I’m being chauffeured through a parking garage above Seoul’s main train station with Minsuk Cho, who heads one of the city’s most innovative architectural practices, Mass Studies. We got into a car on the first floor, supposedly to whisk us away to a party, but as we wind up and around the spiral ramp of the dimly lit structure, we become more and more confused about exactly where the driver is taking us. Atop the garage, which didn’t seem glamorous inside or out, we are met by the blinding explosions of dozens of paparazzi flashes. The photographers aren’t stalking us, of course, but the Korean pop starlets who stride down the red carpet at the entrance to this one-night Seoul art/fashion event hosted by New York’s New Museum and Calvin Klein.
After grabbing two glasses of champagne we position ourselves so we can look across the street at the Korean-made, American-curated centerpiece of the event: a striking video artwork playing on a 20-story-high LED display normally used for advertisements, one of the largest of its kind. Cho tells me that the artists had to observe some very serious restrictions: “That display is so huge that if the video moves too fast, drivers stare at it, mesmerized, and they crash,” he says.
As we wander the white-tented party, moving from a room filled with buff and beautiful international underwear models to a congregation of American actors and then Korean artists, Cho tells me he can’t believe the changes he’s witnessing in his hometown. “When I left Seoul to study in New York 20 years ago, an event like this would have been inconceivable,” he says. “Forget about the international art world and the celebrities—just finding any Koreans dressed as well as the people at this party would have been impossible back then. Things have really changed.”
In only a few decades, this capital has transformed itself from an impoverished city decimated by the Korean War to one of the most prosperous and high-tech places in the world. In the past decade there’s also been an explosion of international interest in Korean popular culture, especially catchy K-pop music, soapy TV dramas and edgy cinema, making the most famous Korean singers, stars and directors household names everywhere from Tokyo to Beijing. Koreans even have a name for this blossoming of foreign interest in their homegrown pop culture: hallyu, which means Korean wave. Korea has long been dwarfed by China and Japan, far more populous nations that have colonized the Korean Peninsula, and so this recent cultural hegemony has given Seoul residents a newfound confidence, even exuberance, in their city.
Compared with the capitals of Japan and China, Seoul is, at first, a harder place to love, since much of it was built out of extreme necessity—made to be functional, not beautiful. The postwar period saw a huge influx of people from the countryside; the city now contains ten million people, 20 percent of the population of all South Korea. From 1960 to 1990 Seoul gained roughly 300,000 new residents per year. It needed to worry more about how these newcomers would survive than how aesthetically pleasing their environment would be.
This transformation from third-world poverty to a booming export-oriented economy, coupled with extreme wealth, massive population growth and expanded global cultural power, means that Seoul isn’t just a phenomenon in its own right; it’s also a model for cities in China, India and Brazil trying to cope with many of the same problems Seoul faced. (South Korea only eclipsed North Korea economically in the late 1970s.) Myounggu Kang, an urban planner I spoke with at Seoul University, now hopes to pass on what the country learned to the next generation of planners in rapidly expanding cities in Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East. “The now forgotten urban planners from decades ago should be national heroes,” Kang tells me. “They helped lead this city from ruins to riches. We hope the world can learn from them.”
Nowadays, with Korea’s prosperity cemented, there’s been an important shift in Seoul’s values; the city has moved from pure functionalism—and dire necessity—to form, livability and aesthetics. Seoul was named World Design Capital in 2010 by a prominent alliance of industrial designers and has become a mecca for superstar architects seeking marquee projects. This was especially true under its last mayor, Oh Se-hoon, who emphasized up-grading the look of the city, sometimes even, according to his critics, at the expense of health care and infrastructure. What makes Seoul right now such a dynamic and surprising locale is that it’s a place in flux on so many levels: The new architectural aspirations of the city are meeting—and sometimes clashing with—the bland uniformity of its past. Seoul residents are some of the earliest adopters of new technology in the world, especially cellphones and mobile computing devices, and their immediate access to the most up-to-date information means that the city’s hottest neighborhoods and sleepiest sections can change overnight.
Seoul Never Sleeps
This contrast between the old and new Seoul is felt most strongly in Dongdaemun, a commercial neighborhood in the northeast of the city that boasts a wholesale market, much of the city’s clothing and design industry, a newly erected history park and the soon-to-open Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a project of Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. I venture into the design plaza construction site with JB Park, the senior manager in charge of construction at DDP, and Eddie Can, Hadid’s man on the ground. It is high noon and quiet—only a few people wander aimlessly up and down the blocks, and there’s none of the energy found a couple of miles west in Myeongdong, a teenage shopping haven filled with young women clamoring for the latest eyewear, fashion and makeup. Park leads me into the belly of the beast, an enormous, curved structure that sits on what was once a sports stadium and now stands out like an alien spaceship.
“The old stadium was erected under Japanese occupation,” says Park. “And so it always had that association.” The original plan was to raze the stadium, expunging its ghosts, and create a cultural center for the city’s fashion and design industry. But when builders broke ground, they discovered that a whole section of Seoul’s ancient wall had been buried below the stadium. So instead, the city created a park to memorialize the archaeological remains, shrinking the footprint of the original Hadid project. After we exit the construction site, I have a coffee with Eddie Can. “This area is dead now,” he tells me. “You have to come back here at 2 a.m. That’s when Dongdaemun comes alive.”