USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

A City Without Tension

After visiting Japan, I was jolted into a completely different society again.  We made our way to Korea where the streets plentiful trash cans and beggars.  Instead of feeling guilty for bumping into someone on the subway, it was perfectly normal to do so and not even have to say sorry.  People were chattering with each other even though they were strangers and also wanted to interact with us foreigners. Just walking around in the hotel in South Korea, it felt like Los Angeles, but replaced with an Asian population.  The loss of security found in Japan was immediately lost when I stepped foot into South Korea.   The South Korean culture has much compassion for each other, which gave them a sense of community that the Japanese people find only when shopping.  However, after visiting Paju Book City, the vibrancy of these people and prolonged excitement of the city disappeared.

Paju was established by publishing companies and other support services of the bookmaking process.  Because literature holds the power of intellectual development, Paju started to have an elitist take.  It became this utopia where every building was perfect in its own individual manner.  Upon arrival, I stared in awe trying to comprehend where I was.  Growing up in Los Angeles, I was accustomed to seeing “ugly” buildings.  Everywhere I looked, each building was designed and executed using a simple diagram.

Panning out from the individual buildings, I started to look at the area as a whole.  There was too much uniformity of being unique, which made it all the more ordinary.  On paper, it seemed that having a wholly designed area would be great!  But actually walking and experiencing the reality of Paju completely changed my perception.  If there were only a few well designed buildings, I would be able to appreciate each one as I came across it.  Obviously each building had its own individual expression, but as a collective, the imperfection disappeared.  Now that each building has its own individual identity, does a cluster of unique buildings still give each building the same individuality?

Why did Paju leave me desensitized while Tokyo and Seoul always kept me engaged?  First of all, the city was inaccessible by the subway other than transferring part of the way there from one.  Also, I had to take a bus to reach it.  Lacking infrastructure diminishes a great amount of people flow to the city, which is why it felt so empty.  However, if it was the intention of the publishers to keep Paju isolated from Seoul, they seemed to have gotten the right effect, but as a consequence eliminated the humanistic qualities found in a REAL city.  It is the sense of a city’s humanistic qualities that can be critiqued and improved on the most.  Yet, because of the lack of this and buildings are well designed, there is barely any dialogue or narrative between human and “city”.

Urbanistically, the only ties within each neighboring building was a weak and unsubstantial patch of garden or landscape. The buildings did not respond to each other and if they did, the city would have had an additional level of cohesiveness that could be appreciated.  However, if the city eliminated the garden to construct a new building, the already weak link would be gone and completely sever the dialogue between buildings.  In Tokyo, I was always actively engaged because the Shiodome buildings had a unifying dialogue through multiple levels.  On the third floor, there was the sky bridge that placed me above the cars and had appropriate access points back to the ground level.  At the same time, there was also the ground and subterranean levels that did the same.  This high level of engagement is what always kept me on my toes and why walking through Paju was so desensitizing.  Paju was missing the multiple layers of human engagement and only used the ground plane to “connect” all its buildings.  Paju’s greatest asset of being a designed city became its greatest flaw by not being fully designed.

Cities like Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong all have infrastructure as their main system to bring people into different parts of the city.  Having a fully designed development like Paju is not the only ingredient to have a “utopian” city.  Paju only has only superficial elements to call itself a “city.”  They have avenues, streets, offices, factories, shopping, and other needs that a REAL city has, but lacks the REAL designed aspects of a city.  A REAL city has systems, efficiency, and programs to help facilitate the urban construct of people occupying a city.  The introductory segment of Made in Tokyo the following chart:

The chart shows a series of possibilities with off and on switches.  There are 3 main criteria that compose the “Environmental Unit”: category, use, and structure.  When describing architecture, morality becomes a fourth option.  The Environmental Unit describes an instance of strange coherency between programs that are seemingly unrelated.  Paju would be described with all switches on, making it a “Magnificent Building.”  However, cities like Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong all have at least one off switch in the “Environmental Unit” criteria.  They can be what Made In Tokyo described as “Da-me architecture (no-good architecture)…they seem to be better than anything designed by architects.”  The buildings in developed cities have a clash of unrelated programs within the same confinement, but it is this tension that describes the actual city than the city itself.  The multiple layers of subway, retail, hotel, and restaurant within a buildings corresponds with a variety of social purposes.  The building becomes this mixing pot of activity that captivates an foreigner’s attention like myself.  However, Paju lacks the tensions and layering of buildings, making as boring and as similar to single-family suburban homes.

