USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

When Space Transcends the Urban Condition

Observation deck at the DMZ

Over 20 million people live and work in the metropolitan area of Seoul, South Korea.  The city’s dense network of subways, highways, and tall buildings extends as far as the horizon on either side of the Han River and in almost all directions.  Current growth patterns see Seoul’s original urban fabric of low-rise buildings being replaced en masse by Tokyo-style mega developments built over subway stations and shopping malls.  All of this vertical development is justified, made necessary even, by increasing land values in the central city where transit coverage and cultural amenities are most heavily concentrated.  Needless to say, excess space is in short supply.

China's flag rises above that of Hong Kong

A comparable situation exists in Hong Kong, one of China’s two Special Administrative Regions, and is even more pronounced due to severe limitation of buildable land.  This limitation is a consequence of both geography (the territory is comprised of mountainous islands) and policy (previous British colonial rule demarcated 75% of land as nature preserves).  The lack of available land is so extreme that it has now become economical for developers to artificially extend the boundaries of Hong Kong Island in order to build just a handful of buildings on reclaimed land.  Sometimes, as in the case of the convention center, the harbor is dredged for years to construct a single building.

Yet while these two cities deal with approximate economics of land use, they are linked in a more significant fashion by their complete reliance on empty land holding no development potential whatsoever: political buffer zones.  Whatever the magnitude of growth and increase in real estate values that has occurred in these cities over the last half century, no land holds more value to Seoul than Korea’s DMZ and to Hong Kong than its undeveloped border with mainland China.  Without these buffer zones, it is almost certain that neither city would exist in its present form.  This is because these two zones separate capitalistic, market driven societies that host international business from communist, state-run economies to the north.  To be sure, North Korea and mainland China hold widely different viewpoints on global politics and economics.  While Pyongyang remains highly isolated and stagnant, Shenzhen is growing explosively and increasingly fostering closer ties to its more famous neighbor to the south.  But the fact remains that native Hong Kongers seldom identify with the mainland and many young people are leery of 2046, when China’s ‘one country, two systems’ approach to governing Hong Kong comes to an end.

In visiting Seoul and Hong Kong then, I have witnessed for the first time politicization of space.  These are spaces shaped and defined not by designers or planners but by national security interests and economic preservation.  Like architecture however, their usefulness and purpose lies in the void, not the walls that shape it.

Matt Luery

Filed under: Capitalism, China, DMZ, Government, Hong Kong, Korea


The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu