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Life and Seoul: Seoul Biennale 2017

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The launch of the Seoul Biennale puts the city centre stage

While there are, at the time of writing, no fewer than 220 biennales and triennales listed on the Biennial Foundation website, in reality there are quite a few more since several, including the Seoul International Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism (SIBAU), are yet to officially register. Out of the design-focused ones, few claim in their titles to tackle ‘urbanism’, preferring instead ‘architecture’. As a response to the national pavilions scattered across Venice’s Giardini, Seoul Biennale’s first edition proposed instead to give cities the centre stage. Fifty participants, from the small municipality of Nicosia to the megalopolis of São Paulo, have provided the content core of Commoning Cities, the exhibition held at Zaha Hadid Architects’ controversial Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP).

The broad ambition is to open up conversations and potentially trigger collaborations across continents. As Seung H-Sang, Seoul’s first city architect and the man behind the creation of the Biennale itself, tells me, ‘the “union of cities” is more important than the United Nations’. At a local scale, the recreation of a one-to-one Pyongyang apartment mock-up in the DDP’s cavernous hall lets Seoulites stand on a fake balcony or look through a bedroom wardrobe to get a glimpse, often for the first time, of their North Korean counterparts’ everyday life – designers and politicians from the North were invited to take part, without success. In Seoul itself, the demographics are changing rapidly, with elderly citizens and single-person households both on the rise, generating new kinds of housing demands. As supply is lacking in diversity and in quality, rather than quantity – high-rises are convenient and cheap – the Seoul Housing & Communities Corporation saw in the Biennale the opportunity to discuss alternative models with young architects from Vienna exhibiting their projects at the DDP. 

Sponsored by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, rather than private funds, the Biennale aims to become an ‘experimental laboratory of urban governance’, an active think-tank playing a real role in shaping Seoul’s evolution. The sites chosen for the Biennale exhibition and events relate to the city’s identity, explains director Hyungmin Pai at the opening of the Donuimum Museum Village exhibition. On the north-western edge of the old city of Hanyang, SIBAU’s second venue is emblematic of the capital’s turbulent 20th century and the relatively recent endeavour to preserve and integrate historical urban fabric into its future development. While its first alleys were formed a century ago, the ‘village’ suffered considerable demolition during the Japanese colonial era – even being entirely relocated to make way for a railway line. Little of the original cluster of alleys, traditional hanok houses and subsequent accretion of small-scale constructions was still standing when Seung convinced the mayor to maintain ownership and control over the site. Reconstruction ensued and the exhibits about the nine commons (earth, water, air, fire, sensing, communicating, moving, making and recycling) are up until early November, but what follows is more uncertain – the establishment of Seoul’s new Urban Architecture Centre seems confirmed but the conversion of the more traditional houses into visitor accommodation is up in the air.  

The event’s organisers are fully aware that, as transient exhibitions have taken centre stage on the architectural calendar, museum fatigue has been replaced by biennale fatigue. To fight the biennale’s characteristic ephemerality, Pai insists on the need to generate a lasting impact on the city. Included in this edition’s Live Projects is the regeneration of Sewoon Sangga’s northern blocks (pictured here prior to restoration and soon to be studied in more detail in these pages) to guarantee manufacturing functions are preserved in the city centre instead of being erased by services, consumption and real estate. Unlike its European counterparts, who pushed most manufacturing out in the ’60s, Seoul’s centre still contains about five per cent of semi-industrial zones. The demolition of Kim Swoo Geun’s 1km long megastructure completed in 1968 was only, and thankfully, avoided by the 2008 global financial crisis. Today, it constitutes a beacon of hope to reconcile Homo faber with contemporary Seoul once and for all.

In recent years, the South Korean capital has undertaken ambitious infrastructural public projects, daylighting its Cheonggyecheon stream and opening its own elevated skygarden Seoullo 7017 – the latter, although disappointing if compared with its NY equivalent, gained particular attention as its completion coincided with the definitive sinking of London’s infamous Garden Bridge. If Korean politicians have understood that architecture can become the means to materialise promises and renew electoral mandates, the Seoul Biennale is less interested in ‘putting up a show’ than in ‘bringing a multitude of agents into the existing city’. The ideas it discusses might be more theoretical and global, but its concrete results will be measured in a local, and very real context.

Lead image source: Thierry Sauvage