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Hi, I’m Colin Marshall

… a Seoul- and sometimes Los Angeles-based essayist, broadcaster, and public speaker on cities and culture.

I write for Guardian CitiesOpen Culturethe Los Angeles Review of Books (including its Korea Blog), and I’m now at work on the crowdsourced urbanist-cultural-travel journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? as well as a book called A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City.

(I’ve also written for Boom: A Journal of California, KCETBookforum, Boing Boing, Put This On, The Japan Foundation, The Millions3QuarksdailyThe Quarterly Conversation, and Maximum Fun.)

I hosted and produced the world-traveling podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture [RSS] [iTunes], which evolved from the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas. 

My video essay series The City in Cinema examines cities (especially Los Angeles) as they appear on film. 

My public speaking, which I’ve done in places like Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, the San Francisco Urban Film Festival, Chapman University, California State University Long Beach, and the Seoul Book and Culture Club, usually covers this same suite of cities-and-culture-related topics.

You can also keep up with me on Twitter and Facebook as well.

Guardian Cities: 45 Years of Reyner Banham’s “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies”

reyner banham los angeles

“Now I know subjective opinions can vary,” the journalist Adam Raphael wrote in the Guardian in 1968, “but personally I reckon LA as the noisiest, the smelliest, the most uncomfortable and most uncivilised major city in the United States. In short, a stinking sewer…”

Three years later, Raphael’s words appeared in print again as an epigraph of Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies – the most exuberantly pro-Los Angeles book ever written. Ever since publication, it has shown up on lists of great books about modern cities – even those drawn up by people who consider Los Angeles anything but a great American city.

Somehow, this book that drew so much of its initial publicity with shock value (“In Praise (!) of Los Angeles”, sneered the New York Times review’s headline) has kept its relevance through the decades, such that newly arrived Angelenos still read it to orient themselves. But what can it teach us about the Los Angeles of today?

An architectural historian a decade into his career when he first visited, Banham knew full-well that his fellow intellectuals hated Los Angeles. How and why he himself came so avidly to appreciate it constitutes the core question of his work on the city, which culminated in this slim volume.

The “many who were ready to cast doubt on the worth of the enterprise”, he reflected in its final chapter, included a “distinguished Italian architect and his wife who, on discovering that I was writing this book, doubted that anyone who cared for architecture could lower himself to such a project and walked away without a word further.”

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

Korea Blog: the Freakishly Fluent Foreigners of “Non-Summit”

KB - Non-Summit 1

“Whatever you do,” fellow foreigners here in Korea occasionally tell me, “don’t go on television.” Easy enough advice to follow, you’d think, though many Koreans, upon meeting a Korean-speaking non-Korean, almost automatically insist that they should go right before the cameras. Flattery in the absence of anything else to say aside, the response reflects a real viewer demand. Recent years have seen a flowering of shows about foreigners in Korea, and not just EBS’ documentation of the home and work lives of the various Canadians, Jamaicans, Vietnamese, and Russians who wind up married with children here. You can easily channel-surf your way to other shows, hit shows, that have made their foreigners into stars.

If you often fly on airlines that serve South Korea, you’ve probably noticed among their canned television a program with the curious title of Non-Summit, originally from the cable network JTBC. Pitched as a comedic G20 meeting, most of the show takes place around a U-shaped table. On its sides sit eleven or so men in their twenties and thirties, all of various non-Korean nationalities — English, Canadian, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, American, Belgian, French, and Australian on the 2014 debut. At its head sit three slightly older Korean men who preside each week over a discussion of current events in Korea as well as in the countries of the “representatives”, the more emotionally charged — whether in the nationalistic sense or in the realm of mild scandal — the better.

The episodes’ overarching issues range widely: fashion trends, the War on Terror, pre-marital cohabitation, the generation gap, sad pop songs. All these discussions, apart from the readings-out of each country’s news item under discussion, happen entirely in Korean. This by itself, even two years into the show’s run, constitutes a real element of novelty, since most of the foreigners who appeared on Korean television before had a patchy to nonexistent command of the language. Even Non-Summit‘s closest precedent, KBS’ all-foreign-women Global Talk Show, never seemed overly concerned with its panelists’ language ability. (Its Korean title 미녀들의 수다, or “Beautiful Women’s Chat,” sheds some light on its priorities.)

