Decaying buildings, rundown commercial facilities and decrepit residential areas are the targets of a new approach to urban revitalization. Rarely visited and forgotten places are being reborn, attracting new occupants, who are redefining the work and living in the once neglected neighborhoods.
The Oil Tank Culture Park, located in Sangam-dong on the northwestern outskirts of Seoul, was created by repurposing five petroleum storage tanks built in the 1970s. The community center in the middle of the complex was constructed with iron plates from the tanks that were remodeled. It contains lecture halls and meeting rooms.
Rising from the ashes of war six decades ago, Korea has rapidly industrialized and urbanized as its economy transformed at breakneck speed. Now, Seoul and the country’s other major cities are grappling with how to revitalize rundown areas, and a new approach known as “urban restoration” is drawing widespread attention.
Unlike total redevelopment, which entails high costs and time-consuming macroscopic decision-making, urban restoration preserves some of a city’s history and aesthetics, and often mitigates conflicts and creates new jobs.
At the Fab Lab Seoul, in Sewoon Sangga, a residential-commercial complex in old downtown Seoul, visitors may use a 3D printer and various materials to create their products. The rundown area, spared by Seoul City’s “Again Sewoon Project” of 2015, is rejuvenating as a syncretic space of art and technology.
The Crucial Spatial Symbolism
The transformation of Sewoon Sangga, formerly a hip shopping place for electronics in Seoul’s old downtown, is an example of how rundown buildings marked for demolition can be reborn in a remarkable way. Built in 1968, Sewoon Sangga consisted of multipurpose buildings that stretched one kilometer from north to south, connecting main thoroughfares of central Seoul around Jongno Street and Cheonggye Stream, which runs from west to east. As a mecca for electronics, people would say that Sewoon Sangga had “everything except nothing,” and “you can even assemble satellites there.”
At the time of its construction, new-style housing was also promised. Planners envisioned “an attractive multipurpose complex of residence and commerce.” But as Seoul’s Gangnam and Yongsan districts began to develop in earnest in the 1980s, expectations for Sewoon Sangga slowly diminished.
The shutdown storage tank behind the community center of the Oil Tank Culture Park was remodeled as a performance space by using material from other tanks. The lower part has a stage with an audience area with 200 seats.
Moreover, by the 1990s, its neighboring areas fell into decay, prompting plans for them to be razed and redeveloped.
Fortunately, wholesale demolition stalled until the area began to feel the full force of urban restoration around 2015. Sewoon Sangga is now being reborn as a crucible of art, technology and culture, where young artists’ talents converge with the legendary feats of the area’s older craft masters and the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as 3D printing aerial drones.
The new urban restoration project goes beyond the use of space or renovations to repurpose a site. The project gains vitality only when the original images and symbolic meanings of old spaces are preserved and enhanced. In that sense, there is another notable case. The areas of Changsin-dong and Sungin-dong, also in old Seoul, filled with sewing factories that once supplied the apparel business district of Dongdaemun, offer a tapestry of changes.
One of the old oil tanks retains its original form allowing visitors to have a close look at the interior structure. It is mostly used for media-related exhibitions.
Stagnation of the sewing industry led to the so-called “New Town” redevelopment of the areas. But the project, initiated by the Seoul city government, was also halted and replaced. Since 2014, the area’s designation for an urban renewal pilot project by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport has translated into new streets and cultural amenities. Completed or soon to be completed are the Sewing History Museum; the Changsin Communication Art Workshop Center, a base for creative living arts; and the Nam June Paik Museum, which opened after renovations of the house where the video art pioneer spent his childhood, among other cultural facilities.
The new urban restoration project goes beyond the use of space or renovations to repurpose a site. The project gains vitality only when the original images and symbolic meanings of old spaces are preserved and enhanced.
From Secret Bunker to Art Gallery
The repurposing of a small deserted space offering a glimpse of Korea’s modern history is another interesting example. It is an underground bunker presumably built during the 1970s, when Korea was under military dictatorship. The secret, undocumented chamber in Yeouido, home of the Korean parliament, was discovered by chance in 2005, during the construction of a bus transfer station. It has an 80-square-meter VIP room and an 800-square-meter staff room. The facility was seemingly intended as an emergency retreat for President Park Chung-hee, who used a grandstand above the bunker to review military parades during his prolonged iron-fisted rule from 1963 to 1979.
Originally, the Seoul city government planned to turn the bunker into a shopping mall but the plan was shelved when it became apparent that pedestrian traffic was inadequate for commercial sustainability. The mysterious underground space opened to the public in October 2017 as an art gallery, named the SeMA Bunker after the Seoul Museum of Art, which manages it. The gallery has received positive public responses for holding exhibitions looking back on the modernization of Korea and the history of the bunker.
Another former top secret site that has been repurposed is at the foot of Mt. Maebong, behind the Seoul World Cup Stadium in Sangam-dong. Previously, the Oil Tank Culture Park was an access-controlled petroleum storage area that the Seoul city government constructed between 1976 and 1978, after the 1973 oil crisis. Consisting of five concrete tanks with diameters ranging from 15 to 38 meters and a height of 15 meters, the site could contain a month’s worth of petroleum for Seoul residents. The existence of the storage site, however, was not publicly disclosed at the time.
In 2002, before the Korea-Japan World Cup, the transfer of the site was decided for safety reasons, but due to indifference, nothing was done for over 11 years. Only in 2013 did experts and citizens gather and agree on setting up “an environment-friendly cultural complex” for the whole site. An international contest for ideas attracted 95 proposals from 16 countries. The selected plan called for one tank to remain in its original shape for exhibition, and the other four tanks to be remodeled for different uses.
A community center was built in the middle of the site as homage to the old oil storage tanks. The same steel plates as in the original tanks were used for the outside walls, which made the community center look as if it was built alongside the old oil tanks. The remodeled tanks are now used as stages, exhibition halls and multiplexes, and a spacious plaza in front of the tanks was set up as an open arena to accommodate cultural events.
Moreover, trails lined with diverse plants were installed in the spaces around the site and on the ridges of Mt. Maebong. Since the repurposing, the site has become popular with citizens, who enjoy an array of cultural performances and other events in the revitalized setting.
Seongsu-dong, an industrial part of downtown Seoul since the 1960s for printing, textiles and storage, is transforming into a cultural hotspot. Daerim Warehouse, once used to mill and store rice, has become a gallery café popular among young adults.
From Quarrying to Tourist Hotspot
Pocheon Art Valley is another pioneer project that illustrates how urban restoration can transform an industrial site long past its prime. Pocheon, a small city north of Seoul, has a quarry that produced granite called “Pocheon Stone,” much sought after by construction firms because of its hardness and beautiful patterns. The output of the granite mine began an unrelenting decline in the mid-1990s as cheaper ore imports from China increased, and eventually, the quarry shut down.
In 2003, Pocheon city embarked on a project to revitalize the quarry site, restore the damaged landscape and boost the local economy. Large holes, visible remnants of quarrying, were turned into artificial lakes by allowing them to fill with rainfall, and a sculpture park with big and small open-air performance stages was set up in the surrounding area.
Pocheon Art Valley, opened in 2009, now welcomes over 400,000 visitors every year. In 2017, the Gyeonggi Tourism Organization named it one of the province’s top 10 tourist attractions.
Revitalizing cities’ decaying and abandoned spaces, the urban restoration projects reshape the environment, sustain residents’ well-being and communication through sociocultural activities, and, by extension, contribute to the recovery of local economies. However, the unique appeal of the old spaces must not be sacrificed in the process of imbuing them with new life and thereby improving the lives of residents.
The Seoul Innovation Park, opened in Eunpyeong District, western Seoul, in 2015, supports projects suggested by citizens in social and economic fields. It is housed in the former site of the National Institute of Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The photo shows the public study room.
Gong, an indie art hall, uses a factory building as an exhibition hall. Mullae-dong, an old industrial area on the western outskirts of Seoul, is changing into a cultural space, as artists have started to flock into the low-rent area.