Reviving a town, building by building

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Reviving a town, building by building


When architect Chung Gu-yon was on a road trip with his friends 10 years ago, he had an epiphany. The group had passed by Ansung town in Muju, North Jeolla, when Chung noticed a wide, untouched field that still bore traces of the past. At that very moment, he heard the ground cry out, “I’m the last preserved land on the peninsula. I need to be protected.”

The timing was serendipitous. Muju County was planning a project to build a more community-oriented town in Ansung. And Chung was offered the post of designing chief.

He was tasked with the responsibility of preserving the land, a brief he certainly fulfilled.

Chung, 63, currently a chair professor at Sungkyunkwan University, is noted for planning his works according to public interest rather than private demands. He doesn’t build houses for money or fame but for communities in need.

For the Muju Project, Chung and his team started off with one public building, which the Ansung people liked very much. Chung was given more work by the county, constructing 30 public buildings in Muju between 1996 and 2006.

When Chung agreed to participate in the county’s project, Kim Se-woong, the then county governor of Muju, was thrilled that a star architect was retouching the town. But he did ask, “Why would an architect so big in Seoul want to build town halls in a small village?”

In response, Chung said he was delighted to work on the environmentally friendly project. And actions spoke louder than words - Chung gave the village a complete makeover.

His first project was to build a public bath inside a township office.

As he was gathering information and feedback for the project, he learnt from the townspeople that bathing was a real logistical chore.

To them, going to the public bath was like an annual event. It took at least 30 minutes by bus to visit the public bath and older residents found it difficult to lower themselves into a hot bathtub.

Muju’s public stadium also underwent radical change, becoming a nature-friendly venue with wisteria.

This idea was also pitched by an elderly villager. Residents pointed out that no one ever attended town festivals at the stadium, only public officials. This was because the townspeople did not want to stay in the blazing sun for too long.

“Only the county governor would be given a seat in the shade,” they complained.

The wisteria provided shade, and gradually more townspeople visited the stadium. It also became an outdoor cinema as well as a general gathering place.

Chung’s other contributions were four brand new township centers and a renovated county office and garden. He also designed the Muju market and built cultural and public facilities such as museums and nursing homes.

With the passage of time, however, Chung is worried that some of the buildings may begin to look run-down.

The environmentally friendly architect points out that buildings shine when they are well-preserved and looked after.

The current trend of demolishing 10-year-old buildings for redevelopment is a waste of money and resources, according to Chung. What’s more, memories are lost when a building is torn down, and there is no way to bring history back.

Chung links architecture to humanism. He wants to build houses that help people communicate - like he did with the Muju Project.

“Architecture cannot change the whole world but it can at least help,” Chung said.

The man behind the architecture

Chung Gu-yon studied applied fine arts as an undergraduate and industrial arts as a graduate student, both at Seoul National University. He also studied interior design at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs, architecture at the University of Paris 6 and city planning at the University of Paris 8.

He managed his own architecture company in Paris until he established the Guyon Architecture Company in 1986 in Korea. His works include the Kaywon School of Art and Design in 1990 and the Coreana Museum Space C in 2003.

Chung was the Korean commissioner at the 2004 Venice Biennale of Architecture.

Town center

When he was building the township center, Chung prioritized a public bath for the villagers. He was aware that people borrowed vans to visit Daejeon to go to the public bath there.

On odd-numbered days, the bath is open to men only and on even days, to women.

After villagers are done with the day’s farm work, they meet up at the public bath.

Having a public bath has helped the people become closer to each other. Even residents from nearby towns like Jinan and Jangsu County visit Muju to use its bath.

Public stadium

The townspeople no longer need to stand or sit under the bright sun. Chung covered the stadium’s roof stands with wisteria, providing shade.

In spring, the plants turn purple, filling the air with a light fragrance.

The stadium has a relaxed feel, with nature silently expressed by the wisteria, the shade it casts, the blue sky and green grass.

This is what architecture is to Chung - spotlighting nature. The iron frames of a structure are themselves insignificant, but support nature to shine.

Folk museum

To Chung, a folk museum means more than simply displaying a sickle, weeding hoe, rack and a millstone and explaining their history and usage.

Instead, the museum should contain the region’s, in this case, Muju’s, natural conditions and scenes, and the history of the land and its mountains. There is even information on the rocks and trees that are planted near the museum. Every element in nature needs respect, Chung says.

Despite his efforts, though, the museum has not attracted many people yet.

Bus stop

There are two kinds of bus stops in rural areas of Korea - ones that look like a prison cell made of bricks, or iron-framed monochromatic stops.

Chung tried to break away from both.

He thinks a bus stop isn’t just a place to wait, but where life resides.

This bus stop is made of concrete. Chung removed one wall and replaced it with a large window.

The L-shaped bench allows people to face each other and make small talk. Chung believes relationships could be formed here.

By Jeong Jae-suk JoongAng Sunday []
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