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Seoullo Performance: Seoullo 7017 skygarden, Seoul, South Korea by MVRDV

Taking a cue from New York’s High Line, Seoul steps up a level

In 2014, Seoul’s mayor, Park Won-soon, staged a press conference on the High Line to announce that the South Korean capital would build its own version of Manhattan’s elevated park, repurposing a motorway viaduct into a landscaped pedestrian route. Less than three years, an international competition and £40 million later, Seoullo 7017 opened in central Seoul near the city’s main railway station. Its awkward four-digit appellation refers to the date the original motorway was built (1970) and the year of its skygarden transformation (2017), and is the first hint that the project lacks the High Line’s polish. But what’s most interesting, although not immediately evident when visiting, is that Seoullo is deliberately not precious.

Mayor Park inherited a city with high municipal debt and neglected infrastructure when he took office in 2011. Conceived in the same year that Zaha Hadid’s outrageously expensive and hugely controversial Dongdaemun Design Plaza was completed – a trophy project of a previous mayor, Oh Se-hoon, that drained city resources – the Korean skygarden is an important departure from the Bilbao phenomenon favoured by Park’s forerunners. The mayoralty, described by an anonymous Korean-American architect as ‘the New York job on steroids’, is a springboard to the presidency of the world’s 11th most important economy, a post that Park is actively eyeing, explaining why successive mayors have left their mark on Seoul’s urban fabric with high-profile mega-projects conceived and delivered within their four-year terms.

Determined to counter his predecessors’ glitzy commercial excesses, Park created the post of city architect and appointed the founder of IROJE Architects & Planners, Seung H-Sang, to the inaugural mandate. A seminal figure in contemporary Korean architecture, Seung summarises Park’s approach as regeneration in lieu of development, urban acupuncture in lieu of masterplanning, networks in lieu of landmarks, and process over completion. As a member of the Seoullo 7017 competition judging panel, he explains that MVRDV’s winning scheme ‘is like a living thing that can adapt to changing conditions’, corresponding ‘exactly to our requirements’.

Seoullo 7017 skygarden plan

Seoullo 7017 skygarden plan

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The skygarden’s blue night-time lighting makes it conspicuous in this cacophonous 24-hour city: open around the clock, it is made for wear and tear, conceived to grow and change. ‘We imagined the viaduct as an octopus with more than 25 pedestrian connections to help regenerate the rundown area between Seoul Station and Namdaemun Market’, explains Seoul native and MVRDV architect Kyo Suk Lee, who believes that ‘we won the competition for two reasons: connections and trees’. So far 10 connections have been completed.

Intended for lighter vehicular loads than the High Line, Seoullo 7017 could not accommodate the depth of soil required for extensive planting. ‘Others were afraid to add trees because they might be too heavy’ explains Lee, ‘if we had opted for continuous landscaping like the High Line, only 100mm of soil would have been possible, just enough for grass.’ Dedicating 60 per cent of the budget to the viaduct’s structural reinforcement and concentrating the soil in fewer deep round planters meant that taller trees, visible from a distance and from street level, could be planted. This was key to delivering the image of greenery so central to the city’s brief.

Yet the result so far is more grey than green. Sourcing of trees and plants was restricted to what was immediately available, though planting can be easily refreshed over time. ‘We went for as much green as we could. Many things were not properly done. We admit that’, acknowledges Lee. Latex-modified concrete specified for the walkway for its light weight and absorption of vibration has cracked in places; there was no time for mock-ups. 

00 grey

00 grey

In its previous incarnation as a motorway flyover 

The choice of circular planters was not aesthetic, but based on the most practical way to contain large quantities of soil. And in a move that seems more conceit than practicality, MVRDV have pushed the circular theme to extremes. Seven circular pavilions house cafés, an exhibition and a shop, as well as the lift, trampolines and a wading pool. ‘We see these as activators which would bring life to the bridge’, says Lee. ‘It’s not just a park, but also an urban street.’ This random polka-dot array creates busy pockets of activity that clash both physically and visually with the linear promenade, but visitors don’t seem to mind.

Seoullo 7017 is not the South Korean capital’s first foray into green infrastructure. Back in 2005, Mayor Lee Myung-bak demolished another elevated motorway to uncover Cheonggyecheon Stream, culverted in the 1970s, and reopened as a landscaped pedestrian route. Controversial due to its exorbitant budget and unsustainable water practices, today the landscaping has matured and it’s a popular destination for lunchtime office workers and tourists alike. Though the city is surrounded by mountains, green space in Seoul’s centre is extremely limited. From Seoullo, pedestrians can reach nearby Namsam Mountain, just 200m from the railway station, 10 minutes on foot. Previously, it was almost inaccessible from the station without a taxi. 

