[Viewpoint] Holding out hope for plaza’s future

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[Viewpoint] Holding out hope for plaza’s future

One spring day last year, I met up with an official from the Blue House. During our conversation we talked about Gwanghwamun Plaza, which at the time was scheduled to be completed in three or four months.

“Gwanghwamun Plaza will not be a ‘plaza,’” the official said with determination.

Shortly after taking the reins of the country, the Lee Myung-bak administration suffered a severe blow from the numerous candlelight vigils held in downtown Seoul. It’s no wonder, then, that the government paid particularly close attention to the opening of a new public plaza constructed right in front of the Blue House, one that could potentially be misused as a space for violent protests.

The official’s comments stuck with me, and I thought they could provide fodder for a newspaper story. So I immediately contacted a reputable City Hall reporter, advising him to carefully watch any modifications to the name or setup of Gwanghwamun Plaza at the request of the Blue House. The reporter followed up after checking with Mayor Oh Se-hoon, who insisted that there would be no changes to the Gwanghwamun Plaza plan. With the memories of the candlelight vigils still fresh in the minds of Blue House officials, this was in all likelihood a tough stance for the mayor to take.

On Aug. 1, 2009, Gwanghwamun Plaza opened to the public as scheduled. Seoul city government promoted the plaza as “a space to restore history,” as it aimed to reproduce the streets of Yukjo - a primary road lined with various government offices during the Joseon Dynasty.

However, something was not right. The plaza was covered with vibrant grass and featured sun shades with modern designs as well as ridiculous sculptures of Haechi. The statue of King Sejong was built later, and it does not fit in with the surroundings either. In short, the plaza does not project the seriousness of historical restoration. It resembles not the well-organized streets of Yukjo, but rather complete chaos.

In early 2007, I had a chance to interview John Maeda, an internationally acclaimed visual artist and designer from the Rhode Island School of Design. When I asked him to state the core of his design philosophy, he responded, “Simplicity and relationship.”

From this perspective, Gwanghwamun Plaza fails miserably.

It ranks as a disappointing project for Seoul and Oh, who is known to champion the integration of design with the urban environment.

I thought that perhaps it would get better, that the initial version might have been influenced by the candlelight vigils but that it would change. However, the flowerbeds turned into a skating rink, and the plaza at one time even featured a snowboarding ramp.

It is only natural that the 40 billion won ($35.7 million) project that caused much inconvenience to citizens during its construction has become a controversy in and of itself. Gwanghwamun Plaza is now being ridiculed, with some calling it a giant garden and even a theme park. A month ago, the JoongAng Ilbo conducted a survey involving 20 artists, designers and architects about the plaza. All respondents agreed that the plaza needs improvement. They said there are too many installations and too many events, and that the layout is unnatural.

A City Hall insider explained that the installations were added in order to prevent people from holding rallies in the plaza, so the layout deviated from the original design. Authorities are willing to embrace the criticism and come up with plans to modify and improve the plaza as a historical space, and one report said that Mayor Oh was seriously reviewing changes.

So I continued to hold out hope that the plaza would change for the better.

Despite the criticism and desire for improvement, though, the city created an even bigger mess over the past month. Numerous events that are extravagant and fancy - yet inappropriate for a historical venue - have been scheduled. Ticket booths, restrooms and vendors dominate the plaza, which is adorned with colorful and chaotic lights.

Citizens need a space to hang out and enjoy themselves freely. Seoul’s argument is that as long as people have a good time, chaos is acceptable. However, we need to think again about where we can make a mess and where we shouldn’t. There has to be a better place to have fun than the city’s historical center. And there is no alternative other than Gwanghwamun Plaza if we want to reproduce the historical streets of Yukjo.

The Grand National Party’s mayoral primary candidate and the opposition parties criticize Oh for holding fancy events at Gwanghwamun Plaza to win votes. I want to believe that Oh would not use such a superficial tactic. And I don’t want to label the efforts of the city government as a canvassing strategy. Nevertheless, Gwanghwamun Plaza needs to be transformed into the one and only historically relevant space in the center of Seoul.

Before I submitted this column, I again sought the position of the City of Seoul. A high-ranking official said the scheduled events would be over by mid-February and that the city will then deliberate on the future of the plaza. I hope the promise is kept so that world leaders visiting Korea for the G-20 meeting will be able to feel the grandeur and dignity of Korea’s history.

*The writer is the senior city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Gyu-yeon
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