If you visit the old city hall in Seoul (now a public library), a rather stoic Germanic building built during the colonial period, you will find on the third floor a small museum featuring fascinating exhibitions that detail the development of the city over the last century.
On the wall of the museum hangs a mosaic of asymmetrically arranged rectangles that feature the pictures and short biographies of the mayors of Seoul. The first mayor in the series is Kim Hyung-min who served 1946-1948 in the immediate post-war period.
It seems natural to Seoulites that the list of mayors starts from the establishment of an independent Korea—although this first mayor served before the founding of the Republic of Korea. You cannot included the 18 mayors of Seoul who served during the colonial period because they were all Japanese and carried out an exploitative colonial policy.
There was a first Korean mayor after the war, Lee Beomseung, but he worked in the old colonial system before modern city of Seoul was established.
But it struck me immediately that this pantheon of mayors was deeply wrong. After all, the first first “mayor” of Seoul (Commissioner for Hanseong City Government) was Seong Seok-rin who took up the office in 1395. An astonishing 832 people served as mayors of Seoul from the founding of the Joseon Dynasty until the Japanese occupation. Granted that the position did not have the same authority as the modern mayor of Seoul, and only a short term of rule, nevertheless, those public servants all deserve to be listed as mayors of one of the few cities in the world with a literally unbroken administrative history of over six hundred years.
So what is the psychology behind the decision to leave out 551 years of Seoul history from this museum about Seoul?
Clearly there is a profound cultural break in Seoul’s history which makes it hard for current Seoulites to associate themselves with that long history and its culture. Whereas most Parisians can name all of the bridges over the Seine River, few Seoulites can name the bridges over the Cheonggyecheon. The past is all around us in the form of monuments, and occasionally surviving buildings, but we pay little attention to those traces. They could be, by contrast, an inspiration for building a new Seoul.
More often Seoul tries to create a culture that will motivate and inspire its citizens by becoming like London, or Singapore, or Paris. The best example of this obsession with becoming some other city is the project to transform the Seoul Station Overpass into a public park covered with plants and works of arts. This plan is based on the High Line Park on the West side of Manhattan and although the results may be interesting, the plan is entirely based on an imported concept that will be implemented by the Dutch firm MVRDV.
But what Seoul really needs is not “Manhattan-ness” but rather “Seoul-ness.” The challenge for the city is how it reinterprets and makes relevant the sleeping traditions of the past, in order to create a new urban environment that leaves as many older buildings standing as possible, and hints back to the city’s roots, even back to the 14th century.
But the city is moving quickly in the wrong direction. All across Seoul, glass and steel office buildings and apartment buildings are being thrown up that completely ignore the ancient alleys of the city and which do not even hint at the traditions of Seoul’s architecture in their exteriors, or, for that matter, in their interiors.
The destruction of Seoul’s deep structure, whether it is the building of apartment buildings along the edge of the Kyunghee Palace that are alien to the traditional urban environment, or the erection of massive office buildings at Uljiro 2-ga which leave no space for the merchants or the ordinary citizens who have made the neighborhoods of Seoul feel like intimate villages for the last five hundred years.
Such radical changes in the urban environment do not create vitality, but rather break up the very continuity that encourages innovation. To make Seoul into another Singapore is to kill everything that has made Seoul so resilient. If you want to find vital culture in Seoul, seek out the factories around Uljiro 3-ga where artists make their sculptures in the back street factories run by small businesses, or visit Jungang Market where local merchants have joined up with artists have to create a vital culture.
I am not suggesting that we should try to restore Seoul to what it was in the past. That is not possible. Rather, new buildings should be built to last and built with a profound sense of Seoul’s past. We should see modern buildings as new variations on melodies from the distant past, using elements of traditional hanok, and at times even choosing clay and wood over glass and steel.
At the same time, our vast ignorance of the mayors of Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty means that we know nothing about the policies that were employed in the administration of the city for five hundred years. Few of us, including those working in city hall, know about the policies for the promotion of government officials in the city of Seoul during that time, the environmental preservation and urban farming policies, the management of markets and factories, and the local administration of the districts of Seoul.
We do not have the vaguest idea what wisdom lies in the policies of Seoul from those days, or what parts might be applied to the present, or to the future. The collective wisdom, the institutional knowledge of the city, which is its greatest treasure, has been thoughtlessly tossed aside in our rush to make Seoul into a modern city indistinguishable from other modern cities around the world.
Seoulites feel that to be too closely tied to Seoul’s past will somehow hold them back, tying them to a backwards city of poverty and filth. But although a wealthy city like Copenhagen or Munich may look attractive, it is not Seoul. We will find the keys to this city’s future in its past. We must reinterpret the back streets, the urban policies, and the communities of the past and find in those patterns the past offers hints of what a sustainable future Seoul should look like.
I have no doubt that the hundreds of previous mayors of Seoul have much wisdom to share with us if we will only listen.