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Los Angeles Review of Books: Donald Richie’s “The Inland Sea”

inland sea photo

“IT IS PERHAPS TRUE that the best way to get to know a people is to sleep with them,” writes Donald Richie about halfway into The Inland Sea, “but this is complicated in Japan.” That hardly stops him from trying, however. In this account of a journey through the towns and villages of the titular “landlocked, lakelike body of water bounded by three of Japan’s four major islands” appear a memorable cast of partners: an island girl, barely of high-school age, who invites herself into Richie’s room; a brash, young yakuza cast into exile as a Buddhist acolyte; a sailor, even younger and more severe, who quashes his sexual urges with buckets of cold water; a pouting prostitute with whom a bar owner all but swindles Richie into spending a dire evening; a kept woman whose name he never catches, but with whom he imagines an entire blissful life together as, late in the book, they talk until sunrise.

Most of these episodes end with Richie indirectly but firmly rebuffed, and even his possibly successful couplings receive no more acknowledgment than such ambiguous lines as “he had walked me back to my inn, had come in for a cup of tea, had asked more questions, had finally spent the night.” (“Foreigners are nice,” says another young man, alone with Richie in a dark field. “They’ll do things that Japanese don’t do.”) But the author, who first came to Japan in 1947 as a typist and then a reporter for the US occupation force, was no mere sex tourist; by the time ofThe Inland Sea’s first publication in 1971, he had already established himself in Japan as a journalist, film critic, novelist, and interpreter of a host of Japanese subjects, from flower arrangement to phallic symbolism.

Though he certainly knew the country well enough to put together a solid travelogue, Richie was also no run-of-the-mill travel writer. The Inland Sea displays the writerly virtues most evident in a later book, well-known when published in 1996 (under a bewildering variety of titles, from Geisha, Gangster, Neighbor, Nun to Public People, Private People to Japanese Portraits) but much less so today. Each of that book’s chapters presents a prose sketch of one of the many Japanese people Richie knew, a group that included major film-world figures like the director Yasujirō Ozu (on whom Richie also wrote the definitive study) and the late midcentury cinematic icon Setsuko Hara, as well as literary celebrities like Yukio Mishima, the closeted ultranationalist whose infamous ritual suicide ended his futile attempt to overtake the Japanese government, and Yasunari Kawabata, who took his own life shortly after winning the Nobel Prize.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

So What Is this Los Angeles Book I’m Writing?

MacArthur Park

You may have noticed it in various bio blurbs that have appeared over the past few years, but my ongoing projects include a book about Los Angeles. It began as a yearlong series of essays I wrote for the southern California public television station KCET in 2013 and 2014, though revision after revision — guided in part by friends who have much more experience writing books about place than I do — has rendered their content nearly unrecognizable. A sense of the project’s perspective has also come through when I’ve written about Los Angeles for the Guardian, in my Where Is the City of the Future? series on Byline, and even on my Los Angeles, the City in Cinema video essays.

I’ve tentatively titled it A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City. (From what I can tell, if you don’t come up with a subtitle yourself, the publisher will stick you with an even stupider one.) Everyone asks what I mean by “stateless,” and so I’ve explained many times that I use the word for its double meaning, which highlights Los Angeles’ great double-edges: I call it stateless because no one country lays an especially strong cultural claim to the city, and I call it stateless because it hasn’t attained, and may never attain, a basically fixed urban form in the way that New York or Paris or even San Francisco have. (Hence the joke of its unmasterability.) As for “primer,” it comes from a speculative “art” exhibition Dennis Hopper and David Hemmings talked about putting on in the sixties.

You may also have noticed that I don’t actually live in Los Angeles right now. After four years there, I moved to Seoul last November — with an eye toward ultimately splitting my time between the two cities in a kind of 21st-century bicoastalism, but that’s an even longer-range project. Older, more accomplished writers of place have told me, credibly, that you can better write about somewhere when you get outside that somewhere, so I figured I’d do one or two revisions on the other side of the Pacific. One of those older, more accomplished writers in particular gave me another piece of advice that I now think about on a daily basis: if you really figure out the structure of a book, the content takes care of itself.

So here I find myself, in the capital of South Korea, determining the ideal structure for a book, its content already written, about Los Angeles. I’ve wanted to avoid putting myself under the gun of any contractual deadline, but have also come to realize that I could instinctively keep reworking it until the grave. Concepts for books on other cities, not least Seoul, have also taken shape in my head, but if I ever want to realize them, I’ve got to finish first things first. Thus I’ve got to accept the words of Paul Valéry: a work is never actually finished but, cast to the flames or to the public, simply abandoned. And so I’ll complete the last of my own pre-abandonment revisions of A Los Angeles Primer by the end of this year, before casting it into the hands of whichever friend’s agent seems most suited to the book it becomes.

