cities such as Barcelona, about which I have written before.

But, as Mark Wigley, AIA, former dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) at Columbia University, pointed out in his talk, the last thing we need is another set of foreign consultants jetting into a place to tell people there what to do.  There certainly are “best practices” and examples from history from which any city can learn, but the beauty of our global economy is that those are available to all of us in a myriad amount of ways.

Sunrise in Seoul, South Korea.
slack12/Flickr via Creative Commons license Sunrise in Seoul, South Korea.

I would like us to learn from Seoul instead. I would like as many people as possible to come to that city and walk its streets, as I did the day after the conference, and to see how they combine big blocks with the intricacy of side streets. Seoul is a city where towers dissolve around every corner into stores and restaurants. What makes those places so exciting is that they are part of the explosion of creativity that has made South Korea a leader in popular culture. From K-Pop to fashion, and from phones to video games, Seoul is alive with shapes, colors, and forms that astonish me every time I visit. Local architects rolled their eyes when I expressed my enthusiasm—they are “so over” K-Pop—but the waves of high-affect designs just seem to keep coming.

What is more, it is not just in downtown that you find this variety. Ride the subway four to 10 miles away in any direction, and you will find neighborhoods with the same character. One of the reasons for this is geographic: A city with good feng shui, Seoul spreads from the Han River to the south up to a ridge of mountains of the north, and is also dotted with hills that divide neighborhoods and create intricacy in the street patterns despite the best efforts to lay Chinese, Japanese, or American grids on the metropolis.

Gangnam, South Korea.
mandu yuri/Flickr via Creative Commons license Gangnam, South Korea.

I know I am romanticizing the place, but my message is this: The cities that are exciting combine good geography, great design at street level where everyday life happens, and buildings that measure, mark, and frame a relationship between those two scales. They also do this in a manner that oozes and moves around the landscape, rather than concentrating all the goodies in one place, where it inevitably becomes the precinct of the rich and powerful.

I will follow up this screed with a blog that talks about some of the larger-scale projects that have knit all this together, but let me say this to Mr. Stimmann and all those lost in their adoration of grids and order: It is where it all breaks down, and where things don’t work the way they are supposed to—and thinkers from Jane Jacobs to Robert Venturi, FAIA, have been telling us the same message for a long time—that architecture gets good. Energy and opportunity trump good taste every time.

Seoul boasts its own YouTube channel, which recently featured the re-branding video below: