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Seoul and the city: 2017 UIA Congress

The 2017 UIA Congress focused on urban fabric in general and host city Seoul in particular

1) suseonjeondo map of seoul, 1846 49

1) suseonjeondo map of seoul, 1846 49

Susunjeondo, map of Hanyang (Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty), 1846-49. Courtesy of Yonsei University Museum

South Korea’s capital Seoul, host city for the 2017 UIA Congress, turned out to be a very apt place to explore the theme, ‘soul of the city’. Amid its throw of mountains and web of waterways, historic quarters rub against vulgar new developments, some of them 24-hour department and fashion stores, awash with simple restaurants serving wonderful seafood. The multi-lane highways that lead from one district to another, seem to ignore the network of small alleys that rise or fall from them, sometimes at San Francisco-like gradients.

Despite confusion, disjunction and clash of scale, this sort of urban fabric appeals to architects. What was especially impressive was the way the organisers wove discussions of Seoul’s soul with presentations about other cities, or urbanism in general. This turned what could have descended into no more than a play on words into a prism for presenting serious ideas.

Concealed in Seoul are all sorts of feats of, and opportunities for, design imagination, from historic monuments to subtle and sensitive modern interventions – a powerful rendering of the Via Dolorosa in abstract contemporary form for instance, upgraded shanty towns clinging to the hillside, or a pumping station converted into a memorial – designed by Lee Sojin – for the poet Yun Dong-ju. He died in a Japanese prison shortly before the end of the Japanese occupation and the Second World War.

Each of these was described in one of numerous sessions, ranging from small-scale seminars to packed keynotes. The latter included a fascinating discussion of work in four cities by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, including early ideas for the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago, and their reconstruction of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Patrik Schumacher gave a moving and powerful account of Zaha Hadid’s legacy, starting with endearing photographs of her as a clearly intelligent and mischievous girl with her parents, via concepts of explosion, calligraphy, distortion and landscape analogy, to the suggestion that Parametricism is the style for our time.

On the first morning, Seoul’s mayor Park Won-soon sketched out the city’s condition. Its soul, he suggested, lies in three parts: natural environment, history and culture, and its ‘smart and multi-talented people’. The challenge for architects (which he oversees) is to unite these into a genuinely informative, enjoyable and inclusive public realm. For a city which grew from one to 10 million between 1948 and 1988 (it took London 129 years to go from one to eight), the challenges of keeping infrastructure abreast of that growth are enormous, and some new quarters, especially those built on what were then cheap hillside sites, were left behind. 

Park’s talk cued up one of the best sessions I have attended at such events, with Christiane Muniz from São Paulo; Berlin and University of Texas’s Wilfried Wang; John Peponis from Georgia Tech; and Seoul University’s Kim Sung Hong. Muniz explained how São Paulo started off as a small inland settlement cut off from the sea by 700m of mountains, until it became viable and technically feasible to build transport links to the port. This the pattern for coffee export-fuelled growth, ironically made possible by one set of infrastructures with which further infrastructure has not kept pace, a condition which much of her work seeks to ameliorate.

Wang and Peponis, Bartlett graduates, set out comparable principles for urban development in general. ‘Density, don’t expand’ was Wang’s rallying call, elegantly and persuasively synthesising several commonly accepted ideas into eight points, many around mixing social classes, uses and types of space coalescing around public realm. Peponis also praised density around the concept of networks, where the centre becomes a function of distance and ease of connection across the territory. He boiled his argument down into four principles for public space, including intelligibility and enjoyment, and layering of scales.

Kim took Park’s ‘big picture’ analysis of Seoul into finer detail. Its density and economic success can be measured in the 680 times increase in land values from 1948 to now. During its rapid growth in the second half of the 20th century, the new inhabitants settled first on cheap, peripheral land, making cheap, traditionally built homes, some clinging to precarious hillsides. Various urban plans envisaged growth in new areas, such as Gangnam, where the main programme took place. These spawned residential high-rise, where 45 per cent of the population lives. But as keynote speaker Dominique Perrault noted, the mountains mean there is no need for high-rise, and in a twist of fate the old hillside settlements are now receiving more attention.

In a second-day session on ‘design with history’, Seung H-Sang, Park’s appointment as first city architect, explained how he is working on the regeneration of a shanty town on the edge of Seoul to add 1,000 more units on 19ha, working with international architects and staying within the existing grain. As the designer of the Myungrye Sacred Hill with its interpretation of the Via Dolorosa, his work captures the notion of soul, and his view of Seoul as ‘metacity not megacity’ reflects his combination of imagination and empathy.

The other speakers in this session made it live up to the first day’s. Li Xiaodong and Kengo Kuma both showed images of ravishing work but within theoretical frames. For Li this is about how cultural identity informs design: Asian cultures lack the sharp distinction between subject and object found in the West, affecting both Chinese and Japanese design, though their different landscapes lend further nuance to their architectural identities. 

For Kuma, ‘design with history’ is about bringing together traditional craft, modern technology and contemporary perceptions. His Folk Art Museum in Hangzhou, China (AR April 2015) captures this – a folded roofscape as complex as anything by Hadid if she had worked with traditional ceramic roof tiles. But these act as solar shading as well as weather-proofing. 

Session chair Choon Choi concluded by remarking that none of the speakers – Jeon Bonghee completed the panel – had discussed conservation of fabric. Instead they focused on the continuity of ideas and cultural practices.