The reinvention of Seoul

South Koreans are reinventing Seoul, inspired by the world’s most liveable cities, and even the US Army is getting out of their way. Graham Reid asks why Koreans can unite to build the ‘lifestyle capital of the East’ when New Zealanders struggle to build a football stadium

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South Koreans are reinventing Seoul, inspired by the world’s most liveable cities, and even the US Army is getting out of their way. Graham Reid asks why Koreans can unite to build the ‘lifestyle capital of the East’ when New Zealanders struggle to build a football stadium

If we’re blunt but honest, Seoul, the capital of South Korea, can be a hard-edged place where commerce is ruthless and street-life sometimes bruising. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to see in this 600-year-old city—in fact, quite the opposite.

The sentry outside Deoksugung Palace gate in downtown Seoul looks like he is standing guard outside the Dunkin’ Donuts behind him.

That is an odd, but typical, juxtaposition in Seoul, because here is a city where the modern sits alongside the traditional: outside a gallery of cutting-edge digital art the local vegetable vendor in a battered truck with a megaphone is announcing his daily specials.

In hot-wired Seoul—where there is 91.8 percent Internet penetration into homes and people of all ages are comfortable with emerging technologies—the old and the new are in fascinatingly close proximity. And the architecture can be thrilling, whether it’s a multi-coloured temple or a steel’n’glass slice of Modernism, like the breathtaking Nuritkum Tower in the district known by the appealingly futuristic name of Digital Media City. With a population of ten million, Seoul is a vibrant, attractive and very different Asian city. It is well worth a visit.


But you had better go now because soon another Seoul will have arisen along the banks of the Hangang (the Han River), one that will redefine concepts of commercial architecture and urban living and, Koreans hope, make their city the business and tourism hub of Northeast Asia.

On a recent trip, I was told that Seoul will become “a new Manhattan of the East”, although I also heard it described as “the centre of the future”, “the centre of the world”, “the global creative city” and “the new soul of Asia”. “We will realise these goals,” a man in horn-rimmed glasses assured me.

There are plans—and bulldozers ready—to transform this hard-edged, bristlingly busy city known for its commerce and creativity into what, on extensive architectural and civic design plans, looks like Dubai with trees. ‘Hard city to soft city’ is one of the many slogans employed to describe this ambitious makeover.

Elegant buildings will pierce the skyline, there will be new parks with restful walkways, and museums, art galleries and high-tech malls will be incorporated into a civic makeover that’s breathtaking in its daring and impressive in its integrated urban planning.

Digital walls and designer outlets, an opera house, arts centres and urban housing, digital rivers snaking invisibly between the high-tech, high-rise apartment and business towers … Seoul wants to be the hub of Northeast Asia and is openly challenging Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Around Seoul’s perimeter there will be four new industrial belts as satellite developments, and the Hangang Renaissance alone—an immodestly-named, over-arching project to transform the river and its banks into a recreational area with jet skis, water traffic, new parks and cultural spaces—involves 33 separate projects. It is as bold as it is visionary, but that’s only the half of it: in the Yongsan business district, which has been the old commercial gateway to Seoul since 1700, a whole new city will arise with the name Dream Hub.

And this urban remake is all going to happen within the next 12 years.

In the time it takes to get planning permission in Auckland, Seoul will have torn down large tracts of the central city and thrown up signature skyscrapers that look like they leaped from Philippe Starck’s drawing board.


Sceptics will understandably dismiss the time frame for such a major urban project—3.3 million square metres in the centre of an already bustling city will be redeveloped—but recent Korean history supports their self-belief. Seoul was a charred ruin just 55 years ago when the city had been a battleground in the Korean War. As a matter of pride after the end of that war—and the Japanese Colonial Period that preceded it—South Koreans rebuilt their capital and embraced modernity. Within a couple of decades towering housing blocks—now in their hundreds—encircled and penetrated the city centre (many admittedly a blight on the current landscape) and a city that had been broken and was broke rose, quite literally, from ashes.

Koreans are the hardest working people on the planet (laws enforcing a 40-hour week were recently enacted to slow them down), and when given slogans and a vision—and the Dream Hub project provides those in abundance—they get a job done.

South Korea has the seventh fastest economic growth rate in the world and a young, design-aware citizenry—average age 36.7 years—attuned to the rhetoric of progress.

“The 21st century,” says one promotional DVD for the redevelopment, “has gone beyond selling functions to selling sensitivity. Even when buying a mobile phone the consumer takes design into consideration. This is the same for cities.”

And Seoul’s civic designers are looking to Paris, London, Barcelona and Sydney, whose urban culture and iconic buildings have pulled in commerce and tourism dollars.

Development is rapid in Seoul because of a streamlined system of local government that Aucklanders can only envy. First, it should be noted that aside from a few Japanese Colonial Period buildings and the palaces, not a lot of current architecture in Seoul is worth protecting. Most was built for function rather than form, so few citizens will weep for the faceless office blocks and low-rent housing demolished to realise the new vision.

