[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]A challenge in central SeoulThe Samil elevated expressway over Cheonggye Creek is the latest case of high-profile creative destruction in Seoul that has accompanied democratization since 1987.
In the mid-1990s, the foreigners’ apartments in Namsan and the former Japanese colonial headquarters in Gwanghwamun were torn down.
In the late 1990s, the vast concrete plaza in Yeouido was turned into a park. Each of these structures were destroyed because they either scarred the cityscape or represented a painful side of modern Korean history.
The destruction of these structures cleared the way to return each building site to an idealized original state. The sites of the foreigners’ apartments and the Yeouido plaza were returned to “nature,” whereas the former Japanese colonial headquarters site was returned to Gyeongbok Palace, as it was before the Japanese colonial era.
The Samil elevated expressway over Cheonggye Creek takes creative destruction to new heights because of its scale and cost.
The foreigners’ apartments, the Japanese colonial headquarters and the Yeouido plaza were large structures, but they occupied well-defined sites. They could be destroyed easily without causing much inconvenience to surrounding areas, and plans for future use were easy to explain.
Returning Namsan to nature, restoring Gyeongbok Palace and building a large green park in Yeouido were all popular ideas.
The Cheonggye Creek restoration project promises to be popular as well, but it affects a larger area of the city and it will cost much more to complete, which puts it under greater scrutiny.
The project is essentially two projects in one. The first part is the destruction of the six-kilometer Samil elevated expressway, while the second part focuses on restoring Cheonggye Creek in the hope of attracting commercial investment to the area.
Wide sidewalks and two- or three-lane roads will line each side of the stream. Twenty-one new bridges will cross the stream.
The rationale for destroying the expressway was that it was becoming a safety hazard. Though rebuilding it was an alternative, the expressway darkened the street below and created dust and noise that doomed any plans to attract people to the Cheonggye area. The rationale for restoring the stream, meanwhile, was to show that Seoul values its history and is committed to developing a green urban environment. As the only source of water in the center of Seoul, Cheonggye Creek was an essential resource for the people of the city. The stream was covered in 1961 in response to growing traffic pressure in Seoul.
Examples of recent urban renewal efforts in Japan cast another spotlight on the Cheonggye project. The recently opened Roppongi Hills in Tokyo is a huge cultural and commercial complex that towers over the surrounding area, a contrast that makes it interesting. The complex contains offices, a hotel, an art museum and over 200 shops and restaurants. The theme of the opening art exhibition was “World Cities,” suggesting that Roppongi Hills embraces urbanity and links Tokyo with the other urban centers in the show: Berlin, Frankfurt, London, New York, Paris and Shanghai. Fukuoka, Nagoya and Kitakyushu have opened similar eye-catching commercial centers in recent years to revive aging commercial areas.
Though some have criticized Roppongi Hills and other complexes as tacky urban theme parks, they have been largely successful in breathing new life into old cities. In doing so, they have stimulated other urban renewal efforts that make use of existing structures, such as old office buildings and old shopping arcades. In the past few years, the Marunouchi area in central Tokyo has transformed itself from a drab office district that became a ghost town in the evenings and on weekends into a lively shopping and entertainment district.
The urban renewal efforts in Japan focus on reviving commercial vitality in urban centers rather than on issues of historical and ecological identity. Though government support was critical in approving plans for the projects, they are private developments that are expected to contribute to the local economy. The Cheonggye Creek restoration project, by contrast, is a public works project, with the hope that private investment will follow.
At a deeper level, the Cheonggye Creek restoration project is essentially conservative in outlook and design. Removing a potentially dangerous elevated expressway and restoring an important natural site in the heart of Seoul justify the cost.
The problem is that the plans are not bold or innovative. A restored Cheonggye Creek with wide and attractive pedestrian-only spaces on both sides, for example, would attract people to the area, much as the new commercial developments in Japan and the old plazas in Europe attract people.
To succeed, the project needs to be dramatic and unique, worthy of a world city. It needs to create a space where everybody wants to be. This, then, is the challenge that distinguishes the Cheonggye project from other acts of creative destruction.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser