Well… not quite first impressions. I arrived August 10th, but I’ve lived here at various points in my life for a total of 14 years, but the last time I lived here was 13 years ago. So things that I would not have noticed before seem to jump out at me.
Mountainous Landscape Korea is about 70% mountainous and that is even apparent in Seoul and environs. You see the landscape everywhere. Seoul was situated as a capital in 1394 and was chosen partly because it had mountains surrounding it. The landscape is beautiful, and most Koreans take it for granted. It’s only when you live in a city like D.C., or Chicago that you realize how blessed Seoul actually is to have such a diverse landscape.
Boring Apartment Blocks Landscape is both a bless and a curse. Due to the mountainous landscape and limited buildable land, there is overcrowding, and most Seoul inhabitants live in apartment blocks or “a-pa-tu” as the locals say. And they are ubiquitous feature of Seoul to the point that I think they are the single most prominent architectural identity of Seoul (and rapidly speading across the country). I live in one. Everyone I know lives in one.
Crowds It’s like Fifth Avenue in New York during the summer everyday in some parts of Seoul. You are overwhelmed with people most of the time. You can’t get away from them. They are everywhere. In the streets. On crowded buses. Sitting in cars in perpetual traffic jams. Crammed in to subway trains. I remember writing in my journal when I first went to Columbia in 1994 that New York felt peaceful compared to Seoul. My opinion hasn’t changed.
Since it is so crowded, there is also a lack of personal space. I think this is one of the things that people especially from the States find most uncomfortable. People bump in to you all the time. You are squished together on public transportation. Your personal space is constantly invaded. For Koreans, personal space is one that overlaps with others.
Signage Mayhem The consistent thing about the commercial signage on buildings is that they are in Korean and they are rectangle-shaped. They cover buildings like a disease, and what’s more, they light up at night. It’s an extreme form of visual pollution. It’s the only visual communication between the business and their customers and everyone seems to understand that.
Since Korean are used this form of visual assault, this seems to be the trend on internet sites also. Most of my web consulting clients in the States asked that the information architecture and designs be “simple” and “easy to use”. Not so here.
Take KT’s (Korea Telecom) Megapass site. This is a site for KT’s internet service, and it’s IPTV service. Everything is moving, there’s no focus, it’s just a collection of animated ads. I guess the folks here are used to that.