Seoul’s architectural landscape exemplifies what Fredric Jameson called non-site: locations without centrality and architectures of constant movement.
No Mall Rats Here
"Shopping is arguably the terminal form of public activity."–Rem Koolhaas
Seoul’s architectural landscape exemplifies what Fredric Jameson called non-site: locations without centrality and architectures of constant movement. Just a decade ago, this was the wrong kind of movement: the rapid pace of development was coupled with dramatic failures such as the collapse of the Sangsu bridge and Sampoong shopping mall. Alongside such architectural slips, there was a proliferation of new "skin" buildings–architecture dominated by flashy exteriors made of glass and metal in a futuristic metropolis style. The exterior façades of Korea’s buildings are still updated and upgraded as easily and frequently as computer software. Today, Seoul is still a bustling city, a global capital of appropriation and pastiche culture. But juxtaposed with this postmodern architectural mayhem, we begin to see new spaces like the new shopping center, SsamzieGil–a place that is reflexive, with architecture that is site-specific, contemplative, and for the people.
SSamzieGil was inserted into Insadong, a designated historic district with winding streets, old shops, over 100 art galleries, and marketplaces–a neighborhood where shopping still involves the exhilarating antagonism proper to the urban experience. SsamzieGil, a shopping center that would threaten to formalize the purchasing experience and attract yet more tourists to the area, had to be careful in this sensitive and vibrant environment. Appropriately, SsamzieGil’s architecture is quiet and surprisingly diminutive, considering the bigness of the complex. The building is camouflaged by its surroundings and it’s hard to recognize where the place begins and ends.
"Gil" means street, and SSamzieGil is a conceptual and physical extension of the streets and alleys of Insadong. The president of SSamzie Co. Ltd, Hokyun Chun, has said he wanted to create an "Insadong within Insadong," a microcosm–and simulacra?–of Seoul’s contemporary and traditional cultural fusion.
I went to visit SSamzieGil today. The place is crowded with people, couples dating, shoppers shopping, and audiences watching performances in the central outdoor courtyard. People are always moving here, but slightly differently than normal. The building, based on the concept of a "vertical street," is a continuous ramp that starts from Insadong’s main street and ascends four stories, culminating in views of the Bukhan mountain. The shops along the path of the ramp are all glassed. Everything is transparent, and the pace is somewhat slower and more curious than in the rest of Seoul. Continuously walking up and down the ramp, people are seized not by shopping, but by watching each other in motion. Michel de Certeau once made a distinction between place and space. SSamzieGil is a definitely "space"–"a practice of place" realized by action, situation, temporality, human mingling. Rather than being about "image," this architectural landmark is about the infrastructure of social interaction.
In designing and building SsamzieGil, the two collaborating architects, Gabriel Kroiz (Kroiz Architecture of America) and Moongyu Choi (Ga.A Architects of Korea), referenced ancient Korean Feng-Shui known as "O-Haeng," making sure that the materials, colors, and relative placement of architectural elements have cosmic and environmental significance. Ancient geomancy combines here with contemporary architectural features, mixing ideas of the past, present, and future in the building.
The inaugural event that was held in late December 2004 included performances by a mime troupe, a neo-shamanist percussion ensemble that blessed the building with good fortune, and the preparation of bibimbap, which was served to thousands of people from one gigantic pot. From the top of the building, I watched white plates with mixed-colored rice spread through the crowd in the courtyard. Coined as the "intermedia" of food by Nam June Paik, bibimbap is Korea’s famous traditional meal that mixes rice, vegetable, meat, and chili sauce in a hotpot. The theatrical preparation, serving, and consumption of this big meal signified the commingling of people and elements that is at the center of SsamzieGil’s philosophy.
While the cobblestone courtyard facilitates specific performances–traditional and contemporary events take place here, and around the perimeter of the building, every day–perhaps more fascinating is the way the complex encourages performativity. Its dramatic ramps and surprising perspectives draw people’s attention to the act of looking. And there are of course continuous interactions between shoppers and merchants. Continually, a subtle conceptual performance takes place in which the site references historical and cultural sources while projecting visions of the future. All these events make this place a continuous and reflective "performance street." As a new cultural destination of Seoul, SSamzieGil is not just about shopping, it is about experiencing. Shopping might be the terminal public activity, but here it’s not terminally boring: SsamzieGil preserves and incites the original thrill of shopping and the being in public.