Doojin Hwang’s Most Urban Life (2017): Seun Sangga

The following is a draft translation of the chapter on the building(s) “Seun Sangga” from architect Doojin Hwang‘s Kajang tosijŏk in sam 가장 도시적인 삶 [The most urban life], pp283-301.

Seun Sangga is currently known as Sewoon Plaza. See here for a 2019 Korea Exposé feature video on Sewoon Plaza.

Seun Sangga (Sewoon Arcade): a paradoxical lesson

The “Restoration” of Seun Sangga
How was 2016 for Seun Sangga? Like the title of the Frank Sinatra song, perhap “It Was A Very Good Year.” For a start, the policy of “total demolishment [of existing buildings] followed by new construction and creation of green spaces,” that had appeared during the administration of the previous Seoul City mayor (2006-2011), O Se-hun, now entirely ended. This was due both to internal complications and the global economic environment, but received support from UNESCO International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS)’s threat to remove the status of the Jongmyo Royal Shrine should the area become transformed with high rise buildings. Nevertheless, Hyŏndae (Hyundai) Sangga, that had comprised the northernmost end of Seun Sangga, had already been demolished.

Today Seun Sangga (Sewoon Arcade – click for map) is an important pillar (lit. “axle”) in the urban regeneration policy promoted by Seoul City. The Tasi Seun “Seun Again” 다시 새운 project name indicates that at least for the time being, this building’s future is relatively bright. Diverse initiatives 사업 are operating under the banner of “regeneration as tangible mixed culture and industrial spaces” 입체적 복합문화 산업공간. On the verge of being demolished, Seun Sangga has suddenly become a cultural icon of the city. 2016 is also the year in which major construction began to restore the Seun Sangga’s pedestrian deck, or skyway. This revives part of the original concept of Seun Sangga, that had been for it to include a pedestrian skyway extending from Jongno street in the north to Toegyero street in the south. Dividing the project into two halves, either side of the intersecting Euljiro street, design companies were selected through international competition. For stage 1, connecting Jongno with Euljiro, the winner was Modern Vernacular of construction company E_Scape (Kim T’aekpin, Chang Yongsin and Yi Sanggu). For stage 2, that will connect Euljiro to Toegyero, and further include the Namsan pedestrian zone, Italian designer company Modo Studio’s “Open City Platform” was selected in the first half of 2017. So far, as of the second half of 2017, stage 1 has been completed.

Korean society’s interest and emotional attachment towards architecture is extremely insufficient. Prior to Seun Sangga, there is no previous case of so sincerely attempting to restore a privately owned building 민간 – one that hasn’t been designated a cultural treasure – to its original design decades after its construction. The reason for the restoration of Seun Sangga may in part be due to a complicated entanglement of multiple interests across the expansive spatial area that the building occupies. However, an important fact is that the building was designed by Kim Su-gŭn (김수근1931-1986), the most famous Korean designer of modern and contemporary architecture, together with his successors. No other building discussed in this book is so strongly defined by the aura of its designer than in the case of Seun Sangga. Seun Sangga is regularly the subject of all kinds of exhibitions and research. During July-August, 2016, it was the central exhibit at Seoul Museum of History for an exhibition titled “The City is a Line” 도시는 선이다 on former Seoul mayor (1966-1970), “Bulldozer” Kim Hyŏn-ok (1926-1997), who had been Seun Sangga’s key backer 신파역. During September-October, the central yard and rooftop of one of Seun Sangga’s constituent buildings, Taerim Sangga, played host to a dance event that was a part of the Seoul Dance Project 서울댄스프로젝크. We may thus regard 2016 as the year that Seun Sangga’s “restoration” was made official within civil society. In the future, 2016 may even become remembered as the moment in which our appreciation 인식 for old downtown centres 구도심 and all urban architecture fundamentally changed. Many view 2016 as the year that has ushered in a period in which, rather than destroying and rebuilding, we seek to revive and use buildings currently standing.

Although much has been written on Seun Sangga there is not much basic information about the physical building. More interest has been paid to interpretations and attributing meanings, than to collecting sources and quiet observation. To date, Seun sangga wa kŭ iuttŭl『세운상가와 그 이웃들』[Seun Sangga and its Neighbours, 1]  compiled in 2010 by Seoul Museum of History contains the most detailed information, but this book is not for sale 비매품 and can only be consulted at libraries. Only with the promotion of Seun Sangga’s urban restoration is Seoul City now preparing a sourcebook of data. In such a circumstance of insufficient basic sources, the increase in interest about Seun Sangga is not entirely desirable. For example, it is commonly stated that “constructed in 1967, Seun Sangga is Korea’s first multipurpose building combining residential and commercial functions 주상복합건물,” however, this statement only pertains to a tiny part of the building, and – as discussed in the chapter on Chwawŏn Sangga Apartments 좌원상가아파트, according to public records, there is doubt as to whether Seun Sangga actually was the first building to combine residential and commercial functions.

