The Politics of a Square


Last week, Korea celebrated the 70th anniversary of its liberation from the period of Japanese colonial rule that lasted from 1910–45. Festivities in the nation’s capital were centered around a large pedestrian area that leads to Gwanghwamun, the front gate of the historic Gyeongbok Palace. There was a parade, freebie booths, flags, and two stages featuring K-pop acts set up at the square.

The Gwanghwamun area decked out for Korean Liberation Day on Aug. 15, 2015.

Gwanghwamun and its surrounding area has a storied history that parallels Korea’s national history, as reported last week in the Korea JoongAng Daily, the paper for which I work. For over 500 years during the Joseon Dynasty, the gate was effectively the front door to the home of Korean royalty, and the area surrounding the gate was where regents administered politics.

When the Japanese occupied the country during World War II, architecture played a role in cementing Tokyo’s power. As a symbol of Korean regency, the Gyeongbok Palace was spatially demoted: the provisional government built its neoclassical-style headquarters inside the complex grounds, purposely obscuring the view of the Joseon palace, and moved Gwanghwamun east off the city’s center axis to make way for the building’s construction.

The imposing Japanese General Government Building in the Gyeongbok Palace complex before its demolition in 1995. (Source: Wikimedia)

During the Korean War from 1950–53, the wooden Gwanghwamun was destroyed. Later, during South Korea’s post-war ascent, President Park Chung Hee restored the gate into a concrete-and-steel structure to symbolize the country’s modernization and cement his militaristic power over the nation, replacing the gate’s Chinese hanja lettering with his own personal Korean hangul handwriting.

The road leading to Gwanghwamun, Sejong-no (named after Joseon King Sejong the Great, who, among other achievements, invented hangul), also became a site of Park’s nationalistic fervor, with a statue of the historical military figure Admiral Yi Sun-sin built in the middle of the wide boulevard. The 16-lane road itself was a testament to the country’s development from agrarian backwater to industrial powerhouse. The construction of expressways cutting through the city represented the country’s technological triumph — man had conquered nature by building roads that bent his way.

In the JoongAng article, Ha Sang-bok, a professor at Mokpo National University’s Department of Politics and Media, noted that “Gwanghwamun and the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin were built using the main materials of industrialization, concrete and iron, and was a political act that made tangible the administration’s ideology.”

The architectural history of the Gyeongbok Palace and Gwanghwamun reminded me of another palace complex with a similar legacy of historical repurposing: Beijing’s Imperial City (of which the Forbidden City is a part) and Tiananmen. Like Gyeongbok Palace and Gwanghwamun, the Imperial City and Tiananmen were repurposed through history to serve whatever powers held national control at the time.

After the Chinese Communists took power in 1949, rather than destroying the Imperial City as an old vestige of dynastic rule, the leaders fashioned part of the complex into an administrative compound that the Communist Party still occupies today. The gate leading to the Imperial City, Tiananmen, was where Mao Zedong declared the founding of China as a People’s Republic, symbolically placing the Communist Party in the line of succession that is Chinese dynastic rule.

The area south of Tiananmen subsequently underwent heavy construction. The square that already existed at the gate was enlarged fourfold, in accordance with Mao’s wish to make the public space the largest in the world. When one visits the square today, there is a sense of magnanimity, grandness, and power; flanked on four sides by national government buildings, Tiananmen Square can hold up to half a million people. Here is a space where hundreds of thousands can gather for parades, celebrations, and, infamously, for protest.

Tiananmen Square in Beijing. (Source: Wikimedia)

In contrast, the square south of Gwanghwamun is barely a square. One of my coworkers at the paper quipped that it would perhaps be more suitable to call it the “Gwanghwamun Traffic Island.” When the pedestrian space at Gwanghwamun was under construction from 2006–09, developers decided at the time to preserve most of the lanes of Sejong-no, leaving an odd area in the middle of a 10-lane road to be the pedestrian plaza.

“Gwanghwamun Square is a space that can be accessed only when the traffic light changes and you cross the road,” Jeong Seok, an engineering professor at the University of Seoul, said in the JoongAng article. “In its current state, it does not play the role of European plazas that link to many other roads.”

The south end of Gwanghwamun Square on Sejong-no, more traffic island than square.

The development of public spaces in Gwanghwamun and Tiananmen reveals how architecture plays a role in tangibly embodying national ideologies. Tiananmen Square, with its wide, empty space, was built as a “people’s square,” in line with Communist ideology. The current Gwanghwamun Square is the product of more recent 21st-century concerns surrounding urban renewal in a crowded city. This is in contrast to the Gwanghwamun of the 1970s and 80s, when a grand 16-lane highway and concrete-and-steel gate were well-suited for the development-driven ideology of South Korea’s strong-arm military rulers. In the 21st century, the traffic island that is Gwanghwamun Square no longer serves the desires of the public.

Under current considerations to reconfigure Gwanghwamun Square, one side of Sejong-no would be sealed to expand the space into a true pedestrian plaza in the style of squares typically seen in other cities.

“The era has passed where the government attaches some symbolism to Sejong-no,” Kim Jeong-hoo, a professor at Hanyang University’s Graduate School of Urban and Real Estate Studies, said in the JoongAng article. “Rather than a political approach, the focus should be on what the public needs.”

Public demand, though, is itself a form of political discourse, and the renovation of public space, even in the context of urban renewal, is always political, because space always provides the potential for political activity. The French monarchs understood this when they widened boulevards to effectively make impossible the creation of barricades that had been the people’s method of protest. The Chinese and Soviet Communists understood this when they created “people’s squares” in the process of their nation-building. And the Koreans understood this when they demolished the Japanese government building in Gyeongbok Palace in 1995 to wipe out one of the last architectural vestiges of its colonial history and reconstruct the complex as it was during the Joseon era.

Times Square pedestrian plaza. (Source: Wikimedia)

The creation of new public space allows possibilities for activity that is both recreational and political. In New York City’s Times Square, the expansion of pedestrian space effectively transformed it from a traffic island bound by two roads to a true public square sealed from traffic, and it has created sites for recreational subversion in the form of street acts, pop-up art, and even free public yoga sessions. But it has also played host to Black Lives Matter protests, climate marches, and other public demonstrations. Indeed, political activity was a concern when Gwanghwamun Square was first conceived as a pedestrian space, so much so that the government had to promise banning demonstrations in the plaza in order to move forward with the renovation.

But the risk of subversion, both recreational and political, is the gamble that any government has to take to create more public space. In any urban renewal project, there is always the potential that transformation of space also leads to transformation in the way we imagine human interaction, because new public spaces make room for more serendipity, spontaneous activity, and inevitably, more political activity. And that is a good thing.