Could Paju then be considered a real city?  Based on the evaluation that it lacks the substantial components of a city, it is at most a “real-fake” city that prides itself on having only unique architecture and the superficial elements that comprise of a city.  Paju can eventually transform from a “real-fake” city into a REAL city only if it sheds its singular building monument-like attitude and adopt a more urbanistic approach where these buildings still have their own image, but when all of them are added as a whole, makes Paju something more.


Filed under: Collective, Culture, Desensitize, dialogue, Fake-Real, Japan, Korea, narrative, Paju, Psyche, tension, Utopia

Zoom Out

The utopian city is often a concept discussed and theorized by all in the realm of architecture. A city where economic, political, social, urban and architectural qualities allow for an ideal community and promote order and high quality of life. While many aspire to fulfill such a vision, it is often accepted that the idea of the utopian city will never be realized, and thus it remains more of a conceptual construct. Nevertheless, there are instances of this model that exist in the world, none of which come close to fulfilling the essence of a utopian city, but rather in some way exemplify a specific utopian quality. But which of these qualities sets apart and distinguishes different models from each other? After transitioning from Seoul to Hong Kong in the past week, I have come to realize that great architecture alone cannot sustain a utopian environment, or just a city for that matter, and must be offset by other urban strategies to avoid a sense of commonality.

Last week we visited Paju Book City, a skinny strip of wetland north of Seoul where dozens of publishing businesses call home. Paju is a model of an architectural utopia, which is to say that architectural design, on a building-by-building basis, is given free reign. There are no external factors such as context, urbanism, spatial relationships, etc that one must consider when making design decisions. Because of this, the city is read as a collection of objects, each unique and unrelated. In an architect’s eye, this can be a dream come true. Carte blanche to build whatever you want. Many get recognized here, if they can secure a lot on which to design a potential career-changing project. However, even with the plethora of individually successful designs, our group quickly became desensitized to this unconnected fabric, and overall uninterested. The place lacked any sign of life. The streets were vacant, the people hidden, the activity absent. An eerie quiet to each block, only the architecture remained.

Now take into consideration our new location; Hong Kong. Arriving into the heart of this urban mammoth, the city engulfs you with overwhelming density. High-rise after high-rise, every block built out to near critical mass. People everywhere. Yet few instances of famous architecture are evident. The majority of buildings are mundane high-rise apartments or offices, repetitive extrusions of the same type and plan. This is not to say that Hong Kong is devoid of great architecture, but more so that the city is not defined by it. Urbanism is what gives Honk Kong life. The dense fabric connected through numerous transit systems, the multiple programmatic layers, the cultural and historic infusion within modern developments.

Ultimately, Paju is unsuccessful as a functioning “city” because of its extreme focus on the micro.  It became hard to find awe and appreciation for a project because it was often times equaled by the four other designs surrounding it.   The urban agenda was left unaddressed as well, and consequently Paju’s large collection of individual gems did not keep our group excited for long.  Projects tackling the macro as opposed to just the micro are what will proliferate great cities such as Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and New York. While none of these come close to exemplifying a utopian city, their urban success sets them above others with only great architecture.  Furthermore, cities need a diversity of design, good and bad to avoid a sense of normalcy.  As students who are taught rigorously about architecture as the object, it is necessary to listen to the advice of our faculty on this program if we wish to respect and understand the urban condition; keep zooming out.


Filed under: Architecture, China, Korea, Paju, Urbanism, Utopia

Too much of a good thing

The context of urbanism and city planning includes a social aspect related to that of utopian ideals. Often times, cities are conceived, at the genesis, partly under societal ideals that may or may not be successful. Our recent trip to Paju was an exciting glimpse into the beginning workings of an urban community being formed. Literally everything in that city is designed, planned, and executed.  Its architectural endeavors make it a remarkable and innovative urban scheme evolving into a new industrial asset to Korea. But how are we to judge how successfully Paju is? If its sole goal was to create a community of great architecture, it might have indeed accomplished the task. However, Paju presents an eerie, almost surreal look into a modern utopia that seems artificially discomforting and rigid. From an architectural point of view, is all that design desirable? How much before it is too much?

Paju Book City arose out an idea to create a community centered on the art of publication and literature. The recent and high-paced urban redevelopment of Seoul since after the Korean War adopted a culture of consumerism and urban density. As Seoul continued to grow larger, the traditional and vernacular culture of Korea began disappearing. The largeness of the urban fabric slowly deteriorates the role and importance of the human being, only offering a negative environment for an individual. Thus, the self-named “City to Recover Lost Humanity” is a modern response to this fast-paced urbanism. The city is about the people coming together under one common goal in art and architecture. By creating an exclusive city dedicated to the cultural values behind literature, Paju hopes to not only become a city of arts, but a cultural complex built upon solid artistic infrastructure.

