AJ caught up with the renowned Korean designer and Seoul city architect during a recent visit to London
What has been your plan as Seoul City Architect?
We lost a lot of our identity so my first task has been to revive the identity of Seoul. It is a metacity as opposed to a megacity and its site was chosen in the Fourteenth Century because of its beautiful mountains. Seoul’s eight mountains are its natural landmark and high buildings had created a very un-harmonious environment with a lot of fragmented development. So I said “no more landmarks”.
Tell us about the city’s Skygarden project, which has been compared with New York’s High Line.
It is a High Line type project for an elevated road and, using it, people can access the mountains very easily. It’s making use of a 1km long megastructure, a former highway built in the 1960s in the centre of Seoul. When I was inaugurated as city architect, I said we should re-use it. We held an international competition and I was chair of the jury. Eight firms took part including four foreign architects and Winy Mass at MVRDV won.
How many people work for you as city architect and what are your powers?
We have a team of 27 people but we’re enlarging it to 40. I do have the power to stop inappropriate developments such as tall buildings. This can be challenged in court but challenging takes a long time. As a result, I’m producing many enemies every day!
You have connections in London. Tell us about those.
My youngest daughter is graduating from Central St Martins with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design. My son is an AA graduate and works for Eric Parry and my daughter in law works at Haworth Tompkins and worked on the design for the Everyman Theatre.
What do you think of Zaha Hadid’s stadium in Seoul, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which opened last year?
‘I was very disappointed because the site is very important, containing very important remains and parts of the old city wall. Her proposal ignored those remains, different from my proposal which lost at the competition. Her building is like a kind of spaceship and it really contrasts with the context. But after completion, I do recognise it’s an impressive structure. And since it’s there, we do need to embrace it!
We’ve been focusing on housing at the Architects’ Journal with our ‘More Homes Better Homes’ campaign. What are your thoughts on the housing crisis in Britain?
Western houses have LDK – living room, dining room and kitchen. But I don’t think everybody needs to possess everything. For example, people could share things like the kitchen which would enforce communality. Korean housing features “indeterminate emphasis” so rooms are flexible and you can eat, sleep and play in the same room. Western homes tend to be less flexible although that Western approach itself is now more common in Korea.