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Morphing MetrosKorean subways used to be drab and claustrophobic. Now that's changing
Choi In-hye  |
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승인 2010.02.25  19:30:09
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A VIOLIN concerto is the last thing people expect to see in the subway. Sure, we often hear Mozart over the metro speaker system, but to see a guerilla concert of 45 young violinists led by Kim Nam-yun, one of Korea’s finest violists? Last Feb. at Yeoksam station, a student broke into a violin solo as people walked by. Other violinists swept in, and soon enough, the music picked up into Khachaturian’s intoxicating Sabre Dance. Commuters slowed their pace despite the evening rush hour congestion. “I’ve seen street performances before, but never on the subway,” said Kyle Ahn, an office worker. He smiled as the violinists started playing Brahms’s Hungarian Dance. “This is really good.” 
   No need for surprises, though. Although this was a first, it won’t be the last. With various cultural events and remodeling plans, the Korean subway has long been gearing up to add some cheer to its underground spaces. Some of the changes may be barely noticeable. But bit by bit, the metro is surely transforming. 


The arteries of a bustling city

   The Korean metro is young compared to that of Europe or America. Rapid transit systems first evolved from railways in the late 19th century, with London’s Metropolitan Railway opening in 1863. The technology quickly spread throughout Europe and America, spurring Hungary’s Budapest to open its own line in 1896. Other cities followed suit, starting with Vienna (1898), which was trailed by Paris (1900), Boston (1901), Berlin (1902), and New York (1904). Korea launched its first subway line almost a century later, in 1974. Despite its relative newness, however, the metro quickly became crucial to Koreans. Just in Seoul, eight more lines have been built since 1974 - the first section of line number 9 opened last September. In fact, Seoul’s rapid transit system is one of the heaviest used metros in the world, ranking third after Tokyo and Moscow. Busan’s metro system is almost 20 times busier than that of Brazilia or Naples. 
   Naturally, Koreans have long expected metros to serve only one purpose: transport. “People didn’t care what stations looked like when the first metros started running. What mattered was whether platforms were safe and cable cars sped along quickly,” says Lee Byoung-cheul (General Manager, Design Center, Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corp.). No wonder negative images of the subway still persist. Drafty platforms, drunks tottering in midnight trains, and crushing crowds are some the first impressions that the subway evokes from the public.
   From a historical perspective, the emphasis on efficiency is understandable. Korea’s first subway line opened amidst the 1970s oil crisis, an alarming event that sparked an international trend in guzzling less fuel. On the one hand, the crisis helped popularize the subway in Korea as the smarter, cleaner choice over cars and buses. On the other, it channeled the government’s focus into the technicalities of the metro rather than its aesthetic design. Besides, the Korean government in the 70s and 80s was preoccupied with settling internal conflicts. Its dazzling economic success was offset by the birth pangs of democratization, and artistic and cultural appreciation naturally took a backseat.


Art blossoms underground

   Over the years, Korea’s desire to make its subways appealing surged. The appreciation for the arts refused to stay in the shadows. Again, social context deserves some notice. Hosting international games like the 1988 Olympics and the 2002 FIFA World Cup triggered - probably for the first time in Korea ? a sincere interest in public art and design. The economic boom of the 80s and early 90s further strengthened that awareness. Rapid transit corporations, in turn, have responded to public demands with a rainbow of schemes that range from etching poems on screen doors to renovating entire stations. Here are some of the ways the metro is achieving this: 
    - Galleries and subway art: Opened in 1985, Gyeoungbokgung station’s art exhibition hall used to be Korea’s only subway gallery. Not anymore. In Seoul, smaller exhibition spaces in Hyehwa and Seoul National University stations opened in 2000 and 2010, respectively. Metro galleries exist in other regions too, and are slowly increasing in number. Case in point: the Busan rapid transit system plans on displaying some ancient treasures - bronze helmets, spoons, spears, and the like - excavated during its metro construction.  
   Art need not be contained in picture frames or on pedestals. Colorful murals and statues embellish several stations, offering the harrowed public a break from the monotony of underground spaces.

