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November 18, 2017

What Makes Seoul An Urban Utopia?

Text by Tina Dastur

Never once does Seoul’s passion for exploring technology compromise on its vision to make the lives of its residents easier and better

Quite simply put, Seoul has spirit. Who’d have thought that a country completely levelled after the disastrous Korean War (1950-’53) would emerge as one of the forerunners in design and architecture, with global economies turning to it for inspiration? But that wasn’t always the case. In the aftermath of the war, South Koreans were left homeless and without basic infrastructure elements like schools and hospitals. It was then that the country’s capital became the epicentre of the reconstruction project, as civilians set about their task of rebuilding their country, economy and lives, with investment from the US. Back then, because the need of the hour was to rebuild fast, modernisation and industrialisation were defined by a simple, cheap and no-frills approach to design that excluded aesthetics altogether. And so, the traditional South Korean hanok villages were slowly replaced with far more serious, unattractive structures and utilitarian tower complexes.

But, come the Olympics of 1988 and the FIFA World Cup in 2002, and Seoul revised its hackneyed outlook on design for more thoughtful city planning that didn’t solely focus on serviceability. A turning point in the design revolution came in 2003, when then-mayor Lee Myung-bak gave the go-ahead for a bold plan to demolish a stretch of elevated highway, south of the imperial palace of Gyeongbokgung. In the process was unearthed the hidden Cheonggyecheon stream, which, within two years, was restored to a clean waterbody that now flows peacefully beneath imposing stone bridges, lending the area an air of coolness and calm. Speaking of bridges, it would be sacrilege to leave out mentioning the whopping 27 bridges that straddle and criss-cross the majestic Han River, each designed in perfect symmetry. Funnily enough, it’s the shortest one, Saetgang Bridge, which is the most striking of the lot, with its asymmetrical, cabled swerving form. Spurred by the ability to create structures that merged utility with newer design slants, Seoul soon began integrating design into elements of everyday life, to the extent that today, it can be discerned in everything from civic facilities and public amenities to technological processes.

After being crowned World Design Capital and designated a UNESCO City of Design in 2010, Seoul took it upon itself to live up to those honours and embraced newer, more unusual takes on design. Resultantly, the city’s skyline is today speckled with some of the tallest, most beautiful edifices and arresting constructions. Take Some Sevit, a cultural complex conceptualised in 2006 that comprises three glowing, pulsating man-made islands – christened Some Gavit, Chavit and Solvit. But if there’s one project that has completely transformed the way one sees Seoul, it’s the ambitious Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), which covers a sprawling 38,000-square-foot area, designed by famed architect Zaha Hadid. Resembling a colossal pixelated spaceship, the fluid, undulating structure is draped with 45,000 aluminium panels of varying sizes and curvatures, and houses within its interiors convention and shopping centres, exhibition galleries, seminar rooms, design museums, libraries and education centres. So as not to overshadow the area’s history, Hadid even created a stunning landscape around the complex that incorporates the remains of the capital’s 15th-century city walls and the 1925 sports stadium that formerly stood on the spot. If you’re looking for towering structures when scanning the Seoul skyline, it’s hard to miss the larger-than-life, 555-metre Lotte World Tower, masterminded by American firm Kohn Pendersen Fox. Completed last year, the 123-storey skyscraper, inspired by Korean ceramics and writing brushes, is the fifth-tallest building in the world and the tallest on the Korean peninsula. It contains galleries, a shopping mall, offices, apartments, a seven-star luxury hotel, a multiplex cinema, a skywalk, an observation deck, an aquarium and a 2,000-seat concert hall.

But it’s not just the cultural structures that reflect Seoul’s inimitable design spirit. The capital’s current city hall borrows inspiration from the eaves of a traditional Korean house and stands in stark contrast to its predecessor, which was built for the Japanese colonial administration and stood as a remembrance of Japanese imperialism. In its existing form, a huge swell of glass now looms above the former city hall…almost like a billowing wave frozen in its tracks. More subtly, the building is also indicative of how the country stays informed of its bitter past but chooses to rise above it, with pride. Inside the property, you’ll find a vertical garden that goes up all seven floors and houses 70,000 plants. But as your eyes climb to the top, they’ll inevitably land on Jeon Su-cheon’s Meta Epic: SeoBeol, a spectacular art installation that is made up of a cluster of spherical glass spheres to symbolise Seoul’s dynamism.

While on the subject of symbolism, it’s interesting to note that private properties now sprouting in the city are putting a contemporary spin on traditional living methods, too. In a nod to the hanoks of old, which started to disappear in the 1990s, the latest residences draw on the traditional housing system’s principles of design. An integral and permanent characteristic of hanoks was the courtyard, which served as a multipurpose space for production and communal gatherings…and so, modern-day homes in Seoul are attempting to maintain that close relationship between their interiors and exteriors.

One of the capital’s most renowned architects, Moon Hoon, known for his unconventional and out-there designs, also incorporates the hanok design philosophy in his creations; his properties have certain signature elements such as sharp geometric angles, open space, pavilions and even layout. ‘I think hanok (design) has been an inspiration for architects all along, but recently this has (reached) the general public,’ said Hoon in an interview, stressing, ‘They have become appreciative of our heritage.’ This is certainly fitting for a country that is adamant about reinventing itself, but that still wants to maintain that connect with its identity.

Because of Seoul’s openness to experimentation in design and architecture, the capital has been grabbing the attention of a host of global architects, who are drawn to the city for its enthusiasm for design. Recently opened in the capital in May this year was a project by Dutch firm MVRDV that converted a former overpass into a walkway teeming with ample foliage. Called Seoullo 7017, the sky garden is the city’s response to New York’s wildly successful High Line, and is in fact, part of a larger initiative to make the city cleaner, greener and more pedestrian friendly. Ideated with much foresight, the aim is to eventually have it serve as an ‘urban nursery’, with plants and trees capable of being transplanted to other districts.

But for all of Seoul’s passion for exploring new formats of technology, never once does it compromise on its community culture and vision to make the lives of its residents easier, simpler and frankly, just better. You could say that the approach to design isn’t simply envisaging something absolutely outrageous, but instead, something that grabs the attention while still facilitating the community culture that makes the capital dynamic, lively and inviting.

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