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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.

Korea Blog: Where Book Podcasts Draw Standing-Room-Only Crowds

KB - Red Book Room 2

If you want a seat, you’ve got to get there early — really early. Even then, plenty of others will have long since set themselves up in the prime spots, close to the action with food, drink, and reading material close at hand. I myself usually only manage to find a single chair in the back of the room when I arrive, about two hours ahead of showtime as always. I’m glad to get it, though, since I’ll stay there for the next six hours. Is this a concert by a big-name band? Some sort of political rally? Will they be giving away money? No, not quite — it’s a book podcast.

Since 2012, each weekly episode of Lee Dong-jin’s Red Book Room (이동진의 빨간책방) has offered  from an hour and a half to over three hours of segments including an in-depth discussion of a particular book between the show’s regular panelists, 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. That host, the titular Lee Dong-jin, first made his name as a film critic and remains well known as one, though over the years, and with increasing fame, he’s assumed the role of a prolific and high-profile all-around cultural critic, the likes of which America hasn’t had for a while now.

Lee’s self-confessed workaholism (a term that has settled, transliterated, into the Korean language) makes for certain times when you can’t go long without seeing him on television, hearing him on the radio, or reading him in print. As a member the highly culturally influential Korean generation born in the 1960s — Korea’s Baby Boomers, in a sense — he came of age in the era of mass media and seems to have transitioned without a hitch to the era of niche media, in part by keeping one foot in the old while setting the other in the new, bringing his fans along with him.

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

Rescheduled: KoreaFM Live in Seoul with Chance Dorland, Robert Koehler, Travis Hull, and me, now June 18th

koreafm logo

Come join me on the afternoon of Saturday, June 18th at the Seoul Global Cultural center, where I’ll appear on stage to record a live KoreaFM podcast alongside Chance Dorland, my co-host on the Korea Blog Podcast (and past Notebook on Cities and Culture guest); Robert Koehler, for years and years the man behind the well-known blog The Marmot’s Hole and now co-host of The Marmot’s Hole Podcast; and Travis Hull, founder of the notorious group Only in Korea (OinK) as well as the co-host of The Only in Korea Podcast. Come prepared with plenty of thoughts and questions of your own; we want to make this a lively and thoroughly audience-participatory conversation.

Details from the Facebook event page:

Date: Saturday 18th June
날짜: 6월 18일 토요일

Time: 4:00pm to 6:00pm
시간: 오후 4시부터 6시

Admission fee: FREE
참가비: 무료

Place: Haechi Hall in Seoul Global Cultural Center
(5th Floor M Plaza in Myeong-dong) (

Full directions are here

장소: 서울글로벌문화체험센터 해치홀 (명동 M플라자 5층)
오시는 길은 다음 링크를 참조하시기 바랍니다.

Guardian Cities: The Reclaimed Stream Bringing Life to the Heart of Seoul

guardian cheonggyecheon

In September 2005, the new Cheonggyecheon Stream opened in downtown Seoul, looking for all the world like a modern urbanist’s dream come true: not just a pedestrian-only public space bringing water and vegetation into the centre of a dense metropolitan area of 25 million, but one built where a traffic-filled stretch of elevated freeway used to stand.

It also reclaimed the role of the original stream, which flowed through the site before the city’s aggressively development-minded government paved over it in the late 1950s and, two decades later, built the Cheonggye Expressway – then a proud symbol of urban progress for the 1970s.

As soon as the stream began flowing again (making ingenious use of the groundwater already pumped out by nearby subway lines), so too did praise for Seoul’s mayor Lee Myung-bak, the project’s highest-profile proponent – albeit one who’d spent nearly 30 years working for and then running Hyundai Construction, a company responsible for some environmentally and aesthetically questionable work in the South Korean capital, including the Cheonggye Expressway.

But in the $900m (£615m) Cheonggyecheon project (part-built by Hyundai), Lee found not just a vehicle for his redemption but a potential must-see tourist attraction for Seoul – with a big budget expressly dedicated to that purpose – and an embodiment of its supposed transformation into a city that prioritises quality of life.

Read the whole thing at Guardian Cities.

