Thanks goes to An Ulsterman Abroad for this intriguing blog on The Vertical Village exhibition, MVRDV’s unusual alternative urban densification.
East Asia has developed remarkably over the past five or six decades. But that development brings its own huge challenges, including the provision of a better standard of housing for expanding and increasingly better-off populations. And while this has been achieved in the likes of Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo, there are some who feel it has been at a great cost – communities have been destroyed and traditional homes bulldozed to make way for column after column of uninspiring apartment blocks.
Dutch architects MVRDV are certainly in that camp. Together with The Why Factory andThe JUT Foundation for the Arts, MVRDV have come up with what they believe to be an innovative solution. Their premise, The Vertical Village, has been conceptualized and is available to view at the Total Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul until 7 October. Miss S and I took ourselves along on Saturday to see what MVRDV had to say for themselves.
The words ‘contemporary art’ usually strike fear into my cynical heart. I don’t think I’ve ever left a modern art museum without feeling like a complete idiot. And as we made our way through the first couple of rooms at Total, I had that sinking feeling again. This was partly because the descriptions accompanying the displays were in Korean only (so, yes, I accept that I have only myself to blame for that; three years on this peninsula and I can barely say, ‘how do you do?’ Disgraceful.). Additionally, however, I couldn’t get my head around what the various models represented; having not done my research beforehand, I couldn’t figure out if they were actual representations of work that had already been completed (they weren’t), or if they were just to brighten up the place (which, in a way, they were).
Things eventually began to click when one of the museum staff explained the concept to us more precisely. This was supplemented by a video which outlined MVRDV’s vision in a simple but effective way (there was no soundtrack or commentary, but their message came across loud and clear nevertheless). And so, with that greater understanding, I began to enjoy the exhibition and to think more about whether the architects were onto a winner with their idea, or if it was just some pie-in-the-sky nonsense.
At this stage, I guess I should try to explain MVRDV’s proposal (as I understand it!). I’ve already said that the architects feel that the high-rise tower blocks which have replaced the hutongs of Beijing and the hanoks in Seoul are too uniform, lacking in character and do not really meet the desires of those who dwell in them. Their belief appears to be that if you want to live smack-bang in the centre of the city in a two-bedroom house with a garden, then you should be able to. And if someone else wants to live above you in a house shaped like a giant burrito, then they can be accommodated too. MVRDV clearly feel that the technology exists to build these high-rise villages, with different styles of housing and retail units simply tacked on top at any given time. These villages could include schools and communal leisure facilities such as swimming pools and gyms. I’ve just stumbled across the video to which I referred earlier – have a look, as it will give you a better idea of what is being proposed.Before I give my own thoughts on the idea, I’ll just say that I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition. Despite my initial apprehension, I found that the designers really got their idea across well. The models that we’d seen in the first couple of rooms were repeated on a grander scale elsewhere in the building (the centre-piece was a tower block maybe five or six metres high), and by the time we were looking at them I had a greater appreciation of what it all meant. There were loads of additional visual aids – numerous videos, a slideshow, design plans and computer generated images of what life would be like in such a village. You could even sit down and design your own home or village on laptops provided for that purpose. You can’t help but feel engaged. And from a purely aesthetic point of view, it looked good too, with loads of bright colours which made for some interesting photographs. As I mentioned previously, one particular member of staff was explaining more about the concept to visitors which reflects well on the individual and the museum as a whole.
OK, so now for my thoughts. I like the idea. I do believe that there’s a lack of community spirit in big cities (certainly in the UK) and it would be nice (though maybe not essential) if something could be done about it. The solution that MVRDV espouse is certainly novel; these vertical cities would catch the eye, and if individuals could have an input into the design of their own homes I’m sure it would give them a greater sense of pride. That, in turn, may lead to a decrease in the the urban decay which can be witnessed in some housing estates in the United Kingdom, for example.
It firstly appears that the question of saving the last remaining areas of traditional housing in the now better developed east Asian cities isn’t particularly high on MVRDV’s agenda. And to be fair, why should it? They are merely suggesting a better way of rehousing people who used to live in those now out-dated homes than building thousands of unoriginal flats/apartments.
In terms of improving community spirit, I’m dubious. Fair enough, I currently live in a high-rise building where I know only one family in the same tower block. But when I lived in a low-rise terraced house in both London and Leeds, I knew none of my neighbours (probably a good thing in Leeds considering how many times they were raided by the drugs squad). We appear to becoming more and more reliant on social networking and mobile communications to the extent that person-to-person interaction is suffering as a result. And we’ve got more leisure options than ever before – where families would take it in turns to throw dinner parties as a means of entertainment, we’ve now got hundreds of other things competing for our free time. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing, but it’s got to be a contributing factor to the decrease in community spirit. I don’t see this as a trend that is easily going to reverse itself in the future.
I’d question if this solution would be affordable to families in developing east Asian countries. Surely it is more cost effective to build one single tall structure than to construct a higgledy-piggledy mass of individual houses or retail units over an undefined period of time. I’m happy to be corrected on this one, I simply don’t know the economics of it. In terms of the constant evolution of the village, this could become an annoyance after a while, with cranes and construction workers carrying out disruptive and surely complicated work to bring new residents into the fold. How would the wiring and plumbing work? And who is going to buy a house that someone else has designed to their own idiosyncrasies? I’m getting a sore head now just thinking about it. I’m sure that the designers have covered all these bases, and perhaps the answers were provided in sections of the exhibition that I didn’t take the time to fully understand.
I’m far from an expert on this subject, but these are just some of the questions that I had after my visit to the museum today. That’s actually quite an achievement for the team that have put together this exhibition; people who know me will say that my lack of interest in anything and everything is pretty remarkable, so to have provoked this reaction is quite something! And to be fair to the designers, I don’t think that they had shied away from alternate viewpoints; there seemed to have been a series of discussions with other architects who may not have agreed that the plan was viable.
I would encourage anyone who has an interest in urban planning or architecture (or even anthropology) to look into this idea and, if you’re in Seoul, to climb that steep hill in Pyeongchangdong to visit this exhibition. It will definitely be worth your while.Location: Seoul-si Jongno-gu Pyeongchang-dong 465-16, Seoul, South Korea
Entry Fee: 3000 WON