As is well known, the site on which Seun Sangga was built had previously been an evacuation site created in the latter part of the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945) to avoid air raids during the height of the Pacific War. With the site subsequently becoming a slum, Seoul mayor, Kim Hyŏn-ok, proposed to President Park Chung Hee the idea of building a large, combined residential and commercial building. Kim also created the name from se 世 “world” and un 運 “luck” with the meaning that global fortune would gather there, a name that was extremely self-manifesting 자기 현시적, and typical of the developmental era. Kim Su-gŭn was the architect tasked with the design. At the time Kim Su-gŭn was managing a relatively large organization and so he entrusted the job to younger architects under him. However, at the stage of implementation, such key design elements as the pedestrian passage failed to materialize owing to the construction of each section being carried out by multiple different companies. Eventually a bizarre situation ensued in which no one claimed to be the designer. At the time of completion all of the commercial units and apartments proved popular, but once the brief moment of popularity cooled and the building(s) began to age, it became subjected to the valid criticism that it was an urban monstrosity. From “anarchronistic idea” to “principal offender in ruining Seoul’s urban structure,” various pointed {lit. “sharp-bladed”} criticisms gushed forth. In her work, Han’guk ŭi ap’at’ŭ yŏn’gu  [Research on Korean Apartments] (아연출판부 2004), French scholar Valérie Gelézeau, concisely branded it “a complete failure.”

(L) South end of Seun Electric Arcade, (R) North end of Ch’ŏnggye Sangga.

A failed utopia?
Accepting this public (lit. “earthly / mundane”) debate, the following summarizes Seun Sangga’s external appearance. From north to south, Seun Sangga comprises the following eight buildings: Hyŏndae Sangga (demolished in 2008), Seun Sangga Ka-dong (currently Seun Electric Arcade 세운전자상가 {“Ka-dong” indicates “Block A” but the buildings do not maintian the counting system}), Ch’ŏnggye Sangga, Taerim Sangga, Samp’ung Sangga (currently Sampoong Nexus / Samp’ung Neksŏsŭ), P’ungjŏn Hotel (Poonjeon Hotel currently PJ Hotel), Sinsŏng Sangga (currently Inhyŏn Sangga) and Chin’yang Sangga. The total length is 945 metres, extending from Jongno street, crossing Cheonggyecheonno street, Euljiro, and Mareunnae-gil road through to Toegyero street. The earliest building to be completed was Seun Sangga Ka-dong, approved for use 사용승인을 받다 on 17 November, 1967. The last to be complete was P’ungjŏn Hotel, approved on 31 December 1982. The time difference being as much as 15 years should be noted. However, there are opinions that the actual completion of construction 준공일 was earlier, and so it is hard to be certain. Supplementary construction causes a new approval for usage 사용승인 so the final date may have been delayed for this reason.

In the end, P’ungjŏn Hotel has quite a different aspect to the other buildings. Underground there is a spacious car park. The fact that the Car Park Law 주차장법 was enacted in 1979 is profoundly important. Contemporary architecture researcher, Chŏng Taŭn 정다은, informs us that rather than a car park the basement of P’ungjŏn Hotel original had a high class supermarket. According to a Maeil kyŏngje 매일경제신문newspaper article of 23 June 1970, despite initial fears, “Samp’ung Syup’ŏmak’it’ŭ” 삼풍슈퍼마키트, considered a revolution in structural circulation, was running smoothly. Even President Park Chung Hee had attended its opening on 7 November, 1968. Ten years later than had occurred in the origin place {of supermarkets} in America, one can imagine the revolutionary social atmosphere of the time. Combined sangga (arcade)-apartments 상가아파트 were the site of that experiment.

The first newspaper article to inform of “the opening of Seun Sangga” was on 26 July, 1967. It even gives the time as 2pm. Then first lady, Yuk Yŏngsu (1925-1974) and mayor Kim Hyŏn-ok participated. The building which opened was Seun Sangga Ka-dong. The official approval for use was still several months aways, on 17 November, but because commercial units opened first on the first and second floors the opening day was that much earlier. In other words, the sangga apartments were still under construction. As indicated by the differing names, each building was constructed by a different company. Among them, Hyŏndae (Hyundai), Taerim and Samp’ung are well known. One lesser known company, Sinsŏng Construction (신성건설) would subsquently revive its experience of constructing a giant building combining residential and commercial functions, completing Yujin Sangga in Hong’eun-dong on 6 July, 1971.

