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Hi, I’m Colin Marshall

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

You’ll find my essays here. I write for outlets including Guardian CitiesOpen Culture, the Times Literary Supplementthe Los Angeles Review of Books (including its Korea Blog), KCET, Boom: A Journal of California (and guest-edited its issue on architecture, infrastructure, and the built environment), Bookforum, Boing Boing, Put This On, The Japan Foundation, The Millions3QuarksdailyThe Quarterly Conversation, and Maximum Fun.

Each month I appear on a Seoul urbanism radio feature on TBS eFM’s Koreascape. Previously, 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, Seoul National University, Yonsei University, 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.

Los Angeles in Buildings: City Hall

The thin spread of development over great distances; the strict separation of residential buildings from those of commerce and industry; the caps on height and density: these conditions may now look like Los Angeles’ most crippling and intractable disorders, but they once promised a cure for all that ailed the American city. The bigger Los Angeles boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the more those in charge of its form did to retain the feeling (or so they imagined it) of the small inland towns from which so many new Angelenos had arrived. To others this unusually low-rise new city offered an escape from the much-bemoaned “dark, walled-in streets” amid “concrete canyons” of the industrial metropolises of the east coast and Europe. And so, for 36 years, just one structure loomed especially large over Los Angeles’ undisturbed horizontality: City Hall.

A 1905 ordinance having prohibited the construction of buildings taller than 150 feet, for many years “you couldn’t see the Los Angeles skyline from the City Hall observation deck,” as Los Angeles Times architecture critic John Pastier put it, “because you were in it.” But you could see the results of a resolve, spelled grandly out in a 1910 city planning committee report, to arrange “the development of our great city along broad and harmonious lines of beauty and symmetry.” Those words evince the local influence of the “City Beautiful” planning movement then in vogue across the country, as does the design for Los Angeles’ Central Library by Bertram Goodhue as well as that of the next important building that went under construction: City Hall, designed by the trio of John Parkinson, Albert C. Martin, and John C. Austin, the leading architects of 1920s Los Angeles.

The city’s municipal government had occupied five different locations over the previous 75 years, starting with a rented hotel in the 1850s and by 1888 occupying an acclaimed Romanesque Revival building on Broadway. (“An honor to the commonwealth,” the Los Angeles Times said of the structure which has since become a surface parking lot next to the newspaper’s own garage.) But the time had come for a more serious work of governmental architecture, which, under the banner of Allied Architects, the dream team of Parkinson, Martin, and Austin looked more than able to provide. As the designer of the Braly Block, the Security Building, and the A.G. Bartlett Building, then the three tallest in Los Angeles, Parkinson had already contributed to the city much of what height it had. Austin brought to the table a monumental sensibility developed in projects like the Hollywood Masonic Temple and Shrine Auditorium. Martin, founder of the architectural firm that would grow over successive generations into the formidable A.C. Martin Partners, had drawn up the impressive Thomas Higgins Building and Million Dollar Theater downtown.

Read the whole thing at KCET.

Seoul Urbanism on TBS eFM’s Koreascape: the first Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism

Each month I join Kurt Achin, host of Koreascape on Seoul’s English-language radio station TBS eFM, for an exploration of one of Seoul’s urban spaces. This time we visit the very first Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, a months-spanning celebration and an exploration of how cities across the world have found innovative ways to use, preserve, and improve their urban and natural “commons.” At one of the Biennale’s main exhibitions at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, we learn from more than fifty different world cities — Rome with its historical cultural spaces, Bangkok with its street food, Reykjavik with its hot tubs, and even Pyongyang, by a replica of one of its high-rise apartments — what Seoul could incorporate into the next phase of its history.

Stay tuned for further explorations of Seoul’s architecture, infrastructure, and other parts of the built environment. You can hear our previous segments here.

Los Angeles Review of Books: Down with the English Language

Linguistic Life in South Korea once moved me to write a short essay in Korean called “영어에 대한 네 가지 거짓말” or “Four Lies About English.” The first lie, to translate it back into that native language of mine, holds that English speakers can live comfortably in every country in the world; the second, that all those countries have agreed to communicate in English with each other; the third, that because the people of countries like Sweden or Germany speak English well in addition to their native languages, Koreans can and should do the same; and the fourth, that anyone unable to master English is a fool. These particular misconceptions, though I could have included others, have taken root in Korean society to the extent that many Koreans grow flabbergasted when I try to disabuse them.

