Mara Sartore: In 2002 the Korea National Museum of Contemporary of Art selected you as artist of the year, being an architect what did the acceptance of this prize mean to you? Which are in your vision the main links between art and architecture and how these merge in your work, if they do?
Seung H-Sang: It has been the first and last that an architect was awarded Artist of the Year Prize by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA). Thanks to winning the prize, I was able to hold the first solo exhibition under the name of “urban void” at MMCA. In a Korean society, where architecture had been mostly recognised as a part of real estate or economy, this event was a good opportunity to raise the people’s awareness of architecture as culture and art. For me, also, it boosted my interest in publicity of architecture.
MS: You have been the first City Architect of Seoul from 2014 and played a fundamental role in the city’s architectural development. What was your main aim and what did you achieve?
SHS: In the past, Korea faced economic development as a challenge of the times and focused on construction while considering a quantitative perspective more than a qualitative one. Since my inauguration as the city architect, Seoul has been trying to shift its focus from construction to architecture by urban regeneration policy rather than redevelopment, by “Urban Acupuncture”, which affects surroundings via small-scale intervention, rather than master plan, which does everything at once. In addition, Seoul is concentrating on connecting fragmented parts of the city rather than building a landmark. Above all, the most important thing is to help the citizens understand and engage in the projects while creating urban environments together. To do so, it revised commissional process of all the projects, gave more opportunity to young architects to participate in the projects and hosted the first Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2017 to promote exchanges with other cities.
MS: How Seoul has changed in the last 15 years, could you point out some positive and negative aspects? Do you think a similar process has happened also in other Korean cities as Gwangju and Busan?
SHS: Seoul is a historic city with more than thousand years of history and has a billion of population and dynamic topography made up of mountains and rivers. Also, it has become the capital city of Korea for more than 600 years and would become a hub of Eurasia railway if the two Koreas were united. In the past, Seoul followed the conventional urban design theory, already thrown out in the world including the West and pursued a plain city, losing its identity. However, unlike architecture, which someday collapses and disappears, mountains and rivers are still there in Seoul, leaving room for regaining Seoul’s identity. Of course, it would be difficult for Seoul to restore itself in a short period of time, but an important thing is to share the awareness of Seoul’s identity and revise the principals and systems to maintain related policies.
MS: You are linked to Seoul, Busan and Gwangju for different reasons and projects you have worked on, could you tell us how is the contemporary art scene in these there cities and the main differences between them?
SHS: Busan began to develop in modern times and was used as a base port by Japan for its invasion of Korean peninsula. During the Korean war, moreover, many refugees fled to Busan. All these things created a unique scenery of Busan. Since Busan has sea and ports, its cityscape and people’s spirits stand apart from those of other cities. Gwangju is a city where culture started to advance a long time ago. Also, it has the highest level of democratic spirit and human rights through the May 18th Democratic Uprising against military dictatorship. On the other hand, Seoul has all the urban factors and it is still rapidly changing. Likewise, these three cities have different characteristics. Of course, artists from these cities have different artistic tendencies.
MS: My Art Guides are always suggesting to readers some special place to visit in each destination, not necessarily connected only to contemporary art, what are your not to be missed places, landmarks and spots in Seoul, Busan and in Gwangju?
SHS: We need to look at Minjung (meaning public) Art in Seoul. In the modern times, left-wing artists who protested the dictatorship drew a resistance spirit. Therefore, their works may be of great importance. Of course, it is also significant that shantytowns for people kicked out of city have been revitalised through urban regeneration. Haundae and other areas which are intensively developed by Busan are losing their identity. We should focus on original downtown. Regeneration of original downtown would ultimately promote Busan’s identity and towns on hills, the hinterland of sea, have strong potential. Furthermore, Gwangju boasts great traditional art. We should not only pay attention to Korea’s unique traditional art but also look at the fact that this has a lot to do with our daily lives such as music and food.