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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Gwanghwamun Square 3.0 re-Deep-Surfaces

Seoul recently* unveiled the winning concept for Gwanghwamun Square renovation, and 'Deep Surface' confirmed the hopes and worries we shared in April last year (see "Gwanghwamun Square Enters Third Dimension"). As expected, things are also getting political. The good news is that the debate will continue more publicly until the end of this year. Work is still supposed to start next year, and the goods to be delivered in 2021, ahead of the 2022 presidential elections.

1) Everybody's happy...

'Deep Surface' was bound to please key members of the jury, starting with Dominique Perrault, who probably appreciated the major role played by underground structures... and maybe this new slope as an homage to his iconic Ewha ECC:

Landscape architect Adriaan Geuze (West8) certainly fell for this spectacularly lush Amazonian canopy, owed to a rendering artist who obviously projected us around year 2175, when the newly planted trees reach maturity:

If you miss already Gwanghwamun Square's vast stretches exposed to Seoul's merciless summers and winters, stand reassured, the same artist also offered this more realistic view:

Of course, SEUNG Hyo-sang and YOO Hong-jun remain key jurors when it comes to selecting a project suitable for both the Mayor and the President: the former City Architect is now heading the Presidential Commission on Architecture Policy, and the former Cultural Heritage Administration boss had earlier been mandated by MOON Jae-in to study the feasibility of his campaign pledge, eventually abandoned, to move the presidency out of Cheong Wa Dae.

SEUNG, who oversaw Seoul's shift from redevelopment to urban regeneration, must have enjoyed the focus on pedestrians and citizens, the historical continuum, and the respect of recent heritage. YOO can also be happy: if the Ministry of Culture and Tourism foots one third of the bill (Seoul Metropolitan Government the rest), the Historic Square covers 36,000 sqm compared to 24,000 for Citizen Square.

To better understand the big picture, I recommend to combine the first illustration above (perspective from Gyeongbokgung) with this project map: 

2) ... but not everybody's happy

From the start, this project's key challenges were only 10% about architecture and 90% about urbanism. As I explained before, more than the vertical alterations along Sejong-daero (extension of the square, reduction from 10 to 6 lanes), the main revolution is horizontal, what I called 'The Royal T' being transformed into a crooked Y as Sajik-ro plunges towards the South, suppressing the Western end of Sajik-ro 8-gil, and the tunnel that came with it. Sajik-ro now marks the frontier between two Gwanghwamun Squares: Historic Square (North), and Citizens Square (South).

Again, it's not just the gate that's brought closer to the center, but also the traffic. Again, merging Sajik-ro with Sajik-ro 8-gil means merging transit circuits with neighborhood circuits, and creating new unnecessary bottlenecks. And yet again, what about the bus and bicycle lanes? I'm afraid I have to stick to what I wrote last April: "Unfortunately, like with Seoullo, impact surveys have obviously been eluded in a race to meet electoral deadlines, and authorities chose to worsen traffic situations by not tackling them". Before heralding the future Gwanghwamun Square as the equivalent to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Mayor PARK Won-soon should have learned that for all Parisians, Place de l'Etoile is a symbol for extreme and messy traffic.

I'm not the only one to wonder if every impact is truly taken into account: as soon as the new blueprint was revealed, the authorities in charge of policing and traffic said that they had yet to agree with what's proposed, and a key administration wished it had been consulted for the road cutting through its premises.

If Seoul City is very unlikely to drop the piece de resistance from its master plan, it is also very unlikely that a satisfying solution can be found to the problems it generates. Before the end of this year? Impossible. I wish it could be compensated with public transportation, but even if the GTX A (Unjeong Paju to Dongtan) and Shinbundang Line eventually join Subway Lines 1, 2, 5 in the ambitious transportation hub envisioned, new bottlenecks will severely limit its multimodal potential.

I guess I made my point on this crucial issue, so we can move on. Now shall we further look into 'Deep Surface'?

