Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

Editorial: Architecture can flourish in the most difficult circumstances

The transformation of the Yongsan US Garrison into a parkland proves that architecture can overcome a history of occupation, war and an uneasy truce

This issue of the AR was largely prompted by editorial visits to Korea in connection with last autumn’s International Union of Architects (UIA) convention, held in Seoul, and that city’s inaugural Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, both well attended by international audiences. In neither case did the political context interfere with inspirational lectures, discussions and building visits, yet that context was perhaps the tensest for many decades. The posturing of the North Korean hereditary dictator Kim Jong Un was accompanied by explicit threats to use nuclear weapons. The response from the United States president, rather than the conventional one of talking softly while carrying a big stick, was to make childish boasts of the ‘mine-is-bigger-than-yours’ variety, while ratcheting up trade sanctions. This unedifying and alarming spectacle no doubt masked more serious discussions, which appear to have resulted in a slight thaw in relationships between north and south, with an agreement that North Korea will be represented at the Winter Olympics taking place in the South. One can only recall Churchill’s adage that ‘jaw-jaw is always better than war-war’.

Korean style plan

Korean style plan

As for architecture, a sort of double life exists: its relationship to South Korea’s recent history of occupation, war and uneasy truce cannot be denied, yet in other respects its interests and concerns echo those of countries and cities across the globe. Our issue is a reflection of this condition, particularly in those cases where forms of hybrid development are taking place, based on the physical infrastructure deriving from the recent military context, or adapting to it. Inevitably these projects carry political and psychological baggage, and one can only applaud the commitment of those involved in seeing them through.

A good example is the ongoing national park project in Yongsan-gu, Seoul, on a site which has had a history of intermittent military use and occupation since the 13th century. More recently, after the 1950-53 Korean War, it became a garrison and then headquarters for the US Eighth Army. For more than a century, the site required the permission of a foreign army to enter it, but a new history is beginning, following the departure of the Americans to a new location which began in 2017. This process should have begun a decade earlier but became mired in domestic politics, leading to delays, massive cost increases (for the US) and uncertainty.

Sudden rain at skipping stone bridge

Sudden rain at skipping stone bridge

Matters have apparently been resolved. What will replace the military installation is a park based on a competition-winning masterplan, including reminders of the site’s history, by the brilliant Dutch landscape architect West 8, with a team including Korean practice Iroje. The inspiration for their design is a notion of the healing powers of nature and landscape in relation to a history of fracture and conflict. This has been informed by a description of the 1400km Korean Peninsula, reflecting a national cultural attitude to the physical world: ‘Sam Cheon Li Geum Su Gang San’ – ‘Mountain and river linked all together, embroidered in gold’.

The proposal, which won the 2012 competition, was revised and re-approved in 2016 but is based on the same landscape principle: to restore and dramatise the original topographic ridgeline connecting Yongsan Park northward to Namsan, and beyond to the distant Buk-ak Mountain. This newly established topography, formed from spoil dug out to create a lake in the middle of the site, will create diverse landscape conditions in one continuous space, those conditions reflecting the landscape types found in Korea as a whole. 

Top render lo res

Top render lo res

Other aspects of the healing narrative include the re-use of existing buildings, the creation of additions to the existing, and the repurposing of sites where buildings are demolished, ‘their footprints re-emerging as traces of history’. The masterplanners are calling such spaces ‘madang’, an ancient Korean word meaning open plaza; granite platforms will be used for informal social activities. Another strategy is the treatment of interfaces between the site – which has been walled off for a century – and its city context. There will be multiple pedestrian bridges to oversail traffic corridors, which have also served to isolate the site, while different activities in the immediate neighbourhood will be reinforced or supplemented.

The technical challenges in relation to contaminated land almost seem a side issue compared with the heroic aspirations of this symbolic project. Its successful completion will require an act of will, an organisational programme and a level of political commitment of which the military might be proud.

Pf korean stamp copy

Pf korean stamp copy

Yongsan Park

The Yongsan Park project is a combination of building preservation, topographical invention and community access and use, transforming a former military garrison

Client: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure & Transport, Republic of Korea

Designers: West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture, Iroje Architects & Planners, Dong Il engineering consultants, Professor Kim Bong-ryoi from Korea National University of the Arts, Professor Kim Nam-choon from Dankook University