Flood defence infrastructure as public space
New typologies of public space along the river Han

While the 1960’s saw the Han River in Seoul still lined with rice paddies, less than a decade later the urban fabric had encroached upon the river banks. During the 1970s and ‘80s the increasingly dense development, highways and massive retaining walls altered the course of the river and cut it off completely from the surrounding city scape. The formerly extensive flood plains were minimised, contained by highways and straightjacketed by an infrastructure of large-scale embankments.

With the Han River at its centre and situated close to the estuary, rising sea levels and changing precipitation patterns are of increasing concern to Seoul’s urban planners. The maintenance and protection of the remaining flood plains, as well as the continuing defence of the adjacent neighbourhoods against the frequent flooding are pressing issues.

In 2007 the City of Seoul embarked upon a vast upgrading project to valorise the river bank as a public space, while improving its ability to absorb and defend against the flood threats. Under the title “Han River Renaissance” the work included the adaption of the bridges crossing the river for pedestrian and cycle traffic, ecologically sensitive landscaping, the provision of leisure facilities along the banks and in particular the integration of visible and enjoyable public access gateways to the park to raise its profile.

Up to that point, access to the river banks was provided mainly by 48 tunnels, burrowing under the highways and through the embankments. Despite their daily and popular usage by the public, in particular the inhabitations of the highrise apartments and dense neighbourhoods built up against the river, they had never been considered worthy of design input. As pure infrastructural elements, they were exclusively engineered to resist flooding and fitted with powerful flood gates.

In an unprecedented move, the City of Seoul requested a group of six architectural practices to remodel 25 of these tunnels. The scale of this project was vast and required a close collaboration between infrastructural engineers and the architects involved.

Lokaldesign acted as design coordinator of the Han River Access Tunnel Project, and was also commissioned with the transformation of five of these tunnels. In addition, Lokaldesign developed and designed two new tunnels linking further neighbourhoods to the open space, Shinjayang and Seongsan Tunnels.

The aim of the Lokaldesign’s approach was to transform an existing infrastructure from an utilitarian left-over space into safe, engaging and accessible public space and to develop a new design approach for future tunnels. They should connect and mark out the Han Riverbank Park, Seoul’s major recreational open space, while continuing to act as first line of defence against flooding.

With both designs of the tunnels, a public space is piggybacking off and being formed by an infrastructural framework, subverting a language based on intimidating engineering requirements to provide cool seating during the summer heat, rest spaces and shelter of a human scale. The flood gates are placed in protective encasements, which act as tower-like markers for the new gateways to the park.

In developing this new kind of hybrid spaces, these Han River Access Tunnel projects set an example of how large scale strategies and local design interventions can interact to transform flood defence into successful public spaces.

Flood defence infrastructure as public space
New typologies of public space along the river Han

While the 1960’s saw the Han River in Seoul still lined with rice paddies, less than a decade later the urban fabric had encroached upon the river banks. During the 1970s and ‘80s the increasingly dense development, highways and massive retaining walls altered the course of the river and cut it off completely from the surrounding city scape. The formerly extensive flood plains were minimised, contained by highways and straightjacketed by an infrastructure of large-scale embankments.

With the Han River at its centre and situated close to the estuary, rising sea levels and changing precipitation patterns are of increasing concern to Seoul’s urban planners. The maintenance and protection of the remaining flood plains, as well as the continuing defence of the adjacent neighbourhoods against the frequent flooding are pressing issues.

In 2007 the City of Seoul embarked upon a vast upgrading project to valorise the river bank as a public space, while improving its ability to absorb and defend against the flood threats. Under the title “Han River Renaissance” the work included the adaption of the bridges crossing the river for pedestrian and cycle traffic, ecologically sensitive landscaping, the provision of leisure facilities along the banks and in particular the integration of visible and enjoyable public access gateways to the park to raise its profile.

Up to that point, access to the river banks was provided mainly by 48 tunnels, burrowing under the highways and through the embankments. Despite their daily and popular usage by the public, in particular the inhabitations of the highrise apartments and dense neighbourhoods built up against the river, they had never been considered worthy of design input. As pure infrastructural elements, they were exclusively engineered to resist flooding and fitted with powerful flood gates.

In an unprecedented move, the City of Seoul requested a group of six architectural practices to remodel 25 of these tunnels. The scale of this project was vast and required a close collaboration between infrastructural engineers and the architects involved.

Lokaldesign acted as design coordinator of the Han River Access Tunnel Project, and was also commissioned with the transformation of five of these tunnels. In addition, Lokaldesign developed and designed two new tunnels linking further neighbourhoods to the open space, Shinjayang and Seongsan Tunnels.

The aim of the Lokaldesign’s approach was to transform an existing infrastructure from an utilitarian left-over space into safe, engaging and accessible public space and to develop a new design approach for future tunnels. They should connect and mark out the Han Riverbank Park, Seoul’s major recreational open space, while continuing to act as first line of defence against flooding.

With both designs of the tunnels, a public space is piggybacking off and being formed by an infrastructural framework, subverting a language based on intimidating engineering requirements to provide cool seating during the summer heat, rest spaces and shelter of a human scale. The flood gates are placed in protective encasements, which act as tower-like markers for the new gateways to the park.

In developing this new kind of hybrid spaces, these Han River Access Tunnel projects set an example of how large scale strategies and local design interventions can interact to transform flood defence into successful public spaces.

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