Monday, August 10, 2009

Gwanghwamun Plaza - The Aftermath

Following last year's presentation ("Gwanghwamun Square") and last month's sneak peek ("Gwanghwamun Square - Preview"), a few more comments on Seoul's new landmark as a neighbor and frequent user :

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As expected, Gwanghwamun Plaza "reinstates downtown's traditional center and shorten distances between major cultural places. Passers-by will again own the heart of the city, and enjoy a better view on its most prestigious and beautiful perspective". Thanks to new crosswalks, tourists can seamlessly walk between all major monuments, and Gyeongbokgung doesn't look anymore like an island lost in a see of cars. Instead of taking a taxi to hop from one spot to another, many may plan day-long walks from say Deoksugung to Samcheong-dong via Cheonggyecheon. Even Seoulites are already changing habits : instead of sitting at a cafe or sweating in a health club, they pick up a drink and take a long walk before work or at lunch break. Soon, they will discover the pleasure of riding a bike across Seoul's historical center.

- Once again, this a giant leap, but not the last step. Many other changes are under way both sides of Sejongno : from hardware (ie many construction sites in Shinmunro, Susong-dong, or Cheongjin-dong) to software (ie places like KT Art Hall or Kyobo Bookstore are getting too crowded, new cultural spaces will necessarily multiply in the vicinity). The atmosphere is changing really quickly West of the boulevard : Sejong Cultural Center area is swarming with people most of the time, its food alleys remain lively on week-ends (neither food nor drink for sale on the square), and further afield, Shinmunro confirms its spectacular revival. The Prada Transformer operation had already put Gyeonghuigung back on the map for younger generations, and the small square in front of Seoul Museum of History attracted very diverse crowds. Now the museum itself decides to draw new visitors : yesterday it inaugurated a giant map of Seoul (scale 1:1,500 - over 70,000 buildings represented), and unlike model house phantasm replicas most Seoulites are used to, you don't see gigantic Amazonian forests nor totemic subway stations popping up from nowhere. Of course, don't look for detailed compounds around Cheongwadae or Yongsan Army Base...

- As pointed out earlier, the square itself cruelly lacks natural shade. It was a deliberate choice for security reasons : like Seoul Plaza, the area might be used as a demonstration spot, but this time right in front of the Government's headquarters. On the other hand, no more gingko trees means that you can enjoy the panorama on the mountain from any point. But this flat area will be as chilly in winter as it is mercilessly hot in summer. More than the embarrassing sea of flowers covering the Northern section of Gwanghwamun Plaza, waterworks do provide some welcomed refreshment, and flower pot benches do grow a few useful metallic umbrellas... but under a scorching sun, it's safer to bring your own shade.

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The slope leading to Gwanghwamun Station confirms its essential role, but Haechi Madang proves to be rather a disapointment (I won't even comment on the new Haechi "cute" character revealed during the inauguration - you will prefer the photo exhibition at the other end of the plaza). I think it would be wiser to install doors, as discrete as possible not to ruin the overall architecture, to mark the transition between the subway and the square, improve the exhibition experience, and save energy / air conditioning in all seasons.

- The most upsetting experience remains the closeness of cars, particularly at night. I was scared to see kids running in the fake streams on each side of the square : they can slip anytime or simply be hit by a rearview mirror, the only protection being the 10-20 cm high and 20-30 cm wide border of the streamlets. The authorities quickly dispatched one cop every 100 m or so to limit the risks but just two days after the inauguration, an overspeeding taxi trying to avoid a collision entered the plaza and landed in the dead middle of the flower beds. Luckily enough the place was empty at that time of the day, so a real tragedy was avoided (except for the gardener). The "longer term quick fix plan" is to add flower blocks on each side. Likewise, I wouldn't be surprised to see new fences prevent people from falling into the descent...

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Anywhere else, this kind of risks would have been carefully taken into account... but that's the surprising way major projects are usually carried out here. And somehow, it fits a city that never ceases to evolve, do, undo, and redo. Seoul is alive and kicking, and Gwanghwamun Square will breathe, grow new features*, catch a cold, develop new cures, adapt and improve.

The first thing that struck me for Cheonggyecheon was the narrowness of sidewalks : the place really seemed to ban couples or wheelchairs ! But since it was not life threatening, it took three and a half years to consider enlarging the sidewalks. Now it's done, and not only around the former mayor's masterpiece. This administration seems to have a better grasp on the details that change everyday life.

But it's not only about what Seoul can do for you, folks. This vast Gwanghwamun Square is what Seoul citizens will make of it.


* and don't count out
King Sejong, still getting ready for October

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