(If you suspect yours is, let me know!)

Korea Blog: Lost in Seoul, a New York Poet’s Memoir of Marrying into a Transforming Korea

KB - Lost in Seoul

Book-length first-person narratives by Westerners in Korea have so far come in two waves: one in the 1890s, and another in the 1980s. Or perhaps, given that they produced only a handful of works each, long-form first-person narratives by Westerners in Korea have had more like two splashes. But though few in number, these books have held up through the decades: here on the Korea blog, I’ve already written about Percival Lowell’s Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea and Isabella Bird Bishop’s Korea and Her Neighbors, both published in the 1980s, both earnest, witty, and by modern standards massively detailed attempts to replicate in text the life and landscape of an obscure and frustrating but ultimately endearing country few of their readers could imagine, let alone visit for themselves.

The second wave, or splash, of Korea books happened in the run-up to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, an event now regarded as the reconstructed South Korea’s debut on the world stage. Simon Winchester, the writer of popular history and a traveler of British Empire vigor, took the whole country on foot and published his experiences in 1988 as Korea, a Walk Through the Land of Miracles. The journalist Michael Shapiro spent a year here around that same time, chronicling the country’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy in 1990’s lesser-known The Shadow in the Sun: A Korean Year of Love and Sorrow, which interspersed his high-level political observations with everyday ones about life in the country he briefly called home.

That same year, another American Michael, the poet and playwright Michael Stephens (also professionally known as Michael Gregory or M.G. Stephens) came out with Lost in Seoul and Other Discoveries on the Korean Peninsula. An inversion of Shapiro’s proportion of the political and the personal, the book draws on the New York-born, New York-raised, New York-based Stephens’ marriage to a Korean woman, and five or six of the visits they made, young daughter in tow, back to her homeland in the 70s and 80s. Its fourteen essays, all framed by his interactions with the pseudonymous family Han and their culture, find ways deal with Korea’s history, language, and politics, but also its variety of cultures: commercial, military, shamanistic, drinking.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Where Is the City of the Future?: Where Geography Loses All Conventional Meaning

CotF Los Angeles 4

Both Los Angeles’ parking lots and its surprising presence and surprising absence of rapid transit suggest a distinctive relationship with physical space. So does the tendency of people who grew up hometowns not especially close to the city itself to describe themselves as “from Los Angeles.” Suburbanites do this everywhere, of course, ostensibly out of not wanting to have to explain the exact location of Evanston or Somerville or Gresham to everyone they meet. But “Angelenos” do it with what strikes me as a unique degree of license, the equivalent of people from Half Moon Bay claiming to be from San Francisco, or people from Parsippany, New Jersey claiming to be from New York.

This freedom of geographic perception, shall we say, manifests in more everyday ways as well. “Even the things near me aren’t near me,” marveled one friend who’d moved from San Francisco years before, but others, even those who’d spend spent less time in Los Angeles than he had, would routinely describe places five, ten, fifteen miles away as “close.” I soon came to realize, the “close”-ness of a destination ten miles away in one direction doesn’t necessarily imply the “close”-ness of a destination ten miles away in another. The concepts of near and far, in Los Angeles, had more to do with ease and difficulty than, strictly speaking, with geography.

As when grasping for explanations of most other oddities of Los Angeles (or indeed American) life, many instinctively blame the cars, even those who profess to love them. The reliance of the city’s population on personal motor vehicles has, in recent years, become something of an overstatement, at least for those who live in or practically in the city proper, rather than in its many surrounding Half Moon Bays and Parsippanys. But as an animating idea, it remains relevant indeed: the car as icon, the car as tool of urban freedom, the car as agent of urban corruption, the car as whipping boy. One wonders how Angelenos processed their experience of the city before widespread automobile ownership.

Read the whole thing at Byline.

Korea Blog Podcast: Seoul’s Book Podcast that Draws Standing-Room-Only Crowds

Seoul-based essayist, broadcaster, & Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blogwriter Colin Marshall joins Korea FM host Chance Dorland to discuss Lee Dong-jin’s Red Book Room (이동진의 빨간책방), a weekly podcast that since 2012 has been offering an hour and a half to over three hours of discussion of a particular, conversations with the authors themselves, readings of prose as well as poetry, and an opening monologue by the host followed by a short chat about the books he’s recently bought. Colin is a regular at the podcast’s live tapings, which means he arrives at least a few hours early to get a seat for what often turns then be three more hours of listening.