Not that I alone can do much to mend Korea’s deeply unhealthy relationship with English, a language now slathered liberally on every surface of its cityscapes — except the advertisements for cram schools and practice apps, which shame their readers for having spent years and years studying English without any speaking ability to show for it. Japan, a country I visit often, hasn’t caught as virulent an “English fever,” as Koreans call it (or as I called it on LARB’s Korea Blog last year, “English cancer”), and so, despite my far weaker command of Japanese than Korean, I always feel a weight lift from my mind when I go there, taking comfort in the unambiguous fact that the language of Japan is Japanese: those I address in it will never, ever reply in English — and were I to speak in English, most of them would reply, often at length, in Japanese anyway.

The Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura, however, does believe that her countrymen labor under “the feeling that they ought to know English,” an “irrational obsession, a paranoia that has spread across the nation like a plague.” As in Korea, it happens because “most people, despite years of suffering from mandatory English courses in junior high, high school, and college, end up with little or no grasp of the language,” and so, “feeling defeated, and blaming themselves for the defeat, ordinary people have succumbed to a kind of mass hysteria, convinced despite all evidence to the contrary that they can and must master the language.” Mizumura makes this diagnosis in her treatise The Fall of Language in the Age of English, a surprise hit upon its original publication in Japan in 2008 and recently translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter.

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

Korea Blog: Korea’s New Comfort-Woman Comedy “I Can Speak”

Over the past few months, a publicity blitz of the caliber usually reserved for Hollywood superhero spectacles has urged Koreans to see a I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크), a movie about a straight-laced young civil servant who reluctantly gives English lessons to an old battleaxe. Or at least that’s how it looked at first: as more detailed press and advertisements came out, people started to sense something more complicated than the Korean Harold and Maude (if that) they might have expected. Soon word spread that it actually deals with one of the most dangerously controversial issues in the country today: the plight of the “comfort women,” the young girls forced into prostitution for the Japanese military during the Second World War.

Even typing that last sentence, especially the word “forced,” feels as if it might set off an international incident or two. On my first trip to Seoul I had several appointments that brought me the the vicinity of the city’s Japanese embassy, at that time a grim, prisonlike building, demolished in recent years after many denied requests for permission to do so. I knew a now-iconic bronze comfort woman statue (officially called the “Statue of Peace”) had been installed near it, but I somehow hadn’t imagined it sitting right across the street, its placid, accusatory stare pointing straight ahead. The Japanese government has requested the statue’s removal time and again, to no avail, since it appeared in 2011. Young volunteers watch over it 24 hours a day, and protests, often involving the surviving and now elderly comfort women themselves, have happened in front of the embassy each and every Wednesday for more than 25 years.

Other comfort woman monuments have appeared elsewhere in the world, including a lawsuit-drawing State of Peace clone in Glendale’s Central Park, and just this past summer five of them started riding Seoul city buses. While all this might make an observer unfamiliar with east Asian affairs wonder if the Imperial Japanese Army and its human trafficking operation remains a going concern, current Korean objections specifically target the official Japanese attitude toward those wartime exploits, even as the exploits themselves slip out of living memory. Japan, in this view, captured and enslaved somewhere between 20,000 and 400,000 unwilling young girls from not just Korea but China, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and other territories besides, yet has consistently refused to properly apologize for or even fully acknowledge its crimes.

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

This week’s city reading: Los Angeles’ varied images, the return of the city-state, Amazon’s search for a city with decent transit

Will the Real Los Angeles Please Stand Up? (Mia Lehrer, Foreground) “The fact that our past Governor filmed Terminator scenes in the LA River, or that The Italian Job shows Mini Coopers racing down the concrete river bed, signaling to other cities that you can concrete over your river and have fun.”

A New Approach to Designing Smart Cities (David Galbraith, Design Matters) “One day, I’d like to design a truly modern, functional city with the character of a medieval hill town. Rather than a blueprint, I’d like to design a series of recipes for how to create it, from the community to individual human level, from street plans to door handles. This outlines how and why that approach could work, compared to how cities are designed today.”

