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Asking Questions of Architecture Issues in Korea to Seung H-Sang

written by
Lee Sungje
photographed by
Presidential Commission on Architecture Policy

On Jan. 28, a conference titled ‘Hearing from Chief Commissioner of the Presidential Commission on Architecture Policy Seung H-Sang about Korean Architecture’ was held at the Donuimun Museum. The event consisted of two parts: a 90-minute ‘one-on-one talk’ in which the conference host Jahn Jinsam (publisher, WIDE Architecture Report) interviewed Seung H-Sang, which was followed by a 20-minute Q&A session with the audience. This report summarises this conference, drawing on the answers of Seung H-Sang, who presented his opinions from the standpoint of the chief commissioner of the Presidential Commission on Architecture Policy (hereinafter PCAP). To clarify the relevant facts, the dialogues have been reconstructed to an extent so that it doesn’t damage the original meaning, and some words have been replaced with more official terminology.


Jahn Jinsam (Jahn): Please make an opening statement.

Seung H-Sang (Seung): This conference is concerned with the current agendas of Korean architectural scene. I came here as the chief commissioner of the PCAP and chairperson of Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism so, I’m expecting questions relevant to my position. The PCAP is based upon the Framework Act on Building. The Framework Act on Building defines the role of the PCAP as an agent through which to consult important national policies, solve building code-related issues and take the lead in the development of architectural culture.

The PCAP has gone through four terms of service, but it’s true that its function has been hugely weakened. Since I took the position I’ve been cooperating with other members to recover the authority range defined by the Framework Act on Building during the last nine months. Fifteen months are left in my term of office as chief commissioner. During this time, I would like to contribute to improving the overall architectural system of our society and to complete my service.

Currently, our society is experiencing an initial shift from supply to demand. In this period of transition, we will face various conflicts and oppositions. It is the same on the architectural scene. Both private and public architectural sectors are in this process of initiative shift. There are many systems and regulations that are failing to keep up with such a trend. The PCAP is trying to put its focus on them and to make improvements.


Jahn: In Jan. this year, you had an interview with Architect, a monthly magazine published by Korea Institute of Registered Architects. In it, you stated firmly, ‘Every architectural issue is, in fact, brought about by architectural practitioners themselves.’ Moreover, on Facebook, you posted that today’s event was a talk show that you volunteered to attend for yourself. Did you hold this event because you have prepared a series of answers to relieve your concerns on serious issues raised around the Korean architectural scene?

Seung: If you check on social networking services, you can find many aggressive words focused on the so-called leadership of Korean architectural scene. Most cases are not true, and a simple inquiry would straighten them out. So, I thought it would be good if one day we came out and discussed these relevant matters. Also, there may be many things that I don’t know about, so I thought it would be helpful for me to hear more complex, detailed stories.

In fact, architects should take responsibility for all the issues and liabilities around an architectural practice. Most systems involved in an architecture practice were created at the demand of architects. Coarse and low-quality buildings have been constructed because architects had no choice but to do so, to make their architectural project possible. No one is to blame but architects themselves who accepted the jobs when they should have said ‘no’ to the ‘bad clients’ who want to build such buildings. Other relevant systems and regulations will change eventually, if we ask for it with persistence. Therefore, I thought the root of all our problems lies within ourselves and so too would the solutions.


Jahn: Recently, the issues surrounding the City Architect system have seemed to raise public concern. In a news article published by NEWSIS on Jan. 4, I read some critical views pointing out that the title of the City Architect of Seoul had been passed on through school or regional relations. This critique added that in public architectural projects, public architects seem to serve as the subject of governance and, at the same time, as the commissioner of various events of the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG), such as the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. I would like to hear your take on these issues.

Seung: I saw that article too. Fortunately, the news item ended up as a one-off, which was probably because they thought that it was not newsworthy. Reading the article reminded me of the fact that I’m a graduate of Seoul National University. However, I’ve never been aware of my academic background throughout my career. I resigned from the position as City Architect only after two years, but it’s not something from which you can pull out after only two years. Many architectural works require a long-term project. Urban policies don’t come to completion in a short time. In the western countries, City Architects serve at least five years or ten years when they serve consecutive terms. I think that is more reasonable. In Barcelona, City Architect is chosen as a running mate to the mayor and serve throughout his term of service. I insisted that we should do the same. Before I was nominated as City Architect, I had served as the chair of the Architectural Policy Committee at SMG for three years. Practically, this means that I served as City Architect for five years.