     Mural in Heukseok station

   -  Busking: Subway busking is legal, but performances are usually limited to a few scores of licensed buskers who act on a rotating schedule. Willing artists need to apply and pass an audition beforehand. “Compared to New York or Paris, the competition is pretty negligible,” says Park Seoung-yong, a Seoul Metro Artist, who performs under the name Neofolk. “But the program provides nameless artists a good place to perform.”  


   -  Redesigning: Subways are struggling to dispel its gloom through systematic renovations. Toilets, for example, have become surprisingly cleaner and brighter. Line number 9’s Heukseok station has prepared a small area for greenery. Dongdaemun History & Culture Park station is undergoing a complete renovation as well.

        3D rendition of Dongdaemun History & Culture Park's renovation

   - Cultural spaces and events: Commuters often carry around a book or two to read on the subway. Now metro stations have entire bookstores and libraries within them. Jeongja station on the Bundang line runs a small library for residents. Other stations, such as Sinnonhyeon and Wangsimni, have mini bookshops for citizens to stop by.

  Mini bookstore

“Seoul metro provides various cultural events,” says Kim Jeong-hwan (Chief Manager, Public Relations Div., Seoul Metro). “In May, the university festival season, students are given the opportunity to perform on the subway stations. We’ve also held public fashion shows, volunteer projects, and illustration contests.”
   - Theme trains: “Theme trains were a great hit in the early 2000s,” says Park Jong-uk (Assistant Manager, Public Relations Div., Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corp.). To the commuters’ delight, entire trains would be transformed for short periods of time. Tree ornaments and tiny stockings would dangle down from ceilings on Christmas; line number 7’s “Dream Metro” flooded the cars with whimsical decor and plush toys for six months. The 2003 Daegu subway disaster, however, ended the fad. “The decorations would easily catch fire, and officials were determined to play it safe,” says Park. Theme trains did not completely disappear, though. Incheon and Gwangju’s metro systems both ran theme trains last year, drawing both attention and positive responses from the public.
   While Seoul has recently upgraded its subway environment due to the determination of its mayor, Oh Se-hoon, other provincial metros have acutely felt the need to incorporate the arts into their systems. “There was much debate as to the necessity of the Gwangju metro prior to its opening,” says Kim Song-hee (Staff, PR & Education Div., Gwangju Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corp.). Launched in 2004, the metro operates one line. Its daily ridership now amounts to 53,000 people. “We needed the ultimate card to help solve the numerous problems that beset the Gwangju metro, such as adding new stations and obtaining more subway users. That card was ‘culture’.”
Whether the driving factor be heightened public desires or governmental support, “culture train” has surfaced as a key word. As Lee Seong-cheol (Deputy Section Chief, CS & Public Relations Div., Busan Transportation Corp.) puts it, “the days when metros were simply a means of transport are over.”


Are the changes effective or defective?

   Stations abroad have long proved that point. Often lauded as the world’s most beautiful stations, Moscow’s opulent chandeliers or Stockholm’s unique caves are simply jaw dropping. But renovating metro space is hardly an easy ride. When the New York City Transit first attempted to implement artworks into its stations, the decision was met with plenty of encouragement and criticism. The Herald Tribune, for example, noted that the subway stations were already embellished with small bits of artistry; and yet these decorations went unnoticed by most of its passengers. What was the use, therefore, to pour more money for artwork that commuters hardly noticed?
Similar problems seem to beleaguer the Korean subway’s efforts as well. People are hardly aware that the subway is attempting many remodeling projects or offering various cultural events and musical performances. “I just take the subway to get to work. I wouldn’t know about any events that the metro hosts,” says Ahn.
   Even if the public does take notice, “not everyone welcomes changes in the metro,” says Lee Byoung-cheul. Indeed, a pop-art mural featuring cartoon figures on Eulgirosam-ga was taken down in 2000 when protests questioning its artistic qualities were made. “How can you call this art?” some citizens demanded. 
   Financial restraints also seem like a major problem. Stockholm’s stations are awesome for a reason - it spends 10 million SEK per year in safeguarding and developing artwork. Seoul originally planned to transform 10 of its metro stations, but slimmed down its original proposal due to costs. Now the city wants to try out one station before revolutionizing anything else. “Remodeling Dongdaemun History & Culture Park station alone costs 4 billion won,” says Lee.