Amazon’s HQ2 Hunt Is a Transit Reckoning (Laura Bliss, Citylab) “The emphasis on transit seems to be creating, in particular, something of a come-to-Jesus moment for cities where high-level service has long been an afterthought. Cities with legacy subway systems, such as Boston and Washington, D.C., have risen to the top of more than one ranking; so has Denver, with its relatively forgiving traffic and expanded rail investments. In weeks of speculation and showdowns, a lack of transit connectivity has been one of the the great presumed disqualifiers for other towns.”

How Seoul Is Reinventing Itself as a Techno-Utopia (Susan Crawford, Wired) “I got an advance look at what might turn out to be a powerful tool in his reelection: a visually beautiful data dashboard—its formal name is “The Digital Civic Mayor’s Office”—that is tied to the broad themes the mayor identified in 2014: How safe is the city, how welcoming is it to the very old and the young, how green is it, how open are its operations?”

Return of the City-State (Jamie Bartlett, Aeon) “As today’s centres of urban global capitalism, major cities are more similar to each other than the provinces of their own nation-states. They are all hubs of finance, tech innovation, culture, and characterised by high levels of diversity and inward migration. While the UK voted to leave the EU 52/48, London voted to remain 60/40. London, as is often remarked by visitors, is nothing like the rest of the country. The same can certainly be said of the US east- and west-coast behemoths.”

The Happy City and Our $20 Trillion Opportunity (Mr. Money Mustache) “The average American gets the most expensive car he can afford, and drives it as much as he can – for virtually 100% of trips out of the house. And yet he has a net worth of nearly zero, and subpar physical health, for most of his life. The average American city builds the largest roads and parking lots it can possibly fund, maximizing the amount of available space for vehicles, in a noble attempt to reduce traffic and serve its citizens. But the result is that cities become nothing but wide, well-engineered, fast, deadly expanses of concrete.”

NPR Music: BTS breaks onto the Billboard charts

Making it to the top of the Korean pop music charts demands no small amount of blood, tears, and sweat — and even more to break beyond it. Few current groups know it as well as the boys of BTS, the young septet who this week became the highest-ranked K-pop act ever on the Billboard 200 chart, as well as only one to rise into its top ten and to appear on both the Billboard 200 and the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time. Their success marks one more step in a long campaign in the Korean pop music industry, and the Korean entertainment industry as a whole, to cultivate a robust fan base as far beyond the borders of South Korea as possible. But how far, K-pop observers have long wondered, can this unabashedly glossy, visually oriented, and aggressively young music really go?

Though 21st-century Korea’s intensively trained (and even more intensively groomed) squadrons of boy bands and girl groups may seem indistinguishable, BTS has had a way of standing out since they made their debut in the summer of 2013. Like every major pop act, they came vetted by the country’s talent oligarchy, specifically as a product of Big Hit Entertainment, an artist management company founded by Bang Si-hyuk, former songwriting partner of top star-making record executive Park Jin-young (known to anyone with an eye on Korean pop culture simply as “JYP”). Before they turned up to Big Hit’s auditions, two of their members were art-school students and two were underground rappers; some point to the group’s own active participation in the writing and production of their songs, heretofore an unusual practice in the highly specialized world of K-pop, as one reason for their rapid and outsized success.

Certainly no other boy band of any nationality has put out a hit single inspired by the work of Nobel Prize-winning German novelist Hermann Hesse, as BTS’ members described last year’s “Blood Sweat & Tears.” Its elaborate music video even features a passage from Hesse’s Demian, a novel near-universally known in South Korea and beloved by several generations of its people. The words come recited by member Kim Nam-joon, better known as “Rap Monster,” who has emerged as the group’s breakout star as well as something of a self-styled intellectual, having placed high on IQ tests and South Korea’s university entrance exams — a high mark of distinction in a ranking-obsessed society — becoming fluent in English, and continuing, on his own initiative, the Japanese-language studies all the BTS members received as trainees.

Read the whole thing at NPR Music.

This week’s city reading: the future of Detroit, a farewell to London, and the failings of transit in the San Francisco Bay Area

Detroit Open City (Aaron Robertson, Los Angeles Review of Books) “The species of loneliness one feels in New York is not the same in Detroit. There is an overwhelming awareness that in a city this large, things should be louder. ‘Detroit is the biggest small town in America,’ I once heard someone say. The slogan rings true. It is a city in which people talk more about lonely places than lonely people. Abandonment is keenly felt not as a conclusive sense of emptiness, but as absence, the peculiar suspicion that something which should be there has been devoured or disappeared.”

Credit Where It’s Due (Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times) “Wong, who died Sept. 1 at 94, often pared down the buildings he worked on to a single memorable gesture. There’s the swooping roofline of the Union 76 gas station in Beverly Hills, among postwar L.A.’s singular landmarks. The peaked silhouette of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco. The glowing cube at the heart of CBS Television City. Those forms were memorable in part because they matched the spirit of the age in California. They were a visual shorthand for the future.”

Iain Sinclair’s Farewell to London (Iain Sinclair, The Guardian) “There was no longer an obligation to carry a notebook or a camera. Or to endure the madness of being overwhelmed by random voices, mendacious signage, tags and scribbles, snippets of intrusive mobile-phone babble: along with the moral imperative of shaping white noise into a coherent narrative. The rough sleepers, ranters on buses, spice zombies, station beggars I sourced as potential characters were taking their revenge by welcoming me into their survivalist sodality. Did I look like one of them now? Did my skewed, eyes-down trudge transmit a different code, a new set of pheromones?” (See also my interview with Iain Sinclair on Notebook on Cities and Culture.)

Connect the World? The Bay Area Can’t Even Connect Its Trains (Joe Mathews, Public CEO) “We didn’t know how to bridge this transportation gap. My son wasn’t up for a long walk. There is as yet no shuttle from plane to train. The public bus that would take us in the train’s direction didn’t show up on time. Uber wasn’t picking up at the airport. My Lyft app kept crashing. And the four cabbies parked outside the airport all refused to take us, saying they didn’t want to give up their place in line for such a short, cheap trip.”

Collective Dust (Yolanta Siu, Places Journal) “Today, the district’s main street, Dorim-ro, is a stage for revolving storefronts, where trendy restaurants and cafes come and go. Rents have quadrupled in a decade. Many of the new businesses borrow the “otherness” of the factories by using Mullae’s name and industrial aesthetic, but none are affordable to longtime residents. Cultural conflicts are open and pervasive. Most technicians spend their entire lives working six-day weeks, and they find it hard to understand the irregular habits of artists and the creative endeavors that sometimes disrupt factory work.” (See also my segment on Mullae-dong with Yolanta Siu on Koreascape.)

Why Can’t We Get Cities Right? (Paul Krugman, New York Times) “It’s not hard to see what we should be doing. We should have regulation that prevents clear hazards, like exploding chemical plants in the middle of residential neighborhoods, preserves a fair amount of open land, but allows housing construction. In particular, we should encourage construction that takes advantage of the most effective mass transit technology yet devised: the elevator.”

Seoul Urbanism on TBS eFM’s Koreascape: industry and culture grapple in Mullae-dong

Each month I join Kurt Achin, host of Koreascape on Seoul’s English-language radio station TBS eFM, for an exploration of one of Seoul’s urban spaces. This time we go just south of the Han River for a nighttime journey — punctuated by cats, coffee, ukulele riffs, tap dancing, and showers of sparks — through Mullae-dong. There an established generation of industrial operations now coexist with a new generation of cultural venues, putting metalworkers and craftsmen right alongside artists and baristas. We’re joined by Yolanta Siu, whose recent piece “Collective Dust” in Places Journal  warns that “the situation in Mullae now calls for artists and factory owners to unite in resistance to speculative capitalism. Otherwise the neighborhood will follow the model of Daehangno, Bukchon, Seochon, Garosu-gil, and Jogno in becoming a generic shopping district,” whose popularity led to rising rents that brought about “not prosperity but hollowness.”

Stay tuned for further explorations of Seoul’s architecture, infrastructure, and other parts of the built environment. You can hear our previous segments here.

Korea Blog: Why K-Pop Is the Same as Classic Rock

Pet Sounds passed the 50th anniversary of its release about half a year after I moved to Korea. That same day, I later learned, also marked the 50th anniversary of Blonde on Blonde; this year brought that of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Despite never having owned any of these iconic albums myself, I know them when I hear them (mostly, these days, at Peter Cat), as, no doubt, do plenty of kids in the West 20 years younger than me. Or at least they know a fair number of their songs, many having developed that familiarity almost inadvertently. Many in their great-grandparents’ generation probably went through a similar process: even if they loathed the then-audacious sounds of the Beach Boys or Bob Dylan or the Beatles, they eventually grew to recognize them, and even, sometimes, to grudgingly appreciate them.

