Samsung citizens and people of the city – it

Samsung Tower Palace, the new addition to the skyline of
Seoul, stands proudly in the aristocratic region of Gangnam. This 72-storey
behemoth of a building means home to hundreds and is gazed upon daily by
tourists, but to us – the citizens and people of the city – it is a symbol for
everything this country has lost. Anytime I spot its great glass façade through
the crowds I am washed with this unwelcomed reminder of the separation that has
been built up to split the country. Once filled with strong communities and
South Korean culture is now feels completely detached, divided into two
categories; the wonderfully wealthy and the painfully poor.

In the early 1990’s South Korea was a very different place
with as much as 70 per cent of the population considering themselves ‘middle
class’ giving the country a greater feel for functionality and community
amongst its citizens1.
However, this all came crashing down in 1997 when the Asian financial crisis
hit having devastating consequences to the economy and resulting in the
collapse of the working class with thousands losing jobs, getting laid off and
going into early retirement. But the result of the financial crisis was
unbalanced as those who could still afford it, took advantage of the fallen
market and came out richer than before. This began the social and economic
divide in modern day South Korea with now the top 10 per cent of the population
possessing 46 per cent of the country’s overall wealth and the bottom 50 per
cent only clenching on to a mere 9.5 per cent. Comparing the statistics to
early 1990’s, 73 per cent of the population now consider themselves as the
‘lower’ or ‘lower-middle class.’ 

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Reading these statistics, it may only come as a shock to
learn that once upon a time there was a ‘middle class’ and that people didn’t
have to fight just to make enough for their families to eat and shelter. That
we didn’t have to gaze upon Gangnam’s towers while travelling through the
washed out derelict streets of our home. But now, as our skyline wilts, the skyline
of Gangnam only grows stronger and taller with the addition of the new seven
towers named ‘Samsung Tower Palace.’ Every aspect of Skidmore, Owings and
Merrill’s design for these seven new residential towers I believe is to purely
show off the abundance of riches that Gangnam possess.

With the tallest of the blocks being Tower Palace G that
stretches 264 meters into the sky the architects have unjustly demonstrated
their supposed superiority by overpowering all surrounding skyscrapers in the
region of Gangnam. Each metre this structure grows the more it dominates the
South Korean Skyline, making sense as to why it was designed to be as tall as
building standards allowed. Simply, the higher they built the structure the
more power it had. They could sell each apartment for more making as much of a
profit as possible. As I stand here staring up at its grandeur I am reminded
that it stares down at me. The building literally looks down at the scum of the
city, mirroring exactly what I believe to be happening with the people inside.

Samsung Tower Palace standing so proudly in the city of Seoul
is followed by lesser sky scrapers in Gangnam all the way to the cardboard huts
on the streets homed by the most poverty-stricken citizens in our so-called
community. This perfectly mirrors the theory of Dutch economist, Jan Pen who
imagined the pattern of incomes in an economy like a parade, supposing
everyone’s height reflected their income. If they were to pass by in a march
with the lowest incomes at the front and highest at the back you would find it
would not be a steady increase but in fact, it would mostly be a parade of
dwarves and then some unbelievable giants. This is how the city of Seoul is
structured with the majority been poorer, neglected, run down areas all the way
to the city Giant, Samsung Tower Palace. The tallest and most powerful building
in Korea that will forever stand as a symbol of the great economic inequality
that is infecting our country. 

Not only does the Samsung Tower Palace complex dominate its
presence in the sky due to its superfluous size but the complete Americanised
style of the building makes it stand out from the surrounding impaired Asian
culture. Everything about the piece of architecture strikes me as an up market
American skyscraper, right down to the architects themselves. Skidmore, Owings
and Merrill (SOM), an American based architecture firm formed in Chicago in
1936, were selected to design these Korean based residential blocks. The firm
are known for their ‘Glass box high rise’ aesthetic and innovative structural
designs and have been leaders in the field for many number of years. However,
they have designed a complex I would expect to see in a great American city.
Where is the South Korean influence? We as a country have such a strong culture
and history and this superstructure could not be further from the quaint
traditional hanoks that have been fading since the 1990’s. Samsung Tower Palace
now not only symbolises the social and economic split in the country but the
American hegemony that is unmistakably corrupting our culture separating us
from our rich Asian history.

Tower Palace G, the tallest of the residential blocks,
has been designed with the most advanced and modern structural systems to
produce the greatest height possible on the building. The ‘y’ shape or
tripartite floor geometry created this new structural method designed by SOM
architects and engineers. The three wings that extend of the central spine of
the building are supported by this anchor of structure called the buttress
core. This method of designing pathed the way for tall structures in the future
leading to the design of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, also
designed by the same group of architects and engineers. This striking architectural
feature in the skyline of Seoul sits right across the street from some of the
city’s ‘quick accommodation’ which was constructed at low budget and at high
speed to provide homes for the growing population. The comparison between this
housing and the metropolis of the Samsung Towers clearly highlights the
inequality seen between the social classes.

These new innovative structural systems were combined with
the most modern and high quality technological advances throughout the
building. Including electronical controls for pre-setting their home to perform
at a defined time such as lighting, curtains and washing machines. This
three-million-dollar apartment in Tower Palace G would come equipped with
finger print recognition and the ability to control your home from your phone.
Each of these key features added to the value of the property while adding to
the inequality seen throughout Seoul where here in the slum areas we are only
equipped with the basic electrical needs and running water. Even though these
technological details may not be clearly seen when standing on the other side
looking in, the division

However, the most offensive
addition to these brand-new, advanced technology systems is the security that
has been built up to keep us out. Each residence in the Samsung Tower Palace
complex is given a key card for accessing the site; the entrance to each
building and then each lift or stairway. Then, if this wasn’t enough, each flat
is accessed through fingerprint recognition. These systems are all put in place
to make the people using them feel power. It gives them more of a reason to
feel superior to their neighbours, people who used to be in their community.
Each swipe of one of these key cards we take a step further away from
Gemeinschaft and closer to Gesellschaft, a concept imagined by German
sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. Where Gemeinschaft
defines the personal relationships that are based on traditional social rules
with direct communication, compared to Gesellschaft, a modern society with
self-interest taking over from real relationships.

”There is no justice or
fairness in modern South Korean Society…Most people don’t care about their
fellow citizens anymore. This country has stopped functioning.”

Trapped in a prison of
social hierarchy we are looked down upon, feared by and dismissed. The Samsung
Tower Palace complex is a constant reminder of this unbalanced economy and
unjust society that we live with in modern day Seoul. When we look up at the American
style architectural feature that stretches miles above us we cannot help but be
aware of its wealth and power over the city.

 

 

1 Hagen Koo (2014) East Asian Forum, ‘Inequality in South Korea’ Available at:

Inequality in South Korea