Un­cov­er­ing Korea’s un­known steel gallery

The Korea Times - - OPINION - By Matt Jones Matt Jones is an Aus­tralian who has vis­ited Korea on a fre­quent ba­sis since 2010. He is con­ven­ing the project “Friend­ship Tree” which ex­plores the story of friend­ship be­tween Aus­tralia and Korea. Con­tact him at matt.jones@so­cialalchemy.com.a

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.

Cour­tesy of Matt Jones

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Korea, Republic

© PressReader. All rights reserved.