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Inside out Clarity

Charlie Sutherland

How a Korean morality play became a vehicle for a green message

South Korea has a natural form of paradise. It is a country where despite rampant urbanisation, 70% of the landscape is still forested. Low mountain ranges are touched just by hikers (millions of them) and a few pavilions. Peaks, cliffs and waterfalls rise above plains and shallow valleys still dominated by rice fields. 

Koreans might work longer hours than the Japanese or Chinese, but they have taken steps to preserve the wilderness of their plains and valleys. There are national parks and hiking trails and, since President Lee announced a ‘low carbon, green growth strategy’ in 2008, the eco movement has gathered strength. 

In 2006 Suncheon Bay, a beautiful river delta in the South Sea, was officially recognised for its mixture of habitats, scenery, and reed-beds uncannily designed by nature into a circular shape. It is the first Korean estuary to enter the Ramsar list of protected wetlands, and thus gain international recognition. More than two and a half million eco-tourists visit every year, along with migrating birds like the black-hooded crane, a symbol of the bay. ­Imagine an area rebranding itself like the latest Olympic city, with flapping wings that ­protect nature and revive fortunes, and you can guess its emergent narrative. 

We set about crystallising a miniature landscape of the three protagonists – mountain/city/wetlands. We turned the system inside out

Suncheon, a few miles north, is a city of 300,000 people threading through and around undulating mountains, above all, the big one at its centre, Mount Bong-Hwa. Tree-­covered summits provide a strong juxtaposition with human artefacts – concrete highrise and highways. So Suncheon City is a microcosm of the country, with three major rivers and a swathe of pine trees and rock outcrops above it. Perhaps such vistas inspired the mayor and his team to set up the garden festival Inter­national Garden Expo of 2013, the self-styled Eco Geo Festival, as an incipient park. 

The Korean paradox is that its omni­present mountains make the inhabitants ­value flatlands, which most countries find bor­ing. Designing our public park for the festival, this led us to a thought experiment. Could we miniaturise the extraordinary, non-visible 100-mile linear ecology as a whole, and bring it to consciousness? We set about crystallising a miniature landscape of the three protagonists – mountain/city/wetlands. Our scheme’s layout mirrors the area as a compound reality. We turned the system inside out: the flat lake becomes the sprawling city of the plain; the bridge becomes the Dong-Cheon river bearing nutrients to the wetlands; and the ­seven mounds reflect the bowl of mountains all around. In places these metaphors are made explicit by signs and words set in the ground.

The festival’s opening ceremony was a loosely framed morality play pitting ecology against economy, hooded cranes against pollution. Over 2000 performers took part. Halfway through, the mixture of local mythology and global pop culminated in a feverish dance. Music, smoke, explosions – ecologically-dead, killed in a Disney-Wagnerian romp, orchestrated to leave one suspended between tears of laughter and suspicious angst. Then the melo­drama reversed as the crane was revived by the youth of Suncheon bearing white lanterns. 

Most people, especially architects and those who live in cities, think of landscape as passive. But the landscape can be a protagonist marking the major transitions of life. Min­iaturising nature as a morality play brought back this agency. Maybe Suncheon’s ­gamble – to convert people to an ecological view through gardening and drama – will work.


The park landscape of Suncheon Eco Geo Festival  2013 was designed by JencksSquared