In Seoul, not so hip to be square

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In Seoul, not so hip to be square


“A square does not have an identity by itself but is defined by the activities of the people who fill the square,” wrote Italian urban designer and architect Franco Mancuso in “Squares of Europe,” which he co-authored. He means that creating and decorating a town square does not necessarily guarantee that it will become a plaza that fosters vitality.

A square has various roles and functions in human society. An agora - or an open public space for assembly in ancient Greek city-states - is considered the origin of the square in the history of human civilization. “Agorazo,” a Greek word meaning “coming to the market” or “shopping,” is the origin of the term.

On top of its function as a place for commerce, the agora was the center of daily life for Greek citizens in politics, economy, society and culture, eventually becoming the prime place for any type of gathering. From the Middle Ages to today, squares have served as places for relaxation, entertainment and festivals. Sometimes, angry citizens assemble at these squares, staging protests and demonstrations.

Piazza di Spagna in Rome has long been a place for young Italians to meet and rest. It also provided the romantic setting for the classic Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck film “Roman Holiday.”

In contrast, the Bebelplatz in central Berlin embraces the wounds of history. In 1933, the Nazis burned more than 20,000 books there that had been banned under the regime. German poet Heinrich Heine wrote in the memorial engraving at the square: “Where they burn books, they ultimately burn people.”

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded at Place de la Concorde during the French Revolution in 1789, while the First Russian Revolution in 1905 was ignited by the massacre of workers at the square of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

In 1989, university students, intellectuals and citizens gathered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing to call for demonstrations but were crushed by government forces.

In Korea, Seoul Plaza in front of City Hall is about to become a space where citizens can have rallies or stage demonstrations as long as they report their gatherings in advance.

The city council recently passed a legislative revision allowing assemblies there. Even if the government asks the city council to reconsider its decision, the outcome is not likely to change since the Democratic Party - which initiated the revision - holds a majority.

Since opening six years ago, Seoul Plaza has been promoted as a site for leisure and entertainment events for local citizens. But it won’t be easy to enjoy the open space from now on. It’s clear going forward that the plaza will be used more for demonstrations, which will change the dynamic of an area primarily meant to bring out the best in Korean culture.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Nam-joong
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