Welcome to Seoul, the City of the Future

The once poor South Korean city has bloomed into a cultural capital with high-profile architecture, top museums and an influential arts scene

The emerging Dongdaemun Design Plaza will blend a new cultural center with a park memorializing a section of Seoul's ancient wall. (Tony Law / Redux)
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A block north of the design plaza site I find another rediscovered part of the city’s landscape: the Cheonggyecheon River, long buried under roadways and buildings, and unearthed in 2005 to create a recreational area slicing two miles through the center of town. Sidewalks and the river lie nearly 20 feet below ground level in a landscaped concrete canyon. This new Cheonggyecheon is a man-made sanctuary of flowing water teeming with fish and plants, insulated from the noise, heat and chaos above. This river is, to me, an even more radical, transformative and spectacular project than the city’s many brand-new, larger-scale structures.

I follow Can’s instructions and return that evening to find what must be one of the world’s most intense night markets, consisting not just of thousands of street vendors, but also of multiple high-rise shopping malls, filled with fashions of all kinds. Selling starts at midnight, when the vendors roll in to pitch their tents, and lasts until 5 or 6 a.m.

All of this points to an interesting dimension of Seoul life that doesn’t exist just in Dongdaemun: What most distinguishes this city is not its grand high-rises, its elaborate transportation system or the careful urban strategizing of its city planners, but the intense 24-hour activity that no one planned: the all-night shopping malls of Dongdaemun; the ornate, multistory jjimjilbang spas with dozens of different pools and saunas that pump all day and night; and the fried-chicken joints packed until 5 every morning. For this native New Yorker, a night out in Seoul made me think, forget NYC, Seoul is the city that never sleeps.

When I ask Seoul residents why this unique culture has developed here, I get a variety of responses: People work so hard that when they get home they just want to play, get drunk, decompress. Apartments are so small that you have to go out to enjoy yourself. Koreans are by nature communal and therefore most comfortable in a large group of friends. None of these answers completely satisfies me. But as I catch a cab home from Dongdaemun, I realize that as important as it is for urban planners elsewhere to learn from Seoul, what they cannot do is plan for the unplanned—the utterly human things that set a city apart. For some inexplicable reason what’s emerged organically in Seoul is that its residents are ready to live by night.

Home again

The last time I visited the Seoul neighborhood of Itaewon it was to tell a tragic tale: I was producing a TV documentary about the murder of a young American student named Jamie Penich who’d been killed in a seedy motel in Itaewon where she’d been staying with friends who were studying abroad with her in Korea’s second-largest city, Pusan. Since just after the war, Itaewon had been notorious as the playground of American G.I.’s: Its most prominent landmark was a slope called Hooker Hill, a steep set of alleys that house bars where scantily clad Korean bar girls call out in heavily accented English after foreign men strolling by. Another notable feature of Itaewon during my last visit was its immigrant population, mostly Africans, assumed in local popular lore to be undocumented and engaging in all kinds of questionable activities. That was six years ago.

On this trip to Seoul, when I reach out to a Korean film director, he suggested we meet at a nighttime art performance in the back alleys of Itaewon. I find the neighborhood transformed. Somehow this once-sordid place has become one of the hippest addresses in Seoul, housing cafés and cocktail bars, architecture and design firms, not to mention a top private museum: Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art. The audience at the art performance is a combination of foreigners and locals, many of whom have been educated abroad. Another film director I meet there had recently returned from studying in the United States. “This neighborhood is an easier place to adjust to after being abroad,” he tells me. “There are foreign bars and restaurants, foreign people, and that makes it an attractive place to live for returnees like me.”

Minsuk Cho, the architect, recently designed a new building near the Leeum museum complex in Itaewon, which he also calls home. “I’ve worked all over the world,” says Cho. “But there’s something different, something special, about designing a building just down the street from where you live and work. You know the people. You know the neighborhood. And it better be good, because you’re going to have to keep looking at it for as long as you live [there].”

This rapid transformation of Itaewon also makes me ponder how quickly things change in Seoul. “We have one of the most mobile urban populations in the world,” Myounggu Kang, the Seoul University planner, told me. “About 25 percent of the city’s population seems to relocate each year. And clearly this turnover has a tremendous affect on how rapidly things can change.” He suspects that education is behind this extreme mobility. “Many of our best schools are located in the Gangnam area, south of the river,” he says. “And so it may be that parents are moving there, despite higher prices, when their children are at critical points in their education, then moving back to more affordable areas when they graduate.”

After decades of living abroad, Korean expats are returning to Seoul. These returnees are, of course, accelerating the development of a cosmopolitan Seoul, bringing back not just foreign cultural influences, but also examples of Korean culture intermingling abroad: Vatos, a new Itaewon restaurant, serves the kind of Korean tacos that the Kogi truck pioneered on the streets of Los Angeles.


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