Ironically, however, the architectural manifestations of this proposal almost seem to negate the very principle idea of the city itself. As a concept, the city was conceived out of “controlling personal, selfish desires in favor of considering common interests first” (PajuBookCity.org). However, if we look at the design features of the buildings, each architectural element of the city is one singular object in a whole field of objects. What lacked was a unifying theme that linked these buildings together. There’s a sense of disjunction between the structures that exhibit a loss-of-place feeling. Alvaro Siza states that in designing his Mimesis Museum in Paju, he found it difficult to design when you had no context to design with:

“I didn’t have as much context as I would like with which I could create a dialogue, I only had a site plan, so I had to concentrate on creating an atmosphere for the building” (Iconeye). As a result, many of these “jewel” boxes are constantly fighting for the attention of the viewer, primarily on the level of façade treatments being applied to almost every single side of the building, whether it be concrete, glass, wood slats, etc. It was interesting to see the overall de-sensitized reaction we had after walking for a few hours through the city; we were bored and nothing really spoke to us anymore. In that sense, Paju perhaps negatively represents the outcome of design; instead of stimulating the senses, it overwhelms them to the point of a numb sensation. Though Paju certainly has a far ways to go before becoming the artistic node it was meant to be, it will be interesting to see how this city and many of these dedicated communities will react to the changing fabric of Seoul.



Book City Culture Foundation, http://www.pajubookcity.org/english/sub_03_01.asp

Murphy, Douglas. “Mimesis Museum.” Untitled Document. Web. 19 Sept. 2010. <http://www.iconeye.com/index.php?view=article&catid=1:latest-news&layout=news&id=4509:mimesis-museum-south-korea-by-alvaro-siza&option=com_content&Itemid=18&gt;.

Filed under: Architecture, community, Culture, Korea, objects, Paju, Urbanism, Utopia

Paju Book City and the Case for Mediocrity

In the early 20th century Ebenezer Howard proposed the Garden City, a community designed in such a way as to strike balance between the natural environment and the built environment.  There would be space, there would be order, and there would be greenery.  His premise was a utopian city, a new take on urbanism that would remedy the faults of existing cities once and for all.  Thirty years later Le Corbusier pursued a similar urban theory based on replacing the chaos of haphazard urban development with simple, rational order.  This time the city would also be expressive of modernity, and therefore built around the automobile.  He called his plan The Radiant City.  Neither was built as designed, but the concept of a utopian city inspired countless planners and architects whose derivative visions materialized in places as far away as Brasilia and Canberra.

South Korea’s Paju Book City, which was begun in 1999, is one such development and is an example of the latest incarnation of utopian urbanity.  The city is located on the northern outskirts of Seoul and was designed to house all of the major publishing companies in Korea.  Its grid of streets is filled with exquisite but unrelated object buildings designed by the most talented young Asian architects.  One cannot walk a few blocks in less than an hour because each publishing office commands attention to its structure, skin system, circulation, materiality, or some combination thereof.  Brochures describe the development as a wetland-city, where great care was taken to preserve natural features such as streams and ponds between each building.  Traffic signals are synchronized, the streets are clean, there are no commonplace buildings, there is ample parking, and ostensibly no crime or transients.

Yet the city’s flaw seems to be that it is that it is too perfect.  Paju Book City is so polished and pristine with its designer architecture on every block that avoiding desensitization is difficult.  With no commonplace buildings to act as filler, standout architecture no longer stands out and thus forfeits its power.  Moreover, because the city is carefully planned to avoid unpredictable development, there exist no moments when contrast or surprise capture our attention.  Moments like walking down New York’s Wall Street and suddenly encountering Trinity Church in a canyon of otherwise bland highrises, or settling into the repetitive fabric of Paris and then being jolted to life by the façade of the Pompidou Center.  These experiences of organic juxtaposition are the essence of city life, and prove that the exceptional requires the ordinary to flank its side.

Fifty years ago a small group of urbanists led by Jane Jacobs leveled these and multiple books worth of other critiques against the idea of utopian cities comprised of single use object buildings.  These assessments slowly gained traction over the years, and citywide schemes of preconceived urbanity seem to have mostly fallen out of vogue.  Paju Book City has become a tremendous showcase of innovative architecture and seems to be appreciated by the publishing offices located within it, but its urban concept was anachronistic before the project even broke ground, and for my part I would rather see its tremendous architecture spread around the urban fabric of Seoul amongst ordinary buildings where it would truly stand out.

Matt Luery

Filed under: Garden City, Korea, Radient City, Uncategorized, Urbanism, Utopia


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