3) Deep Surface Inside Out

Just a few elements from this very rich and complex project:

  • 2 squares instead of 1: that makes storytelling much more simple. Picture on one side the changing of the guards on Woldae (the ritual stage to be rebuilt in front of the gate), next to the hanok cluster already under reconstruction (next to the Museum of Contemporary History), and on the other side a k-pop concert at the feet of Sejong Cultural Center. Also, it's easier to contain a demonstration on the aptly named Citizens Square, while tourists claim their safer haven by the palace and its museums (not to mention pictures of the landmarks not photobombed by PARK Geun-hye supporters). Of course, there's still that humongous Government Complex ruining Historic Square's narrative and perspective, but you can always say it's a tribute to Sejongno's Yukjo tradition**.

  • In Jeokseon-dong, Jeokseon Hyundai Building seems to be turned into a 'Seoul Metro Museum'. I wonder what the tenants (e.g. Bloomberg, Korea's youth hostels association) think of it.
  • There's a lot of fuss about the potential moving of King Sejong and Yi Sun-shin statues (closer to Sejong Cultural Center), but I'm not a fan of these erections, and to me that's nothing compared to the road mess I mentioned earlier. Note that Haetae statues move back, closer to where they were in Joseon times, but nobody seems to care. 
  • Sejongno Park might at last find some purpose and relevance. 
  • I wonder why Terrace Lawn, the new slope connecting above with underground, doesn't have an actual  slope, accessible for wheelchairs or baby strollers. I hope they'll fix this ASAP.
  • ...

I'm curious to see how Seoulites will roam the space, rediscover Sejongno's Western sides, how 'Gwanghwamun Samgeori' will join 'Sejongno Sageori' in our vocabulary, how History will keep unfolding on Gwanghwamun Square 3.0.

Whatever happens, this will remain Seoul's political and cultural epicenter, and its most defining perspective (Sejongno-Gwanghwamun-Gyeongbokgung-(Cheong Wa Dae)-Bugaksan-Bukhansan).

Seoul Village 2019
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' announces new plans for . will eventually have a station, even if it slows the whole 'express' promise. The square itself will, as expected (), be on the side.' (20190121 - 'On the bright side, trees will make the new slope more enjoyable. (For the dark side, see )' (20190121 -

'Reminder: V.3.0 will cause traffic nightmares in downtown . Maybe that's what Mayor meant when he compared the project to ' Plaza...' (20190121 -
** the notorious six ministries. Note that the project still includes a Yukjo Street tribute and its restaurant tradition. Reminds me of that old joke with a mobster telling his staff he went to Sejong Cultural Center last night, only to be asked in return 'which restaurant?' by thugs for whom the name only refers to a foodies neighborhood.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Trump-Kim II (from a fly on no wall)

So the second Trump-Kim Summit has just been confirmed*, and as expected (see "Seoul Village Season XIII"), many are afraid of the concessions the POTUS is ready to make.

We just intercepted the phone call that settled the meeting between both leaders:

KIM Jong-un: "I accept to meet you if you accept to condition our denuclearization to US withdrawal from the South".

Donald TRUMP: "Whatever you ask. Could you please VX Mueller and pay for my wall?"

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* Singapore? Danang? Hanoi? End of February? Beginning of March?

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Euljiro v. Wide? My Alleyway or the Highway

So the danger seems even more immediate than I feared for old Euljiro eateries (e.g. Eulji Myeonok), as well as for more recent ones (the amazing, booming Euljiro 3-ga nogari alley):

"Restoration project not planning to restore much" (KJD 20190118) - note that Eulji Myeonok was also featured in a Chosun Ilbo article

After decades of neglect, Euljiro is undergoing rapid, radical changes that may save or destroy rare ecosystems, and these are truly critical times for all stakeholders.

If you're not familiar with the area, and the context, we're talking about the bleeding heart of Seoul, serious controversies around how urban regeneration / renewal is being carried out, and manufactured crises hitting an already weakening economy.

1) Why Euljiro matters

'Euljiro' is one of the most defining axes of the original Seoul intra muros - a few weeks ago I posted a short animation explaining that big picture ('Drawing Sadaemun'):

Euljiro is the backbone of what I call "Cheongnam" (by opposition to Cheongbuk*), or the Southern half of Sadaemun, between Cheonggyecheon and Namsan. This very dense urban maze holds countless old neighborhoods ('dong') where small businesses thrived over centuries.

Under Japanese rule, a few streets leading to Cheonggyecheon bridges were widened, and new thick vertical lines cut through the area. On safety grounds (preventing fires from spreading too far, providing landing lanes), but probably also for political reasons, following Haussmann's example in Paris: it's way easier to contain unrest, and way more difficult to erect or hold barricades.

Still, now, along Eulji-ro itself, the horizontal avenue linking basically Deoksugung / City Hall / Seoul Plaza to the DDP and Gwanghuimun, you can find:
Unlike Jong-ro or Yulgok-ro, the more noble horizontals to the North, Eulji-ro doesn't boast royal landmarks. Big companies dot it, particularly along its Western half, closer to the city center (SKT, KEB Hana Bank, IBK, Lotte Hotel and Department Store), but the neighborhood is also known for its myriads of small businesses in printing, lighting, home improvement, its BtoB activities buzzing with rickety motorbike deliveries.

And eateries. A lot of precious holes in the wall, including institutions that have resisted for decades because the food is good and cheap. Here, you simply can't last long if you're not both.

In these tiny alleyways, many people struggle to make a living. If you can't find a store that has everything you need, that's often deliberate: everyone refers to a cluster of providers to make sure each one gets part of whatever meager job passes by. A category killer like Home Depot or Leroy Merlin would instantly put thousands on the dole.

Because land is too expensive for such a famelic ecosystem, Euljiro became this absurd patchwork of touching time capsules, even if it seats in the heart of the city, crisscrossed by the densest network of public transportation, starting with the first five subway lines (thus the powerful Line 2, with no less than 3 stations named after it).

For Seoul's balance and future, Euljiro has to be saved, and to fully embrace the third millenium, but without losing its soul and unique ecosystem... very much like the iconic Seun Sangga, which seats in its very middle (between its Cheonggye Sangga and Sampoong Sangga sections).

That's a very delicate line to walk, and good intentions don't necessarily lead to good results, as we've seen with KIM Swoo-geun's mammoth, from the initial brief ("Revamping Seun Sangga - If Possible Without Vampirizing The Area") to the first results (as revealed during "Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2017").

2) Change is coming at all levels

To me, the turning point could have been 101 Pine Avenue, an ambitious development first positioned as the first luxury residence in the area. But as the post-Lehman slump stretched, it became a more standard office complex. If Jung-gu rejuvenated its business center earlier and faster along Cheonggyecheon, more towers have bloomed over the past few years along Eulji-ro, radically altering an until then relatively low rise cityscape, but also 'sterilizing' an heteroclite street level in the same breath.

"Tightrope walker #construction workers on #Euljiro, #Seoul." (20171031 -
In parallel, Seoul keeps rediscovering its unsung landmarks as part of what could be described as an urban vintage chic trend: all of a sudden, ugly becomes art, obscure alleyways get insta-hyped, and corny eateries fill with young couples roaming until-then-forsaken neighborhoods.

"JungJaeho's facades, familiar #Jongno & #Euljiro unsung landmarks - #KoreaArtistPrize 2018 #exhibition at #MMCASeoul, #Seoul. #architecture" (20181027 -
As usual, I'm enchanted to see Seoulites, particularly younger generations, eventually embrace their urban heritage, and at the same time, I'm sad to see gentrification at work. And as usual, I have to plead guilty, since I never could resist Euljiro's clumsy, charming time capsules**:

Needless to say, Seoul Metropolitan Government remains a driving force of change. And as it should be, Euljiro is a cornerstone in downtown's urban regeneration, and not just around major renovation projects like Sewoon Sangga or Euljiro underground shopping center, Korea's longest (2.8 km from City Hall to the DDP, built in 1983 at the same time of the Line 2 it follows).

Euljiro 3-ga, in 2016, an area of 40,600 square meters was marked for a mix of redevelopment and conservation. Seoul dumped its initial plans (2010-2011) of demolishing large chunks around Supyo-dong, where 77.4% of the buildings were over 40 year-old, and 82.5% were in such a poor state that they required renovation or reconstruction. In a less radical improvement scenario, several landmarks are spared, like the massive Donghwa Building.

