Where Are the Bridges For Lingering?Many people say that the natural setting of Seoul is one of the best in the world for a large city. But today''s Seoul is alienated from its natural setting by excessive artificial construction. It has become a chaotic place where more than ten million people cause stress to one another just by being there, and cause hurt to one another just getting around the city.
A good city is a place where the natural order and the human order mix in a harmonious way and where the accumulation of history provides spaces filled with memories.
Seoul used to be such a city of culture. It was built six hundred years ago on the combined principles of Confucianism and feng-shui, the Oriental integration of the spirit and human world. Few cities in the world have enjoyed the glory that used to be Seoul.
After five centuries of glorious history, however, Seoul began to deteriorate.
And in less than a century''s time, it has lost touch with most of its past and with its natural environment. It has become an inhuman, barbarous and unhealthy place where everything - nature, culture, and human beings themselves - is continuously under attack.
It was the construction of railroads a century ago that began the undoing of a city that had seen harmony between the five centuries- old urban setting and the everyday lives of its citizens.
Before the coming of the railroads, the Han River was outside the city, and inside this city surrounded by large and small hills there were about 170 lovely bridges that served to connect nature and humans to each other. Seoul was a cozy place, but spacious enough for a few hundred thousand people.
The first two bridges on the Han River, including a railroad bridge, were built in the early 20th century. It was half a century later that another bridge was built over the river in Seoul, and by then Seoul was well on its way to becoming a megalopolis of ten million population. The city began to spill over to the other side of the river and bridges began popping up at an amazing pace. Now there are more than twenty bridges across the river, including those under construction.
Almost all the Han River bridges in Seoul are exclusively for vehicles. Even though a few of them are equipped with sidewalks for pedestrians, the sidewalks are narrow and a crossing that takes more than half an hour is not something an ordinary person wants to do often.
The river is not of such a manageable size as the Seine or the Thames. Its width is more comparable to that of the channel between Hong Kong and Kowloon.
Though the Han River flows through the middle of today''s Seoul, it has little positive function for the city.
It is secluded from other parts of the city by expressways on both sides. Each of the two parts of Seoul separated by the river is a megalopolis in its own right, with five million population each, but the two sides do not have the integrity of a whole city. Each has to depend on the other part in too many ways.
The parallel existence of two incomplete cities is an insurmountable burden to traffic in Seoul, and keeps pressing the city to grow in a deformed way.
The Han River bridges are the most important crossways of Seoul. One basic problem with them is that people cannot linger on them. The space they offer is space to cross, not to stay on. If people could cross the bridges on foot, they could take time to look around and get a sense of where they are.
But the designers of these bridges did not give any thought to such esthetics. One of the first two bridges, built in the 1900s, used to be crossable on foot, but its approaches were changed in recent decades, making it difficult for pedestrians to enjoy the delights of the designers'' human touches.
What makes all this more regrettable is that the most scenic views of Seoul are available on the river. The best spot of all, in my opinion, is the point between Ichon-dong and Banpo. It is the point where the river is crossed by the symbolic axis of the city, connecting Kyungbok Palace, Namsan mountain and the new National Museum under construction on the north side to the Seoul Art Center on the south side.
I suggest that an artificial island be built on this spot and be connected to both sides of the river with pedestrian bridges. Such an island would serve as the symbolic focus of the culture of Seoul, and the bridges would serve as human bridges, or cultural bridges, to connect and combine the two parts of Seoul into an integral metropolis. The river could also be used for boat traffic, with its central terminal on the island.
Today''s Seoul still has potential for improvement. I hope that it recovers its harmony of nature and culture, or a part of it at least, that it used to enjoy for five centuries. Bridges of a new kind will be a good way to start.
Living bridges, human bridges, or cultural bridges, whatever they may be called, would offer a space where elements of the city are harmoniously integrated.
The writer is a Seoul-based architect now in Venice.
by Kim Seok-cheol