Looking forward

   Korean public art and design has had an extremely short history. “Public design is still a fairly new concept for us,” says Ha Mi-kyoung (Prof., Dept. of Housing & Interior Design, Yonsei Univ.). “We’ve made plenty of mistakes in the past. We still do.”
   Mistakes are a necessary step for improvement. In the meanwhile, experts advise that sticking to the basics of spatial design is necessary. This is especially true when one considers the typical features of underground spaces ? they are dark, narrow, and easy to lose one’s sense of direction. “Expanding cultural spaces and creating beautiful stations is great,” says Ha, “but there are basic principles you have to keep in mind at the same time. Spaces first need to be hygienic and give off a sense of safety and accessibility.” Han Suk-woo (Dean, Graduate School of NID Fusion Technology, Seoul National Univ. of Technology), who designed several railway trains in Korea, also agrees on sticking to the basics of design. “Subway stations should be made so that it is user-friendly to all users, including children and the disabled.”
    Stations, when transformed, should reflect the distinctive qualities of that particular region. Imitating foreign models has a high chance that it will alienate its users. “Creating a space doesn’t solve everything,” says Lee Seong-cheul. “What makes it a living space or a dead space depends […] on using cultural contents familiar to the residents.” Gwangju metro has done that by creating themed stations. Busan’s rapid transit system is running a small space where citizens can get together with Busan artists to chat about art.


*        *        *

   The subway is a transient place. Thousands of people are always on the move, coming and going to their respective destinations. Though the exposure may be brief and limited, subway arts and cultural spaces still enable the public to access art easily. Interest in public art and design has further been fueled since Seoul was designated as the World Design Capital this year. Despite the obstacles, upgrading subway design, cultural spaces, and various events seems like a trend that will continue for quite a while.


Box 1: Call it a subway or metro or what?
  A metro is usually defined as “an urban electric mass rail transport system that provides services in frequent intervals (usually up to 10 minutes), and is totally independent from other traffic.” However, definitions of what exactly constitutes a metro vary. “Metro” is used in most cities around the world. In some places, such as the United States and Canada, the term “subway” usually means the entire system, while in other cities the word refers only to the parts that are underground. In London, the subway is called the “Underground” or “Tube”; in Hongkong “MRT”, in Germany and Austria, the “U-Bahn”. *The Yonsei Annals* interchanges “subway” and “metro” in this article.

   I remember the first time I noticed - really noticed - that the metro was changing. I always used to transfer at Euljirosam-ga to get to Sinchon in my freshman year. With ugly tiles plastered from wall to floor, Euljirosam-ga is a very depressing place. But one day I found huge panels installed on those tiled walls. Each panel had a blown-up, black-and-white photograph. Grainy, and soaked with shadows, these dreamy photos depicted silhouettes of circus animals and performers against the backdrop of a desert. The panels were removed after a few weeks, but while they were there the images romanticized the entire station.
   I started noticing the changes after that. Poems appeared on screen doors; toilets stayed amazingly clean. It wasn’t until I started writing the article that I realized that there was much more going on. At the same time, I felt the limitations as well; subway art, for example, was either rare or half-hidden in neglected places.
   In the article, my discussions are based mainly on Seoul’s metro system because that is the metro I have experienced the most. As I researched and interviewed more about the metro, I learned about other regions as well and I wanted to share this with the Annals readers.


Editor's Note:

A fancy belly dance performance is taking place. People are totally immersed till the show successfully ends with a rousing applause, after which they scatter and hurry to where they were heading. Where are they? To our surprise, the performance is set in the middle of a subway station. Indeed, the once dull and gloomy Korean metro has undertaken the challenge of overcoming its current state despite its limits. In this month's Cover Story, The Yonsei Annals awakens the readers' sensitivity to the ambitions and gradual changes the subway is going through from a mere means of transportation to a blithe place offering culture. 


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Very informative!
(2012-02-02 14:29:58)
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