Usually I go to Seoul to see contemporary buildings by international and Korean architects. I usually scour the internet to find info on projects in Korea. I had also been following news from the Venice Biennale because a friend of mine had entered a competition hosted as part of the event. It was with great surprize then that I learned about Korea winning the Golden Lion at this year’s biennale. The theme this year was “Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014” so it kind of makes more sense that Korea won. Part of the Korean exhibition included a long white model of the Sewoon Sangga Apartments by famous Korean modernist architect Kim Swoo Geun. It intrigued me so I did a bit of digging on the internet.
The mixed-use building taking up four city blocks was completed in 1967 and stood as a symbol of the modernisation that post-war Korea was heading towards. In the 60’s it was a place where the young elite in Seoul resided but as the economic activity moved toward the Gangnam-district the building became a kind of headquarters for the porn-industry in Seoul during the late 70’s. In 2004 plans were announced to redevelop the strip “connecting Jongmyo Shrine with Namsan Park”. They basically want to demolish the building to create a public park and then develop high-rise buildings alongside the park – relocating hundreds of small businesses to make way for bigger businesses who can afford the rent.
This past weekend I went to Seoul to go see this monster of a building for myself. Arriving early on the Friday I set out walking through Insa-dong to the Cheonggyecheon-stream. The stream cuts through Sewoon Sanga Apartments so if I followed the stream I’d get there eventually. Fifteen minutes later I was where I wanted to be. It is fascinating seeing the city change from clean open business district to densely packed fabric of small businesses and restaurants over the course of a short walk. The Sewoon Sanga building enables this dense packing of enterprise to continue vertically. Space is certainly not wasted here. The shops on the upper level above the street are so densely packed that the space feels a bit claustrophobic – the lack of ventilation and light doesn’t add to the experience on that level. I could breathe a little better in the rest of the building and I enjoyed seeing how people populate and utilize the building long after the architect’s dreams for it has died.
I don’t think the building gives a great impression at the moment – it borders on derelict probably because the developers are hoping that the conditions deteriorate so that demolition is inevitable. But I don’t think it should be destroyed. It stands as a reminder of where Korea has come from – how far it has come. As much as Koreans value their historic temples, they should value their modernist heritage too. This large-scale project stands not only as a symbol of Korea’s economic development after the war, it also stands as example of the grand urban endeavours Modernism inspired. Just because the evidence will be destroyed, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. In the end I think that money will probably have the loudest voice in the saga of Sewoon Sanga. Only time will tell.