Posted : 2013-04-04 16:18
Updated : 2013-04-04 16:18

Filthy shades of grey

Is Seoul uglier than it should be?

Seoul, which prides itself as a hip and happening city, wants to be mentioned with Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur as among the coolest urban destinations in Asia. But it doesn't help that the Korean capital is an aging concrete jungle infested by some of the least endearing buildings and public spaces on the planet.

A disconnection between life and concrete

By Kim Tong-hyung

The 63 City in Yeouido is the closest thing Seoul has to the Empire State Building, the country's first real skyscraper that doubles as a trophy of its "miraculous" industrialization. To Lim Dae-yeon, it's a giant phallic symbol that perverts the city's skyline.

"It's a massive (male reproductive organ),'' said the 37-year-old independent filmmaker and photographer, who sees the 63-floor office frequently, living not far from the financial district in Dongjak-dong.
Seoul Central Post Office Building in Myeong-dong has a claim at being the city's most hideous building. / Korea Times

"Of course there is an emotional attachment to it. We were all in awe of it when we were young and it served as the country's landmark building in the 1980s and 90s. But it has aged badly because it has no personality aside of being a display of arrogance ― the awkward height and its scaly glass skin reflecting the sun like a thousand mirrors.''

The 63 City, currently the headquarters of Korea Life Insurance, is just one of the many examples of bad architecture named by artists, architects, journalists and everyday residents interviewed by this newspaper.

Everyone had a different idea about what Seoul's worst building or public space was. Nearly everyone thought everyone else would choose the renewed Seoul City Hall. Still, the underlying agreement was clear-cut: Seoul is uglier than it should be.

While the city's urban landscape went through some major adjustments over the past 20 years, the incoherence and lack of visual cohesion between architecture has been constant.

63 City

Perhaps the worst outcome of this is that Seoul, a 600-year-old metropolis, has virtually nothing to show for that aside from its taxidermied palaces and the few patches of "hanok" (traditional houses) that survived ruthless waves of redevelopment.

The city has even managed to waste its most significant aesthetic gift ― the Han River ― by flanking it with apartments that resemble stacked egg cartons.

Korea's rapid process of industrialization since the 1960s, which produced a magnitude of change that took place over centuries in Europe, coincided with planning disasters that left its capital covered with urban warts.

Major property developers simply exercise too much political clout for Seoul to have a prayer at architectural grandeur. In the boom years, they slapped up building after building with ferociousness and limited grace. In these post-crisis times, many unfinished buildings continue to disfigure the city's fabric.

Many consider the Jongno Tower in central Seoul an urban wart.
/ Korea Times

Calling Seoul the Medusa of world cities may be harsh, but not greatly so.

At least the bad economy put an end to plans for the Yongsan International Business Zone, an enormous, riverfront facade that was to be finished in 2016, featuring a 620-meter-high, 111-floor office tower and two dozen other ''super-high'' buildings. Judging from the artist's description, Seoul appears to have ducked a truly hideous Babel.

"In terms of designing its public spaces ― not only from the public policy perspective but also from the aesthetic perspective ― Seoul is now at the beginning,'' said Jeonghoon Lee, an award-winning architect and chairman of JOHO Architecture. "Public spaces should reflect a city's history and the maturity of its civic society and this requires shifting the focus from simple material success to a real quality of living. Seoul is just at the starting point of this cultural transition.

''The strength of the Korean way of doing things is that everything progresses very fast. But the pace comes at the cost of the fundamental and essential thought process of what that certain architecture should be. This also eliminates the pursuit of excellence and perfection.''
The jury's still out on the renewed Seoul City Hall building.
/ Korea Times

Unfortunately immovable

It could be said that what makes Seoul ugly is precisely what makes it charming: a combination of disorganization and optimism that is rarely found in other megacities.

The downtown stream of Cheonggyecheon, a beautifully-landscaped oasis that buzzes with throngs of people strolling beside its waterfalls and artworks every lunchtime, is a fresh relief from the suffocating commercial district above it.

The delightfully un-modernized Gwangjang Market exists in its own time and space, a foodie's paradise smack in the middle of Jongno's bleakest streets, where hundreds of stalls are packed with people gulping down fried pancakes and rice wine.

The forest of high-rise buildings in Apguejong's Rodeo Street juxtaposes against the colorful array of small shops and villas in its back alleys.

Seoul is a dynamic, fast-moving city with more than 10 million residents and it will never let you forget it. But the closer one looks, the more discomforting the poorly designed buildings and unwelcoming public spaces become.

Seonyudo Park in Yanghwa-dong, an old water purification plant that was reopened as an ecological park, is one of Seoul's better public spaces.
/ Korea Times

This disconnection of past and present has prevented Seoul from having a true landmark that can define it.

This is a city without an equivalent to the Eiffel Tower, Brandenburg Gate or Sydney Opera House. It does, however, have a tower, the N Seoul Tower that sticks out of Mt. Nam, a structure that is plain as a pikestaff in the most literal sense. Still, it's a welcoming distraction from the unsightly chasm that unfolds at ground level.

