Building Cities: Past, Present, and Future

APH Humanities Teacher Alick McLean shares his expertise on architecture and city planning at a conference in South Korea.

Seoul, South Korea, is not exactly on the way when commuting from my home in Salem to The Academy at Penguin Hall, where I had planned to join the rest of the school community for orientation at the start of this school year. In case you’re thinking I took the “orient” in orientation too literally, let me explain.

Opportunities sometimes arise when we least expect them. Mine came in the form of an invitation for professional development — in South Korea. A former colleague from Syracuse University School of Architecture, Francisco Sanin, had invited me to participate in the opening ceremonies of the second Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism (SBAU), the week of September 3. As a scholar of architecture history and theory, how could I resist?

As co-organizer of the biennale, Francisco assigned me two roles—one as a discussant to summarize then lead discussion for a group of architects and planners, and another as an author for a collection of articles on cities past and present for a forthcoming book on the SBAU theme, “Collective City”.

My first discovery in this adventure was just how far Seoul, South Korea is from Boston: I got on a plane early on September 3, and arrived at my hotel one and a half days later, at 9:30 p.m. on September 4! I was scheduled to meet with colleagues at 9 a.m. the next morning to prepare for our session. No problem, I thought—I just won’t think about 13-hour time difference…

Building Cities. Alley Way in Seoul.

Alley Way in Seoul, South Korea

But I get ahead of myself. You are probably wondering what a “biennale” is. In the midst of the Industrial Revolution, the rate at which new products and technologies developed accelerated so fast that countries began to regularly host world expositions or fairs as early as “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” at the Crystal Palace in London. 

By the end of the nineteenth century, artistic styles and even subject matter were reflecting rapid changes in industry and society, leading organizers in Venice, Italy to initiate world art exhibitions every two years. Two years in Italian is “biennale”, thus the Venice Art Biennale.

Architects began to exhibit projects and ideas in the Venice Art Biennale in 1968, and since 1980 there has been an official Venice Architecture Biennale. Other biennales including architecture developed subsequently, in cities such as Chicago, Istanbul, Sydney, Sharjah (a triennale, or every 3 years, in the United Arab Emirates), Shanghai, and, since 2017, Seoul.

While the original biennales in art and architecture were intended to showcase the new styles of the modern movement, Seoul has since conceived of its Architecture and Urbanism Biennale in a slightly different light, beyond just change in style or appearance or technology. 

In 1960 the population of Seoul was 2.5 million. Now, it is 11.25 million. The mayor of Seoul saw a need to redirect the city from uncontrolled, unplanned growth to planned growth, designing not just new buildings to house the workers making your LG and Samsung flatscreen TVs, but to design neighborhoods that maintain some of the traditional character of the city.

Rather than bulldoze old buildings and neighborhoods, the city began to valorize its heritage, even integrate it into new developments.

Rather than just market the latest styles of architecture, the organizers of the Seoul Biennale have added the word “urbanism” to provide a framework for rethinking just how fast we should or even can change, and how to make cities more livable and sustainable.

The participants I moderated in a session on housing developments in Mexico, India, Brussels, Helsinki, and London indicated that these issues of building cities for the future without squandering the past are vital issues around the world. The human scale has re-entered the dialog of building new neighborhoods, from physical form, to users (particularly those seeking middle and low income housing), to the very process of developing designs, which integrates now more than ever input from prospective residents. 

Our discussion echoed many of the themes I had written about in my article for the Collective City book, “Designing and Sustaining the Urban Collective in Classical Greece, Medieval Italy, and in the Americas Today”.

When building cities, we need to go beyond building just buildings to building identity, and beyond building identity to also building opportunity.

In the meantime, project presentations and discussions such as ours were held in one of the most modern buildings in Seoul and the world, Zaha Hadid’s 2014 Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). The path from my hotel to the DDP brought me past ultramodern high-rises overshadowing ancient Buddhist temples, along broad eight-lane avenues blazing with neon, and through weaving streets lined with one- and two-story shops and restaurants. This was and is the contrast between old and new that the mayor had in mind when founding the biennale. 

Building Cities. Buddha Temple.

Buddha Temple in Seoul, South Korea

The collective life of the city, despite its dazzling modernity, was centered primarily over noodle soup and kimchee (Korean fermented spicy cabbage) at family-owned restaurants, where architects, planners, and historians from around the world gathered to laugh, eat, and share ideas about how to address the future without forgetting the past.

Now that I’m back at APH, the theme of past and present animates my classes on Global Humanities History and the Mathematics of the Ideal City. First, we look regularly at how traditions both enable and in some cases limit the opportunities for individuals around the world, in places paralleling readings that students have in literature — starting with the Iran of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis

In my class Mathematics of the Ideal City, we are tracking how developments in identity, opportunity, and democracy from the ancient world may help us to understand cities today, whether in places as far as Amsterdam and Medellin, or in our own Essex county. 

Students will even have opportunities to communicate with the new friends I made from these far away places, as they develop projects to address opportunity and identity in their own communities.