The man behind the plan to redevelop Gwanghwamun

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The man behind the plan to redevelop Gwanghwamun


Seung Hyo-sang, Director of the contest for the Gwanghwamun renovation project [LIM HYUN-DONG]

Seung Hyo-sang is a controversial figure these days, as he is the judge of the contest that picked the best plan to renovate Gwanghwamun Square.

The chosen plan was met with a flood of opposition due to the radical changes that it would bring to the square.

Rather than welcome the change, the government and public are more on the skeptical side. The Ministry of Public Administration and Security complained the new park in front of the Integrated Government Building will paralyze its function.

Evacuating the statues and making use of the candlelight design on the floor of the square was attacked as politically biased.

Some even argue that Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, in an effort to make political achievements, is wasting taxpayer money by redoing the square. Critics say it is unnecessary to make the square 3.7 times larger than before.

For a number of years, Seung has made the renovation project a hot topic and suggested a basic framework for it.

He was the first architect to direct the whole project in Seoul from 2014 to 2016, and currently takes charge of architectural government policies. He was a commander-in-chief of large-scale projects such as remodeling the overpass of Seoul Station and the Sewoon Arcade.
While he said he is aware of the controversies and refuted them one by one, he emphasized the project is significant as it completes the scene of Seoul as the symbol of democracy. Throughout the interview, he continuously underlined Gwanghwamun Square will play a decisive role in changing Seoul into one of the most attractive cities in the world.

On Jan. 29, the JoongAng Ilbo met Seung Hyo-sang, the judge and director of the contest for the Gwanghwamun renovation project, in Daehak-ro, central Seoul. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Q. Controversy is growing over the chosen plan.

A. The space is of everyone’s interest, so it is natural for people to have different opinions. If there are plans that were neglected in the process, those will be accepted to create the best result. Yet, it is worrisome there are so many nonessential and politically-biased interpretations. The elected design is not what it would look like right after the construction, but rather in the far future. It is impossible to establish a park in front of the Integrated Government Building right now. The Minister of the Ministry of Public Administration and Security claims the front of the building is all blocked, but no architect would do that. The Seoul metropolitan government said it would listen to the public so the requests will be reflected. The statue of Yi Sun-sin is a crucial installation to identify the place as Seoul, so, in respect to his memory, it was kept as it is. Since its installation, the statue of King Sejong has been controversial for its size and location. Personally, I do not think King Sejong was a person who would look down on the people as if he wanted to oppress them. I think it is OK to move it.

People are repulsed toward the reconstruction after just 10 years.

The city always changes like an organism. However good they are, things change every day by the trend of times and people’s requests. If you ask why we are fixing it again though there were a lot of controversies and criticisms for the last decade, my answer is that you do not understand the transitional process of a city. It is better to fix it right now. Actually, I think it is late. I was a freshman in 1971, and since then the architecture industry has contemplated how to fix the square.

While in the midst of political oppression, the symbolic importance of the square was huge, but does it still hold value today? Aren’t squares mostly seen in authoritarian governments?

If it is creating a new thing that did not exist before, the size would have mattered, but now, we are making use of the given space. Historically, the square was the foundation of discourse for democratic society, never a place to commemorate the powerful. Like Greece’s Agora and Rome’s Forum, letting out what you think as freely as possible is the role of the square. It is a very important city facility that sustains a democratic society.

Actually, the Gwanghwamun Square is a place for protest or a venue for a formal event.

This is because the square is a central square, but at the same time it is like an island. It is not a place citizens walk by every day, but since it is central, people began considering it a symbol and commemorative space. That is why people march over to the square when something happens. People go there by passing the road filled with cars, and to exaggerate, it became a place to protest to death. That is why making it a place close to our daily lives is essential.

Doesn’t this place cause nothing but protests? Plus, near the square, there are many public offices.

If the place is built near Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, people will freely come and go, and the function of the center as a cultural space will expand and be realized. For example, if the weather is good, people will come out and drink coffee after watching a concert.

Why do you emphasize Gwanghwamun Square this much?

Seoul is a megacity with population of 10 million with 1,000 years of history and 600 years as the capital. It is also located at the east part of the Eurasian continent, being the arrival spot and the starting point of the Eurasia Express. What is more, although it is a large city, so many mountains are within the city. The pedestrian passages amount to four levels — including the ground, underground, above ground and even in the mountains — compared to other cities that have only two levels — ground and underground. Seoul is the only city like this in the world. The problem was the city policies that did not know or neglected these special features. A city built on flat land loses its identity if buildings collapse, but Seoul has a way to go back because of its countless mountains. This is the trace that Seoul has and it is inscribed in the land. Despite these unique characteristics, for decades, Korea has implemented improper policies that erase the trace by mindlessly following the West. If Korea tries to realize its own unique features, Seoul will be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. At the center, Gwanghwamun Square will be there. Actually, the square is the place of the West. Most of the cities in West are built on flat land, so in order to build a city, people create paths first. Since the paths are a way to go somewhere, people made squares to meet together. However, since Seoul has mountains, it is impossible to build a path right away. That is why in Seoul, an occupied area is built, and between these areas roads are created. That is the reason why the streets of Seoul are crooked. Actually that is one of the reasons why we do not need a square that much. However, Yookjo Street, which was the symbol of the royal dynasty, was wide. Making the place a square will be an important turning point to making Seoul a city of democracy.

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