And despite its size and spread, Seoul has only one mayor (with three vice-mayors) and he argues that good civic design will draw tourists—12 million a year by 2020—and business.

Mayor Oh Se-hoon—young, good looking, charismatic and persuasive—is a former lawyer and congressman who backs the digital revolution, convincingly delivers inspirational slogans such as ‘design is air’ and wants his city to be the lifestyle capital of the East.

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He is supported by powerful alliances and Dream Hub is being fast-tracked through the involvement of public and private sector consortiums: 29.9 percent public, with the balance in subsets of major conglomerates such as Samsung, Lotte, Hyundai and the like.

These hydra-headed companies—chaebols, as they’re known—have a a grip on various aspects of Korean and international commerce. Samsung, for example, is the world’s second-largest conglomerate with electronics, shipbuilding, engineering and construction in its portfolio.

When these companies want things done, they have the clout and contacts to do them—and they want this US$130 billion Dream Hub project done. The district around Yongsan Station has been redesignated for development and the US military base currently in the zone will be moved.

So, some specifics about Dream Hub: there will be a computerised intelligent-parking system to deal with 33,000 vehicles daily; all buildings, commercial or domestic, will have the latest digital technologies and be scrupulously eco-friendly; and 700,000 transit users will pass through central Yongsan Station daily.
There will be twin 100-storey landmark office towers designed by Marshall Strabala (who was involved in the design of Canary Wharf in London and the Burj Dubai in the UAE, among other landmark projects), as well as ten luxurious 60-storey residential towers.

There will be pedestrian malls and an open space to challenge New York’s Central Park, a multimedia square with a central glass structure for the staging of exhibitions, balls and fashion shows (connected to the underground retail area), and a ‘super club’ of spas, restaurants and bars, sports facilities and pools.

There is attention to small details too: city signage will be standardised using a new font created for the purpose, and there will be colour-coding of specific areas.

And while scepticism may be understandably high over such a massive urban makeover, one thing needs to be noted: it has already begun.

This urban remake is all going to happen within the next 12 years. In the time it takes to get planning permission in Auckland, Seoul will have torn down large tracts of the central city and thrown up signature skyscrapers that look like they leaped from Philippe Starck’s drawing board


Five years ago Seoul started an ambitious urban-renewal project under the city’s then-mayor (now Korean president) Lee Myung-bak. The ancient, dry Cheonggye Stream that ran through what is now central Seoul had long been covered by urban development and an elevated highway.

But a US$1.1 billion project was mooted to move the road, uncover the historic river and have water flow through downtown Seoul again. Cheonggye Stream was to become a centrepiece for the city where local people and tourists could amble along pathways on its banks. There was one proviso however: the whole project—which uncovered unexpected artefacts on excavation—would be undertaken without any disruption to the city’s traffic or local retailers. And there were 170,000 cars a day along the elevated highway and Cheonggye Street.

That this seemingly impossible project was completed within two years is a testament to what can happen at the nexus of will, a work ethic and truckloads of money.

Sure, there were subsequent bribery charges, and the stream is more manufactured than natural (the water has to be pumped through)—but the six-kilometre walkway is undeniably pleasant, has led to ancillary development, and at one end there is an impressive spiral sculpture by Claes Oldenburg.

Today, Cheonggye Stream is the focus for festivals, a destination for tourists and locals—as was intended—and an example to Koreans and the world of what is achievable in this city.

There has also been major redevelopment of the banks of the Hangang to allow greater pedestrian access to the waters and parks which have been cut off by wide swathes of motorways (which are being shifted underground), and the ongoing Hangang Renaissance.

It’s all part of the massive redesign of riverside Seoul that includes waterfront towers, marinas, an international passenger shipping terminal and water taxis to complement the many bridges (which will be dramatically illuminated).

If the Cheonggye Stream project was the model for what was possible, then new mayor Oh has been quick to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. Last year his city was named the World Design Capital 2010 by the jury of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, an award that has given focus and impetus to the redevelopment projects.

In his acceptance speech, Oh observed: “Design is a growth driver of the Seoul economy … with Seoul’s designation as WDC 2010, the city will be able to breathe creative energy into the design industry and reinvent itself as a globally-recognised city of design, and collaborate with other cities in the world to communicate with design. Seoul will send out the message that design is the power to change the world for the better.”

Recent Korean history supports Koreans’ self-belief. Seoul was a charred ruin just 55 years ago when the city had been a battleground. Within a couple of decades, a city that had been broken and was broke rose, quite literally, from ashes


Already off the drawing board is the remake of 80-year-old Dongdaemun Stadium, once a 30,000-seat athletics arena but in recent years a flea market. The Seoul Metropolitan Government invited eight internationally acclaimed architects to submit proposals for developing this central city site and its surrounding areas, and in August last year announced the winner: Baghdad-born Zaha Hadid, who in 2004 won the Pritzker Prize, often described as the Nobel for architects.

Hadid’s design for the US$324 million makeover—due for completion in 2010—is breathtaking: long sweeps of grassed areas and walkways which snake upward over a landscaped park and shopping plaza.