Boom: Our Car Culture Is Not a Problem; Our House Culture Is

Like so many fascinated by Los Angeles, I grew up worshiping the Case Study houses. With their crisp edges, clean lines, muted colors, and vast planes of glass, they struck me as the perfect objects of aesthetic desire, especially when seen through the loving, era-defining eye of architectural photographer Julius Shulman. I think of the most famous of all his images, the one of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22: one party-dressed lady perched on an ottoman, another relaxed in a faintly Corbusian chair, both visible through seemingly endless floor-to-ceiling windows and cantilevered over the illuminated grid of the city below. But somewhere along the way I lost my religion.

“Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world, provided it’s seen at night and from a distance”—an apocryphal quotation and Shulman’s photograph have reinforced each other and a certain idea of Los Angeles’s peculiar appeal in our collective conscious. Appreciation for the city requires distance from the city, and the distance attained is an index of the success achieved. Look at any well-known picture of a Case Study house, taken by Shulman or a less legendary residential photographer, and you never see Los Angeles, at least not at any level of detail at which it feels real. When the city appears at all, it does so almost as an abstraction: a blanket of lights or a distant skyline, visibility dependent on the smog level of the day. Los Angeles functioned not as a setting for the Case Study houses, but as a backdrop.

But the city isn’t a backdrop. It’s the main event. It’s where I eat and drink, where I buy books and watch movies, where I meet friends, and, indeed, where I actually live. The city is where things happen. The city is where I want to be. Why don’t these houses want to be there too? The Case Study program sprang from laudable, democratic ideals, but they are the ideals of a different era. Our cities still need good affordable housing, but it’s time to change our vision of that housing: it should not be in the shape of a house distant from the city.

Read the whole thing at Boom: a Journal of California, whose new issue “Recoding California” I guest-edited. It features work by such other noted observers of Los Angeles and Notebook on Cities and Culture guests as Christopher HawthorneNoé Montes, Alissa Walker, Carren Jao, Eric Brightwell, and Jim Benning.

Korea Blog: An Interview with Robert Fouser

Robert Fouser first lived in Korea in the mid-1980s, going on to become a professor at Seoul National University and a high-profile commentator on Korean society, culture, and urban issues, especially the preservation of traditional the Korean houses known as hanok, one of which he purchased and restored himself. Later he lived in Japan, teaching the Korean language to Japanese university students.

Now based again in his American hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Fouser has returned to Korea for a few months to promote two newly published books he wrote in Korean: Conditions for Citizenship in the Future: A Manual of Democracy for Koreans (미래 시민의 조건) and Seochon-holic (서촌홀릭). I previously wrote about him on the Korea Blog when he led the Royal Asiatic Society on a deep Seoul walk. We sat town to talk about Korea today at Cafemoon, my coffee spot of choice by Seoul Station.

How do you describe these two books to someone unfamiliar with Korea?

Conditions for Citizenship in the Future is basically, “What is democracy? What is citizenship? How does that relate to what’s going on in Korea today?” The younger generation in Korea has lots of complaints about society. They think society is stagnant, not changing in the way they want. What the book argues they should do is participate in the democratic process, to stand up as citizens. It’s a call for younger people in Korea to take a more proactive stance in their politics. Seochon-holic is a collection of essays on things I’ve felt in Korea, my perspective on Korea. About half of it is related to urban issues, mainly preservation versus development, because I was involved in hanok preservation.

How much do you credit the younger generation’s idea of Korea as“Hell Joseon?” Is it a legitimate complaint?

From an objective perspective, it might not be, because no society can guarantee people a job, happiness, or anything like that. If you look at how younger Koreans perceive the world — that they have to be perfect, that they have to have all these accomplishments, they have to look a certain way, this pressure to promote yourself, to package yourself, to market yourself — it’s very real. That’s what’s driving the complaint: they’re expected to have all these things, but some of them take money, and there’s a feeling of not being able to get ahead.

But the Korean War left the country in a state of total material want. How did it go from that to such high material expectations?

In the ’50s, right after the war, there was stagnation, but in the ’60s, [South Korean president from 1961-1979] Park Chung-hee created the concept of “the Korean dream”: focus on industrialization and turn Korea modern, in a way into a semi-Japan. Park was familiar with the Japanese mass-scale development model because he had been a military officer in Manchuria. So he created this idea that “we all work hard, the country grows, and you get a piece of the growing pie.” For most Koreans, that turned out to be true. It actually worked. The standard of living rose dramatically as the economy developed.

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