[VIEWPOINT]Signs and concrete jungles

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[VIEWPOINT]Signs and concrete jungles

The capital may be moving from Seoul soon, but the city has entered another period of tumultuous change. In the early years of the economic boom, there were elevated expressways and hillside residential areas, but at that time the hillside residential areas were shantytowns and the elevated expressway over Cheonggye Creek provided a quick solution to traffic congestion created by the boom. But now vast apartment complexes will replace the hodgepodge of old houses and Cheonggye Creek will live again, flanked by parks and boulevards.
Soon, most of “old Seoul” will date from the 1980s. Seoul is more than 600 years old, but structurally, it is less than 20. Apart from historic landmarks, the number of important buildings that were built before 1980 can be counted on two hands. Only one of the eight subway lines dates from before 1980, and almost all the commercial and residential development in the Gangnam area dates from 1980 or even 1990. Most of the sprawling suburbs in Gyeonggi Province date from 1990.
Few other major cities are that new. Much of New York was built in the early 20th century and much of London and Paris in the 19th century. People in those cities still live in apartments that were built 50 to 100 years ago. Even Tokyo, which was rebuilt in the last half of the 20th century, cannot claim to be as new as Seoul.
The speed of change in Seoul reflects the underlying dynamism of the Korean economy; all expansive building booms require an economic base. The current wave dates from the post-1998 recovery.
Fast change means architectural chaos, and Seoul is certain to wake up from the current wave of change with a big design hangover. The Cheong-gye project will be welcome, but the vast new apartment complexes and chaotic commercial signage are problems.
People need places to live at affordable prices, and building large numbers of new apartments helps keep the housing stock new and (in theory, at least) reduces pressure on real estate prices. The problem is that many of the “new town” apartment complexes are out of scale for the surrounding urban and natural environment. Schools and universities get shut in by concrete towers, and some of Seoul’s best mountain views are already gone.
Tall apartment buildings are not inherently ugly. New York is the premier skyscraper city; height and density make the city what it is. In Seoul, the natural environment is the city’s greatest aesthetic asset, and the Cheonggye Stream Restoration Project reflects a desire to draw on that asset to beautify the city. Why, then, does the city allow apartment complexes to scar the natural environment as it spends large amounts of money on restoring the stream?
Commercial signs are out of control in Seoul. Commercial areas are a forest of gaudy signs that hang from the sides of buildings and cover windows. The colors and designs clash, creating a dissonant cityscape dominated by seemingly desperate merchants.
To save what remains, Seoul could take a cue from Kyoto, another old capital city, or Washington, a new capital city, and impose strict height limits and sign guidelines. Kyoto and Washington did so long ago, but it is not too late for Seoul. Kyoto enacted signage guidelines just a few years ago.
Regulation costs money, but much less than the cost of correcting mistakes later. A few reasonable regulations to make Seoul more attractive would be a good investment.

* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.

by Robert J. Fouser
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