Dongdaemun in the north east is some way from the Dream Hub business district but, as with the satellite industrial parks and Digital Media City to the west of downtown, these developments will be integrated over the next decade.

Digital Media City is symbolic of the vision of the Seoul Metropolitan Government: it was mooted in the mid-90s as a centre for creative IT and media industries, and today provides high-tech office space and 7,000 plugged-in, environmentally-friendly residential apartments. Less than 20 minutes from central Seoul by subway or road, and just 30 minutes from the international airport at Incheon, DMC is a stand-alone centre of digital creativity. It is also a pointer to an online future that Korea is embracing: e-government.


Mayor Oh sees online participation in civic matters as the future of a democracy that is quick, reactive, efficient and environmentally friendly. There is, of course, a slogan for this too: ‘u-Seoul’, meaning ‘ubiquitous Seoul’, and the word has been adopted widely to encapsulate the idea of universal, integrated technologies, from phones linked to civic services to handheld computers tied in to domestic appliances.

In Seoul it can seem that plans, slogans and catchphrases are commonplace. But so is progress, the penetration of digital technology and the will to make the city the new hub of Northeast Asia.

Can it happen?

If there’s an economic downturn then certainly plans will be affected, but my travels in Asia after ‘the economic bubble burst’—a phrase Japanese businessmen chanted like a depressing mantra after 1997—tell me that once a project in Asia achieves critical mass and momentum it won’t easily be stopped. And the vision in Seoul has already started rolling. So have the bulldozers.

Of course, anything can happen in the world of Korean politics, as the once-popular but currently beleaguered president could affirm. But Mayor Oh is ambitious and political success in Seoul is a powerful stepping stone. Two previous mayors of Seoul went on to become presidents.

Seoul already boasts striking urban design in its bars, restaurants, art galleries, nightclubs and commercial buildings. It’s all part of a new design ethic emerging in this vibrant and exciting city.

So? Billions of dollars, wide swathes of land cleared and developed, digital infrastructure, parks and open spaces, happy people, a clean and green future …

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: will there be flying cars too? Even so, my money is still with that man in horn rims who had little doubt: “We will realise these goals.”


Soldiers by Lee Yong-baek. Image © Lee Yong-baek and Arario Gallery

For over a minute I simply couldn't see it

On the large, high-definition flat screen in Seoul’s hip Arario Gallery was a work by digital artist Lee Yong-baek that seemed to be just a wall of dense and colourful flowers. “There are soldiers,” insisted gallery curator Do Kyeongmin, but damned if I could see them.

Then one moved almost imperceptibly—a man in vibrant floral camouflage—and then another. The wall slowly came alive and all I could do was watch in astonishment.

It wasn’t the first time innovative Korean digital art had taken me aback, nor the first time I would stop and look long and hard at Korean design just for its own sake.

In CD and DVD stores the packaging and design can be striking. I bought the Vengeance Trilogy set by Palme d’Or winner Park Chan-wook largely because of the packaging: the three movie DVDs and the extra discs of footage and interviews came in handsome gatefold covers with booklets of stills, plus postcards and reproductions of movie posters. And they were in a very cool box, the spine mimicking a bundle of old manuscripts.

CD covers are much the same: whether it’s the exciting hip-hop of MC Sniper or the traditional music of Professor Byungki Hwang, the packaging shows care, thought and an eye for design principles. Hwang’s Spring Snow collection, for example, comes as a small, beautifully laid-out hardback book with liner notes in four languages, gold-embossed lettering on the front and a cut-out white cover slip which reveals a black and white image of the gayageum (zither) master walking in the snow.

Simplicity is a hallmark here (except in the brain-scrambling clutter of street and shop signage) and Korea has one significant advantage in design: the written language of han-geul, which is constructed of straight lines and circles, sometimes compressed but always orderly.

This means posters and book covers can be elegantly simple but have impact.

Interiors in homes, shops and hotels are often spare and minimal, but rarely feel austere because of the placement of simple but functional furnishings, plants and the common elements of rough-hewn timber and raw stone. In a city where space is at a premium, interiors are designed to be open and restful.

Koreans have an affinity with nature, but unlike the Japanese don’t turn their gardens into images of crisp but stylised perfection. Korean gardens are rather more Romantic and if not wild at least you sense these are quite natural arrangements of plants and shrubbery—even if they aren’t.

Principles of art and architecture emphasise moderation, simplicity and restraint. Colours are cool and earthy, and those who can afford stand-alone homes prefer an indoor-outdoor flow through the use of timber floors and ceilings leading onto inner courtyards.

Korean architects have embraced new materials but use them in the same restrained manner, so although the landscape of Seoul can boast striking towers with walls of glass, the interiors are most often spacious and uncluttered.

Homes, office buildings, art galleries, shops, restaurants and bars are therefore retreats from the often chaotic streets outside, quiet refuges in a city that knows where it is going and wants to get there as fast as possible.

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