One common reaction to these records’ semicentennials involves lamenting a perceived decline in all the popular music since, a long, slow erosion of craftsmanship and adventurousness perceptible in the comparatively low quality of newer songs’ lyrics, composition, performance, and even recording. Westerners in Korea, given to complaint even in the best of times, must agree and then some, surrounded as they constantly are by the sounds of modern “K-pop,” that synthetic, artificially sweetened, assembly-line-manufactured product of interchangeable (and often indistinguishable) idol singers and the boy bands or girl groups from which they emerge — or at least Westerners in the West might imagine.

When trying to explain the place of K-pop in everyday Korean life, I often talk about gyms. When I work out at the one in my neighborhood in Seoul, I do it to its soundtrack of K-pop, its volume set, typically, a few notches higher than background music in other countries. (Even the gym itself, part of a national chain, has its own K-pop-style theme song, played at 8:00 every evening while its staff of uniformed trainers marches around the weights and through the treadmills greeting every member individually.) When I worked out back in America, no matter when or where, I did to a soundtrack of “classic rock,” an FM radio format that, like the current K-pop playlists in Korea, doesn’t thrill anyone excited with its curatorial genius, but doesn’t draw any complaints either.

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

This week’s city reading: dying alt-weeklies, recanting Richard Florida, and anti-urbanist Margaret Atwood

What Cities Lose When an Alt-Weekly Dies (David Dudley, Citylab) “The thing the Voice and its descendants gave readers was something more important than the occasional scoop: They served as critical conveyors of regional lore and scuttlebutt and intel. Dailies may have told you what was going on; alt-weeklies helped make people locals, a cranky cohort united by common enthusiasms and grievances. The alternative media was the informal archive of the city’s id, a catalog of fandom and contempt that limned the contours of the populace. And this part of their role, as it turns out, is a lot harder to replace in the digital era.” Growing up, I had my choice between Seattle Weekly and The Stranger, and for reasons I still don’t fully understand chose the former without exception.

Why Center City Parking Garages are Disappearing (Inga Saffron, The Philadelphia Inquirer) “For decades, the conventional planning wisdom has been that free-standing garages and surface lots are the urban equivalent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, lifeless zones that squeeze the energy out of cities and make walking less pleasant and safe. Urbanist websites like Streetsblog have made a specialty of mapping the amount of land devoted to parking in America’s downtowns, and the acreage is staggering.”

Helmets May Be Seattle law, but Many Bike-Share Riders Don’t Wear Them (David Gutman, The Seattle Times) “There are virtually no cities, anywhere in the world, that have both a successful bike-share program and a mandatory helmet law.”

Richard Florida Is Sorry (Sam Wetherell, Jacobin) “Though he stops just short of saying it, he all but admits that he was wrong. He argues that the creative classes have grabbed hold of many of the world’s great cities and choked them to death. As a result, the fifty largest metropolitan areas house just 7 percent of the world’s population but generate 40 percent of its growth. These “superstar” cities are becoming gated communities, their vibrancy replaced with deracinated streets full of Airbnbs and empty summer homes.”

How Public Transit Helped the 1932 Olympics Move Around Los Angeles (Robert Petersen, KCET) “During the Opening Ceremonies, hundreds of official cars and the 68 buses carrying nearly 2,000 athletes were able to travel in dedicated lanes, without stopping, through the dense traffic created by the 105,600 spectators going to the stadium. The running time of the buses from Olympic Village to the Colosseum averaged 10-12 minutes. The Olympic Committee happily noted that ‘not a single accident of any kind was reported involving any athlete or official’ and that ‘traffic accidents actually decreased during this period in spite of the increased traffic caused by the Games.'”

The Storeys Margaret Atwood Condemns (Alex Bozikovic, The Globe and Mail) “The 1960s generation of planners, activists and politicians locked down these areas to protect them. Similar regimes are in place in other North American cities, including Vancouver and San Francisco, Calif., – each of which have absurdly high housing prices. That is no coincidence. If you constrain the supply of a commodity, it gets expensive. Yet, this practice continues, because homeowners hold all the political cards.”