Urban Futures: Living in the Inner City
Regenerating Urban Architecture for Cohesion and Sustainability
Keynote Forum, UIA 2017 Seoul, Monday, September 4, 2017
Seoul stands today as a city rife with architectural contrast. On the one hand, mega-scale urban projects have spawned the high-rise apartment buildings that are ubiquitous across the cityscape, leading some outsiders to criticize Korea as the “Apartment Republic.” On the other hand, Seoul has long fostered the development of medium-size multifamily houses which were designed on purely pragmatic grounds by local builders and developers without professional design training.
The domination of these two building typologies in Seoul was largely driven by two major urban planning projects that were used from the 1960s onward: Land Readjustment (LR), which built low-rise to medium-rise residential and mixed-use buildings, and Housing Site Development (HSD), which oversaw the erection of large scale high-rise apartments and commercial buildings. The areas transformed by the two projects represent nearly half of the urbanized area of Seoul today.
These two urban planning projects have each made a mark on the urban fabric that stand in sharp contrast to one another. For example, the average size of the apartment complexes at Mok-dong, the first new town solely grounded in HSD principles in Seoul, is over 130,000 m2 with more than 25 buildings for 1,700 households. Compare this to the adjacent areas governed by the LR project, with an average plot size of 270 m2.
The land use pattern of the HSD areas resemble an avocado in that the pericarp (Residential Zoning) encapsulates the seed (Commercial Zoning). By contrast, the perimeter of the LR block is bordered by either Commercial or Quasi-Residential areas in a linear pattern, while the inner blocks are divided into Class-3, Class-2, or Class-1 General Residential areas. The horizontal shift of zoning within a block in LR areas can be likened to an onion. Entering a block is like peeling a layer off; you see more onion, but the onion is getting smaller.
Because of the compactness of buildings, together with narrow adjacent roads and an insufficient parking space, the LR areas were less favored by the upper middle class, who wanted to own the more profitable apartment unit. In fact, the medium-rise structures of the LR projects may well have all been replaced by high-rise apartment buildings if not for the global economic crisis of 2008 that served a death blow to Korea’s construction market. Economic profits of large-scale redevelopment and reconstruction were no longer guaranteed, and so many of the urban projects fell into gridlock and have since been cancelled. As it stands today, more households still live in medium-size multifamily houses than in apartment buildings.
And so Korean urban architectural planning stands at a bit of a crossroads today. Clearly there seems to be a need to bring more cohesiveness, more wholeness back to the city, but the way to do that isn’t immediately clear. Besides the economic uncertainty that remains, architectural development in Seoul is impacted by demographic changes brought on by lower birth rates, a decrease in population, an increase in the number of single households, and an increase in the number of elderly. Given these factors, what hopes and aspirations can be held by architects and urban planners seeking to enhance the city’s character and improve the openness and inclusiveness it offers its inhabitants?
One promising sign has been a new focus of the younger class of Korean architects since the economic crisis: the reconstruction and regeneration of the traditional small and medium-size typology, one building at a time, within the LR project areas. A decade ago, these types of projects got little attention from professional architects, as it was thought that this form of architecture would become outmoded and swept away by the large-scale projects that were so prevalent.
However, due to the factors mentioned above, this kind of architectural endeavor is gaining momentum in Seoul today. While the buildings constructed respond to market demand—the desire for maximum floor area and volume—they also demonstrate innovative design strategies and tactics that help create a richer interface between architecture and the city. A whole range of diversity in the size of residential units, the mixture of programs, the processes of design and construction, and the extent of public/private cooperation is now being covered by this growing initiative.
It is hard to say whether the city of Seoul will permanently turn its attention to piecemeal transformation, but it seems that we are seeing the emergence of a distinct urban architecture, albeit on a smaller scale in the LR project areas, but one that provides an important opportunity for budding development agencies and young architects in Korea. And as this new economic dynamic stimulates small and medium-sized business in the core of the metropolis, it delivers a slow but resilient form of urban regeneration that is welcome in Seoul’s unique urban fabric, putting a new emphasis on the quality of the lived space and its relation to its surroundings.
Ultimately, the decline of large-scale reconstruction projects in Seoul may turn out to be a great blessing; the work being done to ameliorate the medium-size residential and mixed-use building typology seems to be facilitating better social interaction, and will undoubtedly have a positive impact on those living and working in the inner city.
Sung Hong KIM
Keynote Forum Speakers
Cristiane Muniz, Wilfried Wang, John Peponis, Sung Hong KIM
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