However, because the construction companies differed from one another, it proved difficult to realize a common conceptualization. In the case of the pedestrian deck, that was a key element running through the entire building, the section crossing Mareunnae-gil road to connect P’ungjŏn Hotel and Sinsŏng Sangga was never constructed. Subsequently the deck along Cheonggyecheon stream, and the P’ungjŏn Hotel deck were removed during remodelling in 2004 and 2006, respectively. Thus the total connectivity of the deck was never completed and it has now been some time since significant portions that had been constructed disappeared. Of course, efforts to restore the concept are now underway, but viewing the situation in its entirety, we can appreciate how problematic it is to approach a composite-type building as enormous and as historically complex 사연 많다 as this if we reduce it to the single name of “Seun Sangga.” A more profitable approach may rather be to conceptualize it as different buildings while seeking to creating a common denominator among them.

(L) North end of Sampoong Nexus, (R) South end of Chin’yang Sangga

A challenge not attempted by others
Both then and now, the largest object of dispute concerning Seun Sangga is the deck, that is the skyway 공중가로. Of course, the concept of a skyway, in which cars pass on the road below and pedestrians walk above, is not unique to Seun Sangga. Globally, it was a period dominated by ambitions to construct a new society through enormous buildings that would overcome past contraditions and heal 복구하다 the wounds of war. Japan tried to apply a biological system to cities and architecture through Metabolism architecture (新陳代謝 shinchintaisha). The Singaporean equivalents to Seun Sangga, People’s Park Complex and Golden Mile Complex were constucted in 1973 and 1974, respectively. The skyway concept had already been introduced in the 1960s under the name of “Streets in the Sky” by architects Alison & and Peter Smithson, who were associated with Britain’s New Brutalism movement. This had actually been proposed as a method to alleviate the problem of traffic accidents in London; it is doubtful if Korea at that time could claim the same problem. However, more than anyone, Kim Su-gŭn was sensitive to the directions in global architecture, and he knew how to utilize them in his own career.

In order to make a large number of people climb to a second-floor walkway there needs to be a particular inducement. A skyway without such motivation has no purpose. The reason that the Pedway, a 1960s’ experimental network of skywalks in London, failed was similarly due to the lack of a strong motivator. Seun Sangga was no different. The only inducements to the deck were illegal vices 음란물 and so it acquired a dishonorable reputation 불명예. In this way, the negative opinions towards Seun Sangga were actually largely due to the fault of the abandoned skyway. It is said that the entire building gradually became a slum but even now the interiors, especially the inner courtyards, are in comparatively fine condition. During site visits, several residents I met spoke of their worry that the rent will increase. This indicates there is demand for the apartments. Having undergone extensive remodelling, both Samp’ung Sangga and P’ungjŏn Hotel look as tidy and clean recompensing for their [former] shame at the dishonorable rumours. Let us imagine that from the beginning, rather than placing the skyways on the exterior sides of the building, there had been a single skywalk running through the middle that passed through each of the central courtyards. That is, rather than the central courtyards being only for the use of residents, as they currently are, if they had been open to pedestrians as a public space. How might it have been if they had realized the same kind of close relation that other sangga apartment buildings have formed with the streets, but with an elevated skyway?

After its former glory and shame, and miraculous survival, Seun Sangga has now pledged a new life in the name of urban regeneration. Here there is a need to ask again the fundamental question about the role of architecture and architects. To criticize Seun Sangga as a failed utopia may be a justified position if viewed only from the end result. It is also extremely easy to do. However, if one is not careful, such a view gives birth to a defeatism in which the sheer act of dreaming about, or imagining the future becomes futile. Just as with all human behaviour, in architecture, simply repeating the same methods to a point of refinement does not at all guarantee success (lit. “constitute basic achievement” 근본적인 성취가 이루어지지 않다). Someone has to take on challenges, and attempt that which others have not. However, we have reached a limit in the current habit, and effectiveness in trying to realize (lit. “resolve”) our future through importing previous examples from other countries. We need to know how to make creatively original – and thus potentially lonely – decisions that are based on intensive observation and analysis of our {local} reality. A symbol of a failed utopia, yet one that has somehow beaten the weight of time: that is the paradoxical lesson of Seun Sangga.

Translated from: Hwang, Tujin (Hwang Doojin) 황두진. 2017. Kajang tosijŏk in sam 가장 도시적인 삶 [The most urban life]. Seoul: Panpi 반비.


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