New Seoul city hall sparks controversy over design

The South Korean capital Thursday unveiled its latest landmark, a controversial $256 million city hall with an undulating glass structure that looms over its preserved colonial-era stone predecessor.

Scaffolding and fencing around the site were removed this week after three years of construction, dramatising the contrast between the 13-storey futuristic building and the 1926 structure built during Japanese rule, which it overshadows.

The development symbolises the dilemma facing Seoul, a city largely destroyed during the 1950-53 Korean War and hastily redeveloped as the country's economy boomed later in the 20th century.

Planners are now trying to preserve what little remains of the past, but several architects and passers-by were unenthused with the result in this case.

"There is little harmony between the new and old buildings," architect Baek Min-Seok told AFP.

"The old building next to a new one is going to be an eyesore, but you cannot tear down a time-honoured structure just because of aesthetic reasons. This is a dilemma for Seoul."

Baek also said the new city hall contradicts an official guideline to limit glass walls to less than half the total wall area for energy efficiency.

The new building, with 7,000 glass wall panels, will be open for use as early as September.

Its protruding front, resembling a breaking wave, rears over the old hall -- failing to blend in with the austere structure or with an old royal palace nearby.

Yoon Seo-Hyun, 24, said the two are too close to each other. "They could have built it with a more traditional appearance. It's just not blending in the landscape," the office worker said.

But Kim Da-Eun, a 24-year-old education consultant, said she likes the new building. "It matches well with the skyline of Seoul, and I think it matches the global image of Seoul quite well," she said.

Lee Gil-Sung, a senior city official in charge of infrastructure, defended the new structure and said it had energy-efficient features.

"As to design, there is no fixed answer. Different people have different opinions," he told AFP.

"Think of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. When it came into existence in 1889, many people poured scorn on it. But now it's an icon of France and one of the most-visited monuments in the world."

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