Uncovering Korea’s unknown steel gallery
I first noticed the diversity of some metal shield-like plates when I was out running in Masan. My turnaround point was the junction of some old factory yards. As I slowed my pace to return to where I had began my run, I looked down to see a surprising collection of dark brown manhole covers that patched up holes on the road. They was no regular pattern to where they were located, and it seemed they connected with water mains, power cables and maybe something to do with telephony.
What surprised me was the detail on the surface of each plate. These mostly round manhole covers fit their seals perfectly, and were different sizes. Of the 20 or so I inspected in the short time I broke into a walking pace during the run, none were of the same design.
I thought nothing of this until I returned to Seoul. The other day in the rain I looked down again to see these covers. It was as though I was uncovering an otherwise unknown steel gallery decorating the network of roads which extends across Korea.
There were many questions: what was down there, and how far did it extend? How did the rainwater not fill up the cavity under the road, and indeed how was it that I was able to walk securely on this road pockmarked with openings identified by each of the manhole covers? It was a dimension to the engineering of a city I was unfamiliar with. All I could see was a sturdy collection of industrial designs, pressed upon heavy steel circular lids which kept their contents a secret.
A short walk of a few meters revealed the diversity of the designs. I challenge you if you are in Korea to walk outside for a short distance along the closest road to see how many covers you can see. The designs feature the brand names of the companies responsible for the services unseen underneath. My intrigue into the sophisticated range of patterns leaves me thinking this is much like looking at a kaleidoscope which has printed intricate designs upon these steel dials.
For a country with an industrial tradition as recent as Korea, it is as though the height of Art Deco and Functionalist styles were rapidly caught up through the stamping of these manhole covers. The workmen who made these designs were no doubt pressing metal using processes learnt as boilermaker apprentices. Along with the construction of a new city combining the world’s best infrastructure and transport, no effort was spared to express the pride they had for their work. They created a new city built upon the ruins of a charred wreck left behind amidst the flotsam and jetsam of war.
My friend Brendon points out one of the covers reads “No Parking” in Korean, and we remark how much of a dilemma this could create. How would someone know not to park on it unless they stepped out of their car and read the plate covering the manhole?
The question is perhaps redundant, a clue to understanding another’s culture. A Korean sensibility likely to acknowledge these sturdy metal tapestries of concentric circles, motifs playing with the theme of a Korean letter, or shapes which are explored through sophisticated pattern in surprising detail within the space that is allowed. These covers hide an unseen part of Korea, rarely acknowledged. This infrastructure is unknown, much like the logistics and smelting of aesthetic designs by workmen whose toil was essential to the city, but rarely seen by those who live there.
The decorative geometrical design appears to be an unexpected pattern for a manhole cover near Changdeok Palace in downtown Seoul. It says “sewage” at its center.