Recent tragedies have pushed local authorities to impose new safety controls for old buildings, which will accelerate Euljiro's transformation.

If so many buildings are crumbling, that's also because rent was relatively cheap compared to land value. Landowners being now compelled to do something, and the area recovering some of its popularity, renovations and new buildings could eventually lead to higher yields, forcing the weaker to move out. 

As that Mullae-dong resident summed up Seoul's real estate curse, 'when everybody's driven out of a neighborhood at once, that's redevelopment. When the same happens one by one, that's urban regeneration':

(20190109 -
3) Small businesses in immediate danger

As shown in the KJD article, restaurant owners struggle to distinguish this high speed urban regeneration with classic redevelopment, and they fear for their survival, even if their own building will be spared. 

If we've seen this happen before in countless Seoul neighborhoods, this trauma comes at a critical moment for small businesses, who have to face massive hikes in overtime, and minimum wages, that have already caused so much havoc across Korea's economy (see "Checks and balances"). Jongno's old-style structures are even more vulnerable:

"Not all shops in downtown Seoul are ready for a massive minimum wage hike that already cost many jobs: " (20181228 -

"Hundreds of small businesses at risk. I'm thinking about those small home improvement stores that barely survive by artificially splitting between themselves products and services within tiny clusters " (20180815 -

Across the nation, many restaurants consider closing at 9 pm instead of 10 because they can't afford new overtime fees. I'm all for protecting employees, but these too sudden, too massive hikes are not only creating more unemployment, but also changing the mood of communities. Euljiro, where the small business / resident ratio is so high, may rapidly lose its charm.

Seoul Village 2019
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* south of the stream, not south of the river... let's be clear: Gangnam doesn't belong to my Seoul :)
** and I keep discovering new ones (I'm thinking of another incredible gem - thank you again Jaiho!)

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Seoul Village Season XIII

Welcome to the new year, the 13th of this excuse for a blog. 

And so long, 2018.

As usual, it all revolved around my 3 favorite verticals: culture, urbanism, and politics

But 2018 was NOT a usual year. And as we shifted from pre-war panic ("Alert!") to post-summit fatigue, we watched KIM Jong-un play MOON Jae-in and Donald TRUMP as easily as an elder statesman would with naive kids... Almost as pathetic as my fake interviews with KJU and DJT (see "Exclusive interview with KIM Jong-un - Season III" and "Trump: The Art of the Dealapidation (Exclusive Interview)")...

2018 was hot, dry, and utterly polluted. And the situation is even worse than advertised, since Seoul moved almost all its air quality monitors far above the recommended limit of 10 m. Coal wins again...

2018 was supposed to be remembered as the year of the Pyeongchang Olympics, but Korea scored too many own goals against its economy and society to celebrate. Just like my other home country, France, is more likely to remember 2018 for that tragic 'Gilets Jaunes' farce than for a second World Cup victory.

So. What does 2019 have in store for us*?
  • Another ride on North Korea's emotional roller coaster, of course; yet another make or break or collapse year.
  • An anniversary, too: 100 years after the March 1st Movement, Korea-Japan relations are bound to jump back up to the top of mind. Emperor Akihito abdicates only a few weeks later, and any subliminal message from him or / and his successor Naruhito will be closely monitored. Let's hope this great nation will not abdicate to its worst enemies from within, and will preserve the post-war, peaceful Constitution that Shinzo Abe and Nippon Kaigi have pledged to destroy.
  • We should also keep an eye on troop levels. They've already seriously melted South of the DMZ, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear more controversial statements from the White House about US presence in the region...
  • More changes in Seoul's ever shapeshifting cityscape. Some positive, please, we need them after recent, familiar, distressing news (more greenbelt areas sacrificed, more 'New Towns' planned...).
So I'll keep posting every now and then. Less often than I used to, particularly since I started spilling over Twitter (that's @THEseoulvillage, mind you), but as always with my independent, naturally subjective, and embarrassingly inept points of view.

Happy New Year to you, the ones you care for, and the ones no one care for.

Seoul Village 2019
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* beyond my yearly predictions, that is (see "Happy New Year 2020" and "Bonne année 2020")

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