You can find this podcast here, more Korea Blog podcasts here, and my original Korea Blog post on Lee Dong-jin’s Red Book Room here.

Korea Blog: Madame Freedom, the Movie that Scandalized Postwar Korea, Fifty Years Later

KB - Madame Freedom 2

“Yasujiro Ozu,” writes critic Donald Richie in his study of the prolific and influential midcentury Japanese filmmaker, “had but one major subject, the Japanese family, and but one major theme, its dissolution.” The best-known of his many domestic dramas like Late Spring, Tokyo Story, and Good Morning dramatize that dissolution of the Japanese family as vividly as they capture its context – those decades after the second world war when Japan seemed to turn more modern, and look more Western, by the day. Korea underwent a similarly heady period of reconstruction and development in the 20th century, but the Korean family – as many Koreans can tell you – remains a relatively robust institution even now.

Then again, Korea’s modernization got started later and had less to work with in the first place.  While Japan’s defeat in World War II ended its colonial rule over Korea, the problems of the newly divided Koreas had only just begun. Five years later, the North attacked the South, sparking the Korean War that would leave much of the peninsula in ruins by the time it stalemated in 1953. On the very first day of the very next year, in a South Korea still struggling to get on its feet, Jeong Bi-seok’s serialized novel Madame Freedom(자류부인) began its 215-part run in the Seoul Daily News, quickly drawing a huge readership by telling a story of romantic intrigue tied up with the trends of the day, from the emergence of underground dance clubs to the craze for luxury goods to the entrance of women into the workforce.

All of those are presented in Han Heyong-mo’s 1956 screen adaptation of the novel, dubbed “the most controversial film in Korean cinematic history,” as phenomena of essentially foreign origin. Throughout Japan’s longer history of engagement with the outside world, it could exercise some discretion about what to pick and choose how it wanted to assimilate into the local culture. South Korea, though, had to take it all in more or less at once, as it was presided over by a highly Westernized new president, relied on American funds for the initial phases of its reconstruction, and was keen to implement any societal model under which people would no longer go hungry.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Download KoreaFM’s Live Podcast with Me, Travis Hull of Only in Korea, and Robert Koehler of The Marmot’s Hole

Now available at KoreaFM’s site:

Barry Welsh’s Seoul Book & Culture Club recently hosted a live podcast recording podcast hosts. Marmot’s Hole blogger Robert Koehler, Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog writer Colin Marshall, notorious Facebook group Only in Korea creator Travis Hull & Korea FM founder Chance Dorland took the stage at the Seoul Global Cultural Center in Myeong-dong to discuss recent issues they’ve covered on Korea FM podcast episodes & answer questions from the audience. The entire event was recorded & can now be streamed or downloaded in audio podcast form.

Read the Issue of Boom: a Journal of California I Guest-Edited Free Online

Boom: A Journal of California has completed the online roll-out of “Re-coding California,” their spring 2016 on architecture, planning, and the built environment that I guest-edited (and which contains my essay “Our Car Culture Is Not a Problem; Our House Culture Is”). You can read it all at the issue’s page on Boom‘s site, or you can follow the links to individual piece below. Since many of the contributors have appeared as guests on Notebook on Cities and Culture, I’ve also included links to their interviews alongside those to their pieces:

From the Editor’s Desktop | Jon Christensen [interview]

The Boom List | Boom Staff

The California Code | Keith Schneider

Experiments in Re-Encoding Environment | Anthea M. Hartig

Re-Coding Planning | Mark Hogan

The Boom Interview | Christopher Hawthorne [interview]

Take the Parkway to the Freeway to the Automated Roadway | Nate Berg

Beyond Peak Juice Bar | Alissa Walker [interview]

Our Car Culture Is Not a Problem | Colin Marshall

Radical Remodeling | Wendy Gilmartin

Reprogramming Blank Spaces in the City | Carren Jao [interview]

Margins in the Middle | Eric Brightwell [interview]

Latino Urbanism | David Butow

Come See California’s Future | Aris Janigian

The Code of the Desert | Geoff Nicholson [interview]

Imperial Landscapes | Noé Montes [interview]

Old Border | Jim Benning [interview]

Let There Be a Firmament in the Midst of the Waters | Brock Winstead

Best of all, the online edition includes “My Boulevards,” a brand new essay from architect Doug Suisman, author of Los Angeles Boulevard: Eight X-Rays of the Body Public, my Notebook on Cities and Culture interview with whom you can download here.