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[Faculty Essay] Modern Life, a Lone Existence

  • September 21, 2011
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Professor Ferretto is talkingWritten by Peter Winston Ferretto, SNU Professor of Architecture,

A fact of modern day living that we seldom consider is the shocking amount of time we spend inside. Inside at work, at home, at the mall, even when exercise nowadays we are inside. Social space has become internalized to the point that the outdoor space has become a mere backdrop; a place we observe from a safe, sanitized and comfortable vantage point, in the case of Seoul one could even add 40 meters up in the sky. As a result the amount of time we spend outside is today more connected with habits such as smoking and chores like walking the dog than social interaction. In this age of super modernity we have lost any sense of public space, the space where we engage with one another, where we: sit in square, play in the park, cycle in the street, wonder through the alleys of a neighborhood, even if this is not beyond our imagination read the newspaper.

Nowhere is this lack of external physical engagement more evident than in our daily diet of self importance, where from emails, to facebook, via tweets and messages we are surrounded by the “I”. One could even argue that the English language first person singular “I” has a new meaning related to Apple’s I-phones, I-books, I-pads and other ingenious “I” inventions.

This trend has to be contested and there is no better place to start than by creating a vision for a new public realm for Seoul. This vision shouldn’t rely on simple make-up treatments of introducing pockets artificial nature into the city, as can be so often seen in Seoul, but rather an ambitious full scale operation to create an urban revival much in the manner of 15th century Florence with the Medici’s family philanthropy or 19th century Barcelona with its with revolutionary urban plan designed by Cerda and that still resonates with brilliance today.

Seoul has a severe shortage of public space if you compare it to other world capitals like New York with Central Park or London with Hyde Park. Often when I walk around Seoul I am confronted with a sense of deja-vu, where buildings all look the same covered with signs that look like urban tattoos. A new public space agenda could tackle this invasion of text, create communal breathing spaces that are not consumption places that ultimately create solitude and a simulated existence.

Finally enhancing our public space isn’t simply an issue concerning architects, urban planners and other technocrats, but an issue all citizens should take to heart. If we want to avoid a tomorrow where the only public space is a coffee shop living room we need to act now.
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