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Wednesday, April 28, 2004

(Urban space) Valérie Gelezeau about apartments

My earlier post about the changing Seoul landscape due to apartment construction seems to have awaked quite a lot of interest (not the least due to the kind link by Mr Marmot).

The French geographer Valérie Gelezeau has made an important study on the creation of the whole apartment block system, published (unfortunately for me) in French by the name Séoul, ville géante, cités radieuses (Review by James Hoare at Korean Studies Review). There's been a short article by Yonhap on a presentation by Gelezeau from last Autumn which I've downloaded a long time ago. Putting some of it into English, I may post it here as well. What is below is not a direct translation, but rendering what was quoted from Gelezeau in the article. (Link to the article online)
The normal explanation has been that the high population density has lead to the creation of apartment blocks, but large-scale apartment construction has not been the result of a lack of building land in dense population in countries such as Netherlands and Belgium.

In Korea, the appearance of large-scale apartment areas has been a result of calculated government policy, in which especially the allotment system (punyang chedo) in which new apartments are sold below the market price and allotted before the completion of the construction has established apartment markets for the low-income stratum, middle class and the rich.
In the large-scale apartment blocks, the control of the main driving force behind the economic development, salaried worker (imgûm nodongja), was possible. Apartments became a symbol for a social recognition for a new stratum that had lost its identity based on birthplace (kohyang).
Looking at Korea's example being followed in Beijing and Shanghai, apartment block (ap'at'û tanji) has an important meaning in reflecting the Asian way of economic development.

Lately that the rich stratum is beginning to turn away from apartments, and the less well-off people (sômin) moving to the outskirts of town. The housing preferences are changing, and the value and position of apartments as a form of housing is decreasing, especially with the problems of rebuilding the 70s' and renovating the 80s' apartments.

"Charting the Cycle of Modern Housing", interview of Delezeau in Korea Herald
"Apartments make us powerless", Hankyoreh 21 weekly (log-in apparently not needed)

Now, my time and resources are lacking to make a comparison with all the apartment house building here in Finland during the rapid (and in European scale late) urbanization, but the process cannot have been that different from Korea. Perhaps the difference has been that we've had the so-called hero architects who've decided what kind of living environments are suitable for people in the modern world. (Population density is almost 30 times smaller than in South Korea but the share of population living in apartments is almost as high - 43%.)

Update. My own insistence on talking about apartments and charting what they mean in Korea stems from the fact that there are so few in the area that I'm talking about in my own research, and that is meaningful in defining the position of the area in the mental landscape of Seoulites and Koreans. Interestingly, my feeling is that of the Gwanak-gu areas, Bongcheon-dong used to be known as less well-off than Sillim-dong (which had its own poor hillside areas in Nan'gok and elsewhere), but now with the recent gentrification (what an authoritative word) of Bongcheon-dong through the intensive apartment-building as seen in the pictures below, the situation may have turned. But I'm not sure. Still, certain parts of Sillim-dong can bee seen as modern and developing when compared for example with Doksan-dong in Geumchon-gu, where a hairdressing shop keeper moved a few years ago. "This is countryside sigol" (she said of Doksan-dong). - How come countryside? " - Because people have been living here for a long time... There has been development in Sillim-dong, building of cramming dorms and so, and rents are higher, but this is 10 years behind in development... People throwing cigaret butts in the alleys."

And finally, I want to quote a bit from the Korea Herald article "Charting the Cycle of Modern Housing" linked above:
During the 1970s, multistory apartments seemed like an obvious housing solution for the droves of people moving into the city. According to the National Statistical Office, between 1960 and 1970, Seoul's population more than doubled its size, from 2.4 million to 5.5 million people, with over 50 percent of the population being recent migrants from rural areas.
Yet, Gelezeau was not satisfied with this explanation.
"I was absolutely not satisfied with the answer that there are too many people and not enough space, that that's the reason why the apartments were constructed. It was not the geographical answer," said Gelezeau.
She found that the apartments built during the 70s and 80s were meant, in a sense, as temporary housing. "I had interviews with building companies and they knew that the apartments would only have 30 years. They weren't supposed to be built for 100 years," she said. Many of the apartments she had focused her project on, like the apartment complexes in Mapo-gu, had already undergone several reconstructions within a span of 30 years.
She found that many of the apartment development projects of the 70s and 80s were strongly promoted by the government through urban planning initiatives. A 1972 construction law encouraged the building of multistory apartments and allowed for the development of construction, a key industry.
Originally built for low-wage laborers who had migrated into the city, apartments were soon flooded with middle and upper-middle class Koreans. They became cheaper after the government eased restrictions on apartment buying during the late 1990s, and wealthier Koreans began investing in them as forms of property.

Update 2. Forgot to add that there's a Korean translation of Delezeau's book in preparation.

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