Ma koreh? Ma Korea? Landscape architecture thoery with Israelis in Seoul

Seoul, Korea, wait is there any other Seoul? I don’t think there is but I’m not a geography expert, I’m more into just landscape. Seoul has a Jewish community. We are served by a wonderful Chabad house, under Rabbi Osher Litzman and his wife. Our community is comprised of our core regulars, people like me who remain for various reasons in Korea and always the expected guest. A typical Shabbat in Korea at Bayit Chabad is the usual crowd and a mixture of visiting business types, diplomats and such from places near and far. Occasionally there is usually one other type of guest at the Shabbat table, the roaming post-service Israeli. It is always nice to do the meet and great while we choose our zmiros. We all say , “Hello I am blah blah blah I do yadda yadda yadda I’m from here-n-there.” People are often taken aback when they hear what I do and why I am in Korea. There are not too many non-Korean, Jewish, landscape architect types running around Seoul, in my age range. Now maybe you are wondering, “How is this Shabbat different from any other Shabbat?” This Shabbat was completely different. This Shabbat two strangers rode into town and into my life and I’m glad we met. Meet Ohad and Dror.

So during this meet and greet session, Ohad, introduced himself as, Israeli, traveling Asia, loves Japan and Korea (it better be Korea more!) and starting his studies in Landscape Architecture at The Technion in the fall. I meet a lot of people here in Korea. This was my first time meeting a fellow tree hugger. Why could they not have come of Tu B’Shevat! Although the trees are in full bloom now. Then not so much. I didn’t talk much with Ohad and Dror during the dinner. I was too busy joking with the man from Carmel next to me but since it was Shabbat and I didn’t want to carry anything home with me on my walk home, I left my card case and sunglasses with the rabbi and told them to call me after shabbat. I wasn’t expecting any call but a few days later, like Thursday, I get a call and it is Dror asking me if my offer for a design tour of Seoul still was available. Of coarse it is Dror! For Dror and Ohad, I always have time. Especially if you bring me my prized Etro shades and business card case.

Originally I wanted to take them to North Seoul Dream’s Forest, (북서울꿈의 숲), which is in my opinion the best part/urban forest in Seoul.  The timing wasn’t good so instead we met at DongDaeMun station and walked along Chungkyecheon, (청계천) and artificial stream and walk designed by Korean architect and dean of the department of landscape architecture at RISD, Kim Mik-Young. This is wear the lesson started. Since Ohad had not started his studies at The Technion yet, I wanted to initiate him as to what makes good design. I briefly mentioned that displacing homeless people is a staple of the profession. This is a sad reality of the tectonic based design professions, we then talked about real design. This discussion became Talmudic in a sense. What is good design? Let me tell you it is not trees.

So what makes good design? We will use two examples to illustrate good design and maybe not so good design. The first is this very stream walking park. Seoul’s low laying “HighLine Park” so to speak. The stream lays below grade about 4 meters. Here the spatial relations between the person and the infrastructure defining the space a perfect. It is intimate, ideal for walking with two new friends and talking about design, Israel, kosher cooking while traveling in Asia and future life plans. Kim Mik-Young did a great job designing this space. It passed the metric of, “Would you play matkot here?” or “Am I comfortable in this space?” And we were.

We then moved onto Zaha Hadid’s DongDaeMun Design Plaza, the DDP, which is located at the terminus of the stream. The DDP is a collection of neofuturistic buildings, parametric design at its logical conclusion. I think the Star Ship Enterprise. Where is Picard? This being said, I’m not going to comment on the architecture too much, because as architecture goes the internal spaces and designs are really interesting. I mean it does have that weird futuristic “2001 a Space Odyssey” feel, but if that’s what she is going for, success. The DDP is Seoul’s new starchitect gem to show-up the neighbors, and it works. Now the space around the buildings, the landscape, this does not pass the “matkot” test. I asked Dror and Ohad how they felt in the spaces between. They said it was interesting to look at but did not feel like a place they would want to hang out. Not a place for a picnic. Despite the steady flow of people in the space and walking around, I’m not convinced the landscape design is conducive for enjoying your time. Then again, I guess maybe you are just supposed to move through the landscape and gaze at the buildings. This landscape is not for living or playing matkot or busting out in a nigun. Which is too bad because the lighting design, is great it just lacks a bit of a “holy spark.” I know what I’m doing tomorrow. (Disclaimer: The DDP is actually a great place, it houses design museums, galleries, shops and it is very interesting to see. It is a WTF! in the landscape. Definitely worth experiencing.)

After our tour of two of Seoul’s most well known public spaces, we went shopping at DongDaeMun, one of Seoul’s fashion districts. We wandered around but things did not fit Ohad, at 193 cm tall so well. Dror is one of those lucky types who can wear everything. After our brief shopping we went to a Nepali restaurant, where sitting next to us was a very Israeli-ish lady and her friend. We kept dropping little hebrewisms during our conversation but she never responded or said hi. Eventually we just interjected and asked where she was. Surprisingly she was Austrian. What came next was totally unexpected. She launched into a flowering praise of Israelis (I was chopped liver to her though) about how handsome, warm and amazing Israeli people are. It was a pleasant end to a fun day of walking and talking.

This article is only partially about Seoul and landscape architecture. It is more about making friends in a place that can be very difficult to do so. That Dror, who is pursuing his passion for photography, and Ohad, studying landscape architecture, share similar interests and are both Jewish is one thing. What is really a gift I am thankful for is that I did get to meet and become friends with two really warm people. The Austrian lady is right. I’ve met a lot of Israelis in weird far off places. A long time ago I worked in a national park in Canada. I met an Israeli family there of all places. I mean this park is remote. Way more remote than Seoul. We still keep in touch. I’ve met other Israelis in Seoul. There are a lot here. I’ve met a lot of Jews here too. I haven’t made many friends (to all my friends here you know I love you) so quickly. These two guys showed up at the right time when I was in need of some buddies to hang out with. I can’t wait to see them again soon, this time in Haifa.

This article is also my introduction. If it isn’t clear now, I live in Korea. I’m into landscape architecture. I’m studying my masters at Seoul National University in the fall. I’m married to a Korean lady (met in Canada) and we have a baby. My articles here will focus on Jewish life in Korea, our community, my family and how we write our own “Jewish-Korean cookbook and how to raise one little girl, no wolves.” I also, because I can’t help myself will attempt to infuse landscape architecture comedy into all things I do. There is a lot of bad and sad and frustrating stuff out there in the interwebs, in the news, etc. My little corner here at TOI, I hope, will convey and share a bit of joy and happiness. This is my goal. Thank you for reading this far, and keep on keep’n folks.



About the Author
Jarod Guillette is originally from a small town in Maine near Canada. He met his wife, who is Korean, in Canada and they wound up in Korea. There, he is a graduate student of landscape architecture, a husband and now a father. He runs a small design/media thingy that does environmental research and comedy all related to landscape architecture and the environment.