There are two reasons why I’ve passed on the title of City Architect. Firstly, people could see the newly established City Architect system as Seung H-Sang, an individual person, not as a system, so I thought it would be better if someone else comes to the fore during the current mayor’s term of service. Secondly, City Architects should not make profit from relations with the SMG, and thus cannot avoid making a personal loss. My studio ran into red figures and was on the verge of bankruptcy. These two reasons made me hurry to pass on the title. I thought the title should go to a person who was from the same sector and had shared the same critical positions as me to maintain consistency in the policy. So I pleaded with Kim Youngjoon and passed the title on to him. Kim Seunghoy, the third City Architect, is not close with me, and we have never worked together. It’s absurd to frame us as pulling strings.


Jahn: Recently, you have applied yourself very diligently to implementing the City Architect system nationwide. You traveled all over the country to meet various interested parties, including the mayor of Busan Metropolitan City, the governor of Jeju Special Self-Governing Province, the mayor of Ulsan Metropolitan City and the Governor of Jeollanamdo Province. You even made a presentation in front of the president on Social Overhead Capital (SOC) policy. You are working hard to promote the merits of these two policies across the country. It seems you are trying to share the experience of SMG in a compressed time frame, but SMG and the other provinces are in different states. There is lack of human resources, and the fact that the central government has set the direction is provoking a passive attitude. I doubt whether the system will make a smooth landing.

Seung: Throughout the course of world history, there have been many cases in which the outcome of administrational efforts has remained in the form of a work of architecture. This shows that architecture is an important outcome of administration. However, if you ask whether our administrators are aware of the significance of architecture, the answer is definitely no. They see things very fragmentarily. The SMG didn’t adopt this system by choice. It did because me and some others advised the mayor of Seoul about the system. The same thing happened in the meetings with local government heads. They simply had no idea about because they don’thave a great deal of knowledge about architecture. The central government doesn’t mean to demand the adoption of this system but it is trying to share the relevant information. If a local government says no,we can do nothing about it. However, it’s encouraging to see that the importance of this system has been addressed in a recent meeting led by the prime minister.


Jahn: If you look at the typical arguments that populate the local architectural scene, you will find out that criticism of the City and Public Architect systems have different grounds. Regarding the City Architect system, for example, in Busan, the current situation in which architects from the capital area are being nominated as candidates for city architect is attracting public criticism. And as for the Public Architect system, the criticism is harsher than expected. The provinces, except Seoul and Busan, are taking a negative stance due to several issues including manpower problems. If the City Architect operates the Public Architect system, wouldn’t the limited capabilities of the local architectural industry hinder the development of the publicity in local areas? Is there any solution to this? 

Seung: Yeongju city has already come up with a solution. It has a small population but has adopted the Public Architect system even before Seoul. The City Architect system has also been implemented, even though the name of system is different. The Yeongju city government invited talented architects from various regions including Seoul and Busan and asked them to design public facilities even though the city already has local architectural offices. As a result, high-quality public buildings were constructed, and people started making a tour of them. As I know, the city has gained the central government’s trust through that and thus is securing its budget without difficulty. I also heard that local architectural offices are maintaining a cooperative relationship after seeing good designs by talented architects from other regions bring benefits to themselves. It’s a lopsided notion that only local architects can lead the public architectural projects in a region.


Jahn: From the perspective of the local architectural industry, wouldn’t it be necessary to use the Public Architect system in fostering local architects? Most noticeable projects in Yeongju, anyway, are worked by architects from the capital area. They are not homegrown.

Seung: The vision that we must pursue is a world of good architecture, not the world of a good architect. I’m in Korea, but I’m designing buildings in China or Europe. I can’t agree with the idea that an architect’s regional background is important. If the architectural quality of the region can be improved, it doesn’t matter where the architect comes from.


Jahn: Everyone is talking about the elevated position of the PCAP, but it seems that a chain of events occurring outside the remit of the PCAP have brought about a sense of disappointment. In the design competition for New Government Complex SEJONG, the expertise of the judging process was raised as an issue. In addition to that, there were many problems including disputes over the fairness of the design competition for The Memorial Hall for the Provisional Government (hereinafter MHPG), conflicts between the SMG and the redevelopment union around the reconstruction of Jamsil Apartment Complex 5 Residential Complex Facility, and controversies over the position of architects for the apartment housing in Junggyebon-dong Housing Redevelopment Project.

