Military Style Construction
The myth of the growing middle class was one of the key factors that sustained Korean society during the latter half of the 20th century. The family photo with four brightly smiling faces with the backdrop of a decent job, a thousand square foot apartment, and a mid-size sedan was a picture-perfect representation of the reality of the material affluence created by rapid economic growth. However, at the end of the last century, with the onset of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, cracks started appearing in this image of perfection. On the surface, it did not seem like the crisis would last. A variety of emergency policy measures were issued by the government, and the middle and the lower classes were ready to march on to overcome the national crisis. Subsequently, the real estate market started trending upwards, and it seemed that the middle class myth was restored to its former self.
However, all became clear when the 2008 global financial crisis, originating in the U.S., hit the world. A significant number of the middle class was carrying on as if everything was normal up until that point. At the sudden news from across the Pacific, they started staggering as if they had been dealt a fatal blow. As a result, the internal differentiation of the middle class rapidly commenced, and the apartment, once the defining symbol of the middle class, was demoted to becoming a mere nuisance.
Why did this happen?
First, let us turn our eyes towards the Gangnam area of the mid to late 1970s when a concentration of massive apartment complexes was constructed. A gaze from afar in a helicopter looking over a construction site would be perfect. Looking at these Gangnam apartments of the period from such a bird's-eye view, it is difficult not to see its resemblance to a massive military base. Of course, this sentiment is not new.
The observation that the overarching view of apartment complexes resembled military bases was valid because they were both constructed in a similar fashion. Both shared characteristics that were apparent in the construction process; in the 70s and 80s, during the military regime, the construction of much of these large complexes was conducted as if they were military operations. Within this context, apartment units were approached as standardized blueprints in terms of square footage, construction materials, the complex layout, and their construction schedules. The occupants were just statistics.
If apartments, indeed, were built in a manner comparable to a military operation, what would be the ultimate goal of maintaining such a militant perspective from conception to completion? Could it have been the development of a particular housing model that could then be duplicated on a massive scale in new sections of Seoul and its satellite cities as the economy grew? Could it, moreover, have been the development of a new order in the daily life of the occupants of that model?
One of the phrases that the military regime used frequently during the industrialization period, which led to the construction of these apartments, was "human reform." Contrary to popular belief, the object of this reform was not limited to industrial workers and agricultural producers. Of course, an industrial worker was subjected to realizing the most optimized consumption of physical energy by fusing himself to the machines of the assembly line; an agricultural producer was to be reborn as the pillar of the New Community Movement by equipping himself with an earnest, diligent spirit. However, the middle class that emerged along with the nation’s economic growth, was also a subject of reform. The apartment was where this middle class was reformed into city dwellers with contemporary sensibilities, as if conducting experiments on the new order. As is well-known, this experiment took place through the building of apartment complexes in Gangnam for more than a decade, stretching from the mid-1970s to the late 80s.
Korea Land & Housing Corporation apartment complex under construction, 1976 (National Archives of Korea)