After five painstaking years of preparation, the Seoul metropolitan government is finally ready to reopen Sungnyemun, the historic gate Koreans consider their No. 1 national treasure that was torched by an arsonist and burned through the night of Feb. 10, 2008, as a nation helplessly watched on television.

But no matter how authentic the restored Sungnyemun proves to be, it won't change the fact the gate is stuck in the middle of one of Seoul's most notorious motorways that separates an aging outdoor market and an uptight business district.

The ambitiously remade Seoul city hall ― a glass-and-steel Niagara lurking over the remaining facade of the old stone building ― has been touted as the new face of the city. But architects aren't ready to endorse it, at least not now, while non-professionals seem to think of it as an urban pimple.

Right across the street, the recently-renovated Seoul Plaza Hotel is garnering its own critics.

"That building is just so awful and oppressive,'' said an arts journalist, who didn't want to be named.

"I really dislike the vertical gardens they have on their walls ― in the heart of the winter, those plants are all dead, brown and wilted ― as well as the strangely concave square windows. Even the cafe-restaurant area, where there are asymmetrical cut-outs, above the vertical wall feels stuffy, because even though it's actually a veranda, there's so much blocking the view of the street.''

Things don't get much better moving away from the city hall area.

Gwanghwamun Plaza, the massive pedestrian area penetrating Sejongno, across the main gate from Gyeongbok Palace, is an exercise in bureaucratic stuffiness, a barren spread of rock ornamented by overbearing statues, fountains and odd flower pots.

The six-year-old Seoul Central Post Office Building in Myeong-dong, which looks like a gigantic unzipped zipper, is a weird neighbor to the European-style, early-modern Bank of Korea and Shinsegae Department Store buildings.

It's obviously too early to comment on Zaha Hadid's unfinished Dongdaemun Design Plaza, an ambitious project built over the ruins of what was one of Asia's oldest and historically significant baseball stadiums. So far, it resembles an enormous metal skull implanted over the squalor of one of the city's most badly aging commercial districts.

Southern Seoul has its share of eyesores as well. It's hard to tell whether the Seoul Arts Center was built to engage visitors or repel them, looking more like a citadel than a performing arts venue. The other-worldly I-Park Tower in Samseong-dong is loathed or respected, but rarely loved. The endless rows of dull office buildings and cookie-cutter apartments stretching from Banpo to Apgujeong are downright depressing.

"I think government buildings are a big problem as well, as most of them are built with no regard of their surroundings. The Saebit Floating Island, in particularly, was designed without properly considering its public functionality and the city's history, which makes it all the more awkward now that it's entirely abandoned,'' said Chung Dah-young, curator of National Museum of Contemporary Arts.

"Seoul has been a city driven by a limited set of values ― efficiency and functionality ― and this has resulted in the uniformity of architecture.''

Lack of creative input

Korea badly needs creative input in the designing of its buildings and public spaces. That would require a dramatic cultural shift in a country where buildings are a display of status, wealth and power, and art is a secondary concern.

"I find a lot of similarities in the country's food culture and buildings: the vanity of the power elite and philistinism of the nouveau riche. I see this in the awkwardly huge ward office buildings and the corny individual buildings that were designed with no regard of their surroundings or public space,'' said Yongjae Lee, an architect-turned-food critic.

"Sometimes I wonder whether this country really has room for creative design in it. Whenever the government and municipalities hold open contests for the design of their new architectural projects, the winners are usually the familiar stuffy ones aimed at massaging bureaucratic egos. The thinking here is that "this will be our building and we will do whatever we want with it.'''

When pressed to pick his least favorite structure in Seoul, Lee came up with an unlikely answer: The Silkworm Experience Center at the Jamwon District of Han River Park.

"This building shows the level of imagination that is invested in architecture here'' he said.

"Here we have an education center about the history of Korea's textile industry and silkworm farming. There are a lot of ways to design the building ― we could draw inspiration from the greenish-white colors of the silkworms or artistically interpret their wrinkles and movement into the shape of the building. Instead, they decided to create a giant worm and stick it up on the roof.''

Lee of JOHO Architecture, who studied and started his professional career in France, believes Seoul's policymakers should take a more active role in determining what is built in the city.

"Urban planning in France is fundamentally based on public-private cooperation. Policymakers are aggressively involved to ensure that the buildings built by private owners are designed in a way that they can function as public goods,'' he said.

"That is a country where public and private actors form an effective partnership ― based on trust and a system of checks and balances ― to guide the evolution of its cities. The dialogue is always active. In comparison, Korea needs a more specialized system. There has to be an organization that can control the process, balance different interests and ensure that the city's culture and history is valued just as much as its economy.''

Lee's definition of urban architecture is the process of interpreting a city's historical context and applying a contemporary value to it.

"Seonyudo Park in Yanghwa-dong, a work by architect Cho Sung-ryong, presents a good example of how architecture can embrace a city's old memories and the flow of time within the interpretations of the present,'' he said, referring to the old Han River water purification plant that was reopened as an ecological park in 2002, where neatly designed footbridges and gardens hug the old structures that were preserved.

"On the other end of the spectrum is the National Folk Museum, located within Gyeongbok Palace, a building that is an imitation of history rather than an interpretation of it. This is not interpretation, but taxidermy.''

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