Seung: The PCAP is an organisation that deals with the architectural policies, systems and cultures of our country. It doesn’t intervene in private projects. There is one thing that the PCAP is continually asking the central government. When I was the City Architect of Seoul, I issued a guideline that requires consultation of the City Architect when the scale of a project exceeded a certain level, in the form of a decree from the mayor. If every government-led project was asked to go through consultation of the PCAP, I think, then most of the forementioned issues would not have occurred. At the moment, the PCAP can’t intervene in the projects of an individual institution or a local government. When an issue occurs, it asks for the details of the case, and the relevant organisation submits a report. Then the PCAP simply sends out a recommendation. As these recommendations are published by a presidential committee, it wouldn’t be easily ignored. In the case of the New Government Complex SEJONG, a recommendation has to be delivered for the design to be revised. As for the MHPG project, there is an ongoing court case. So, when the result comes out, there will be discussion as to whether the PCAP will intervene. Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, the issues related to the SMG are something in which the PCAP can’t proactively intervene.​


Jahn: One of the most significant recent projects is the International Design Competition for New Gwanghwamun Square. Though the project was launched by the SMG, the PCAP is involved in many areas. This is because you have been invited as a judge. Several views on this project exist; one of them is questioning whether it’s just an outcome of windowdressing architectural policies. The competition was announced to the public on Oct. 2018, and the winning proposal, on Jan. 21 2019. The construction is scheduled for completion by 2021. Some point out that this is irresponsibly fast.

Seung: I understand why people might think that way. Gwanghwamun Square, however, has been considered an architecture issue for a long time. I started my undergraduate degree in 1971. Even then design proposals for Gwanghwamun Square were submitted to the National Art Exhibition of The Republic of Korea. When it was built in the present form in 2009, during mayor Oh Sehoon’s term of office, it become a major issue. There were various criticisms on the outcome, and some even insisted it should be redesigned. The SMG opened the Gwanghwamun Forum and held public hearings and consultations with expert groups. The discussion ripened as much as it could, and we’ve picked the fruit from the international design competition. I was the head of the judging committee, nevertheless the winning proposal was selected through a very clear, fair and objective process.

The Gwanghwamun Square project doesn’t aim to build complex works of architecture. All you need to do is dig up the ground and pave the roads. If it goes as planned, it will be completed by 2021. Some confuse it with a typical building construction project and thus ask, with prejudice, why the project is driven so fast. I’m also looking at the controversy over the winning proposal. In fact, the aesthetics of a city changes all the time. The winning proposal doesn’t seem to have envisioned a design that reflects the fashion of the year 2021 or ten years later. It seems to lie somewhere in between. There is lots of talk about it, but I don’t see it as negative. If a discussion is needed, we can have it again. There is no reason to avoid it. However, everyone should know that the current result has emerged after a lot of discussion.

Jahn: There exists a question about whether a spectacular and monumental plaza is necessary in this era. We have particular plaza experience gained from candlelit rallies and also Taegeukgi Protest by far-right individuals. Do they represent a plaza required in the 21st century?

Seung: The Gwanghwamun Square project aims to turn back a median strip-like monumental space into an everyday space. Restoring the everydayness of a city is an important mission, and historical layers have accumulated on this site, therefore we ought to restore these layers. Currently, the restoration of Gyeongbokgung Palace is in progress, but the palace’s front area was in terribly poor condition, so I thought the restoration area must be extended to Woldae (an old gate, the Joseon Dynasty ritual stage).

Gwanghwamun Square is the main axis of Seoul and has become a spatial centre for Koreans. Yet this space betrays a certain hierarchy. Even protesters advance toward Bugaksan Mountain, because power is in that direction. There was a conflict between powers above and the public below. The idea of returning this hierarchical axis of power to the public is very important. We should let the public occupy the onceunapproachable Bugaksan Mountain area through an everyday urban space, and the area stretching from Gyeongbokgung Palace to Bugaksan Mountain via the Main Office Hall of the Blue House. To achieve this, I think the first step we should take is to restore the quotidian nature of the square. As I know, the Blue House has announced its plan to open and extend its main hall several times. Once this project comes to completion, I believe the existing flow will transform into an axis of the public.


Jahn: In recent news, it was reported that the Ministry of the Interior and Safety (MOIS) has put the brakes on the project. This should be resolved through communication with the SMG, but why couldn’t you identify such problems beforehand as the head of the judging committee?

Seung: The MOIS and SMG have already discussed the matter several times, and there is a record of them. However, according to its description, the winning proposal plans to turn a road nearby the Central Government Complex in Seoul into a park, yet that particular area doesn’t belong within the project scope. But it was included in the design guidelines, and designers were allowed to freely make a proposal based upon it. The MOIS seems to have misunderstood the proposal as an execution plan.


Jahn: The winning proposal suggested moving existing statues. You said this is acceptable on the condition that the statue of Joseon Dynasty’s Adm. Yi Sunshin should remain, though you agree with that there is a problem with the location of the statue of King Sejong. Is the proposal going through the implementation process under the agreement that the design can be changed?

