[Viewpoint]An edifice complex

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[Viewpoint]An edifice complex

A plan to build the Seoul Performing Arts Center on Nodeul islet on the Han River is under way despite opposition. The plan was first announced - out of blue - towards the end of the former mayor’s term and promoted through a process of selecting a design through an international competition for architectural firms. Then followed many incidents and scandals involving the solicitation of funding from the private sector. Now suddenly, the design competition process has started all over again because the selected architect had demanded too high a design fee.

However, many say the fee is not the real reason.

The main reason is because the plan presented by the architect was in fact a copy of a plan he handed in elsewhere. Numerous debates are swirling about the subject.

However, there is one discussion that has been missing in all this. For whom and for what uses are cultural facilities intended? What facilities related to performing arts, in particular, should exist? And what does an opera house, especially, mean to us today? The building of a cultural facility should itself be a cultural process, even in its discussion.

However, as always, the rush is in the construction only.

There is no need for a long discussion. The most important point in the discussion is whether the Nodeul islet on the Han River is an appropriate location for building such a large-scale performance facility.

To me the conclusion is clear. We should not allow any more public cultural facilities that are isolated from the everyday lives of the people to be built in Seoul. The wrong moves we made when building the National Theater, the National Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Museum are more than enough as far as bad locations go.

There are great potentialities and ripple effects a good cultural facility in a good location in the city can create, but it is difficult to continue to watch such ignorance in our policies regarding location. I wonder whether they think the Opera House in Copenhagen, which was apparently benchmarked, is in a similar location as the Nodeul islet. I wonder whether they are really aware that the Royal Opera House in London shares the dynamic energy of Covent Garden. I really hope to live in a city where we can enjoy both cultural life and daily routine in one place.

Culture plays an important role of soothing and awakening our lives and expanding our awareness.

Locating a cultural facility, especially a public one to accommodate culture and facilitate our experience of it, in another “solitary fortress” away from the space of everyday life, is a crime against tax-paying citizens. So why is something like this going to happen again?

Mistakes are made when people try to see public cultural facilities from the viewpoint of politics and picture postcards, instead of perceiving them from the viewpoint of life. Mistakes also come from the non-cultural viewpoint of trying to see them in terms of urban competitiveness.

Sadly enough, this is a universal phenomenon throughout the world nowadays. The Opera House in Sydney, Australia, and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, play a very large role in influencing this phenomenon. The ghost of the “Sydney-Bilbao effect,” which combines the two influences, is widespread around the entire world, from Dubai to Seoul, and even in Tongyeong city, South Gyeongsang, where the city is trying to construct a Yoon Lee-sang music hall.

Anyone who is informed knows that the Sydney Opera House is not a good performance hall, except that it makes for great picture postcards, and that Sydney authorities are currently engaged in a $177-million repair of the opera house.

It is only those who are blinded by extraneous effects who do not understand the reality. It took more than 10 years of thorough and varied measures to make the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao into the one we see now.

Among cultural facilities, performance facilities in particular have to be close to the energy of life. If exhibition facilities are for daytime, the nighttime is when repressed instincts start to move, storytelling fairies call to us and performance facilities wake up from their slumber and stretch themselves.

There is no chance that the Nodeul islet or any place south or north of the bridge will be inviting enough for people to come together when the sun sets and where they can spill out after the night’s performance to share the emotions of the day.

Do you want to enjoy real culture? Then, let’s start again from an urban area which is filled with energy, or at least a place where there is a subway station.

Right now is the opportunity to correct a misplaced attachment to the idea of a postcard-perfect monument.

Let’s not build another solitary fortress on Nodeul islet.


*The writer is a professor at Korea National University of Arts. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Jong-ho
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