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Bureaucrats blamed for modernist blocks

Sept 11,2019
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In Pangyo, Gyeonggi, courtyards are placed in the middle of the houses, and walls are built along the streets to achieve maximum privacy. [NAVER STREET VIEW, NAMGOONG SUN]
Fences are gone, but the houses are now the fence.

Starting in Pangyo, Gyeonggi, houses built around courtyards are becoming popular in the single-house zones of new towns. These modern courtyard houses are built in the shape of a box or a box with one side open; the yards are in the middle.

Outside on the street, only walls are seen, with private space hidden inside.

Regulations gave birth to these “courtyard houses.”

Pangyo was the start. Unlike the first phase of new towns, which simply focused on building two million housing units, Pangyo - in the second phase - applied district-unit planning for the first time. The plan aimed for a better use of the environment with the “reasonable use of land and improving its function, enhancing aesthetics and securing appropriate environment and managing the area systematically and thoroughly in a city and county level.”

Pangyo issued a series of guidelines for aesthetics and construction to promote the eco-friendly community.

Removing fences was one of them. The order was intended to promote friendly interactions between neighbors.

The reality is that curtains are drawn to prevent the interior of the house from being exposed.

“It’s an outdated belief that community is formed by sharing physical places,” said Park Jung-hyun, a critic and architectural historian. “It’s almost a fantasy to remove walls in single-house zones where long-term trust can’t be built unlike in old neighborhoods.”

As a workaround to restrictions set by the authorities, people came up with the idea of building courtyard houses. To prevent strangers from peering in, gardens are positioned inside, and within the law, houses are built right next to the roads. Exterior windows, if there are any, are small. Windows facing the gardens are big. The design has its share of critics.

“In Pangyo, we are commissioned by mostly young dual-income couples,” said Jung Su-jin, the chief of SIE Architecture, who designed courtyard houses in Pangyo many times. “Clients commissioning the construction of single houses who previously lived in apartment units take privacy most seriously and hope to enjoy their lives with gardens. A restriction that orders the removal of fences is ignorant urban planning that doesn’t consider actual life patterns.”

Pangyo’s Seongnam currently allows 1.2-meter-tall (3.94-feet-tall) green walls. In other words, residents must plant living trees to build a fence.

Below are edited excerpts of an interview with an urban planning official from the Seongnam city government.



Q. Why is a living green wall necessary?

A.
I don’t know the exact reason. Maybe it has to do with the concept of an eco-friendly city. In the beginning of the housing site development project, Korea Land & Housing (LH) issued a plan for the district unit, and after the completion [of the construction], [the plan] was transferred to the local government. Seongnam is just taking orders and managing [the city].

There has been an issue concerning green walls, so we altered instructions a little bit.



What was that issue?

According to numerous civil petitions, trees kept dying again and again. So a clause was added to allow the use of another material depending on the authority’s judgment when geographical or ground conditions are not good for planting [trees].

Pangyo’s mysterious standards have become the “Bible” of single-house zones in new towns. Including new towns in Wirye, Pyeongtaek and Godeok, the majority of new towns’ district units planning for single-house zones share similar fence rules.

These rules are why courtyard houses are quickly gaining popularity.

A rule about shared space in neighborhoods has provoked a heated debate.

In Pangyo, when building a single house, a 2.5-meter-wide area must be allocated on one side of the building’s perimeter for public use.

The reason behind allocating these shared common areas is stated in the district unit planning: “Through sharing wide outside areas with neighbors, residents can expect effective use of outside areas and become close with neighbors.”

The measure was intended for residents to donate part of their land and share it with neighbors, but in reality, they are only used for parking spaces.

Limiting flat rooftops is another typical example of armchair bureaucracy.

“Those moving into single houses are already familiar with the concept of limited neighbors, so it’s unlikely for them to put a table in the alley in front of the house and cook noodles and share them with neighbors,” said critic Lee Young-june in his book “Experiment of Architopia.”

There is a reason for single houses in new towns to have pointed roofs. Because it’s a rule.

“We are regulating flat roofs as there have been some cases of illegal building rooftop rooms,” said an official from Seongnam.

In response, Jung Su-jin said, “When illegal use [of rooftops] can be contained by regulatory means, restricting the form itself is a typical example of armchair bureaucracy.”

“As each local government copies district unit planning mechanically, the very goal of planning itself has disappeared,” said Park Cheol-Soo, a professor of architecture at Seoul University.

“Rather than repeatedly digging up and using plans made more than 10 years ago just for the look of things, previous district unit planning must undergo review on how it actually works in real life and should be improved with precision.”

By HAN EUN-HWA [kim.byungwook@joongang.co.kr]