Seung: Architecture is a subject based on reality. It’s just absurd to insist on changing reality for a remote ideal. As for the statues, the judging committee also advised that the statue of Yi Sun-shin is an important element behind understanding Seoul and its urban space, so it would be better to respect the memory of the public. However, there was controversy over the statue of King Sejong. Various opinions are pointing to the facts: the statue was built quite recently, and it was also considered inappropriate for the sage King Sejong as it makes its surrounding area look like subordinate space. I thought it would be worth considering relocation, but I didn’t mean that it must go. There is still time until the construction design reaches completion, so I think the SMG will collect public opinion before they decide what to do. On the other hand, the proposal has a plan to create an underground space beneath the statue of King Sejong. We should dig under the statue. Even if the current location is retained, the statue should be relocated temporarily during construction and moved back afterward.


Jahn: In the proposal you made in the past, I see a similar vision to the winning proposal of today. When we think about the position of the chief commissioner of the PCAP, who administrates all the national architectural policies, even though the Gwanghwamun Square project is a national-scale project, there is doubt over whether it’s right that you are one of the judges of the competition. You were invited as a judge for a modernisation project which is very similar to your past proposal.

Seung: It’s an entirely different matter. The SMG didn’t invite me as a judge because I’m the PCAP’s chief commissioner. As I know, they came to me because I had shown interest in this subject for a long time and thus had a good understanding of it. As for having served as the head of the judging committee, it was the committee’s decision, so there is nothing further I can explain.

The winning proposal is not designed from scratch. The design competition has adopted my past suggestion that everydayness should be restored by closing the road on the west and moving the square close to the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, and the proposal was developed based on this framework. The competition brief asked how you would design the space within this framework. The framework was already there, and the judges would assess only design ideas. Therefore, there is no reason why I shouldn’t have been involved.


Jahn: In a JoongAng Ilbo column, you deplored the underdeveloped environment of Korean architectural industry. You seem to worry more than anyone else about the issues thronging the Korean architectural industry and are committed to seeking solutions to them. In one article, you wrote that politicians are the ones who make a system. In another one, considering the fairness and advancement of architecture, you discussed the problems of the building permit system and insisted that it must be abolished. It seems you are looking for an appropriate solution to it. How far has this progressed?

Seung: There are three phases to the advancement of architectural policies. They are related to the three phases in the completion of an architectural project; order, permission, and construction. It’s difficult find other countries in which all these three phases are running on such a backward system as in Korea. Though we can do nothing about private construction projects, we can bring about changes to public construction projects through systems or policies. The central and local governments have already agreed on our idea, and we are planning to abolish the price bidding system of the Public Procurement Service. This is what the PCAP is currently working on.

The building permit system is on the table too. In my experience, there is no country like Korea in which the permissions process is as uncivilized and complex, and which leaves as much room for corruption and cheating. According to a recent report, one must go through 36 different assessment procedures to obtain one. Such a system must be abolished in this world. It’s hard to deny that it’s a form of power play between the central and local governments and institutions. I thought we should pave the way for the advancement of the building permit system, but it’s difficult to change the entire system during my term of office. So now we are working on it.

Lastly, as for construction, have you seen any country where design and supervision are separate like in Korea? The current system is completely wrong. We should abolish it or find complementary measures. It’s the PCAP’s mission to develop a system that can attain the level of advanced countries, and thus it’s making various efforts to accommodate that.

Jahn: SOC projects are being launched on a policy level. In terms of career and wealth, would they create a good environment for young architects practicing in numerous regions?

Seung: The volume of construction projects amount to 250 trillion won per year. Among them, public construction projects take up 30 trillion. When it comes to design fees, it’s worth 1 trillion. It’s true that, except on some specific public building projects, all projects have been operating on the price bidding system until now. If we want to feel happiness in our daily life, buildings like police stations, community centres or daycare centres, which we encounter everyday in our neighborhood (not a landmark buildings) should look beautiful. Under the current price bidding system, however, a proposal with the lowest cost estimation often wins the game. That’s why our buildings turn out to be more of a mess and a muddle. The government has announced that it will increase the number of SOC projects. If they are built in the conventional way, our life will obviously become more miserable. Therefore, the PCAP emphasises that qualitative increase must be attained as well and is trying to change the ordering process. Currently, the ordering of public building projects are being processed by the Public Procurement Service. They say they will need more hands to open a design competition for every project. They suggested a phased transition, and we’ve lowered the budget criteria of an object for bid by 100 million won. After all, it will be completely replaced with a design competition system.

Jahn: Lastly, please give a closing statement before we wrap up the session.

Seung: I want to run another talk show around this time next year. By that time, my remaining term of office as the chief commissioner of the PCAP will be three months. I would like to have a time to present what I have done for one year from today and mark the completion of my service at the PCAP. This event is not just for the PCAP. This is a plea for help, support and encouragement from all our architectural colleagues. This is not just for us either. This is also for the generations to come. I would like to say one more time that this shouldn’t be a one-off event and is something we should work together to keep going. I’ve planned this event to let you know that this is not only my mission but also yours. Seeing you listen to us has made me feel a bond along with great responsibility. Thank you for listening.