In a bold move that transforms the viaduct’s connectivity to the surrounding city, two new arms of the Seoullo ‘octopus’ connect directly to the upper floors of adjacent blocks. The architects directly approached the owners of two neighbouring buildings, and negotiations are under way for a bridge to a third one – preliminary valuations show that property values have skyrocketed. ‘The mayor was there to shake hands’, says Lee, another sign that Seoullo was high on Park’s radar. 

Seoullo 7017 skygarden section

Seoullo 7017 skygarden section

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The public purse paid for the bridge to the property line and building owners paid for facade modifications, so the city can now ask building owners to give something back, such as space for a library or a nursery.Seoul’s city architect, Young-Joon Kim, who heads a 50-strong team, suggests that other rapidly developing cities have much to learn from Seoul’s approach to enhancing its assets, yet he acknowledges that public interventions can only go so far. ‘Without controlling private development, we cannot achieve the cityscape we want.’

Due to the instability of the existing viaduct and City Hall’s overriding concern to minimise construction and car disruption at the heart of the capital, Seoullo was a rush job. Completed just two years after MVRDV won the invited competition, Seoullo 7017 launched with considerable fanfare, attracting 6.6 million visitors during the first six months. By comparison, the High Line attracts nearly 5 million visitors annually. In a gesture that reveals the public commitment to rebranding the area, the city commissioned emerging practice Society of Architecture (SoA) to design an art installation on an adjacent plaza to coincide with the opening. SoA’s Yoonseul, a crisply designed eye-catching immersive experience, creates a tranquil seating area with refracted reflections of the surrounding city, a kind of inside-out version of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago. 

After Seoullo’s initial success, the city commissioned MVRDV to tackle the urban regeneration of the surrounding fabric, fragmented by wide roads and railway tracks. In addition to establishing a network of ground-level pedestrian walkways, this next series of interventions will provide a direct path linking the elevated viaduct to the station’s plaza. Incorporated in the architect’s winning proposal, this part of the project failed to materialise because, as a national asset, the station requires central government approval and, at the time, the opposition was in power. Lee’s team designed 65 different iterations for this physical link, and all were rejected, but after last May’s election of President Moon Jae-in, an ally of Park, the station link may yet see the light of day.

Dsc02414 grey

Dsc02414 grey

On its eastern end, Seoullo 7017 aligns with the street level (in construction)

So how does Seoullo 7017 fit into the global propensity for High Lines? São Paulo’s Minhocão elevated highway, built in 1970 and closed to traffic on Sundays since 1976, is an obvious comparison. Architect Jaime Lerner has ambitiously proposed two generous corridors of planting in prefabricated containers along with tree-like bamboo structures and a multitude of activities, and the project is currently under review by the mayor. In a city with only 3m2 of open space per person – similar to central Seoul but compared with 18m2 in London  – Studio MK27 founder Marcio Kogan sees the Minhocão as a rare opportunity to create a park in an otherwise incredibly dense urban tissue: ‘The park should be functional, without frou-frou landscaping or expensive maintenance’, he says. ‘It should be radical, vibrant and aggressive, just like São Paulo.’ 

After decades of controversy and indecision, Seoul could well be the trigger for setting the Brazilian project in motion. Both Seoullo 7017 and the Minhocão are in conspicuous contrast to Thomas Heatherwick’s extravagant Garden Bridge proposal for London, another example of High Line contagion, which saw the capital squander approximately £40 million on design and enabling works before abandoning the project under a cloud of procurement recriminations.  

Construction imperfections and aesthetic reservations aside, Seoullo is remarkable as a no-frills approach to the design of public space in a dense urban setting, a lesson that all cities can learn from. The transformation of this obsolete motorway that was built at the height of Seoul’s dizzying urbanisation into an explicit piece of green infrastructure, a symbol that prioritises people over vehicles, suggests a way forward for more sustainable city-making. It’s just the beginning of an ambitious plan to reclaim the capital’s city centre from the car and the upcoming mayoral election in May 2018 will test the popularity of Park’s urban platform.

Seoullo 7017 skygarden

Architect: MVRDV

Project team: Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries, Wenchian Shi, Kyo Suk Lee, Mafalda Rangel, Daehee Suk, Daan Zandbergen, Kai Wang, Sen Yang, Dong Min Lee

Associate architect: DMP 

Landscape design: Ben Kuipers, KECC

Structural engineer: Saman Engineering

Photographs: All photographs by Ossip van Duivenbode, apart from historic images which are courtesy of the architect

This piece is featured in the AR’s December 2017/January 2018 issue on new into old – click here to purchase a copy

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