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The Rise of Seoul

No longer just a city of industry, Seoul, Korea has become a hot spot for culture.

If any country is on the world’s radar, it’s South Korea, and this time it’s not all about the rocky relationship with its estranged brother in the north. In July, PyeongChang won the bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics, and much of the campaign’s success was attributed to figure-skating champion “Queen” Kim Yu Na, who set a new world record at the 2010 games. In June, five K-pop groups marked the first time any Korean singer held a concert in Europe (tickets sold out in minutes). At last year’s Cannes, director Lee Chang Dong won best screenplay for Poetry, a poignant film about a woman who deals with her grandson’s crimes through poetry.

And by now it’s well known that Seoul, home to more than 10.5 million people, is the most wired city on the planet, with nearly 95 percent of households hooked up to broadband. Deep in the subways riders young and old surf, text and watch live TV on their gadgets. Never mind that all this connectivity has led to a growing problem of Internet and gaming addicts, the worst case of which ended in the death of a four-month-old due to neglect by her gaming-obsessed parents: The city plans to increase broadband speed in every home to one gigabit per second by the end of 2012.

It’s not just about newsmakers and tech, though. Seoul was named the 2010 World Design Capital by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, an odd designation at first glance. An aerial view of the 235-square-mile metropolis shows streets weaving in and out in every direction, buildings high and low crammed onto each block. One minute you’re in a crowded market; a few steps away, there’s an ancient Buddhist temple. Identical concrete slabs still dominate the skyline. No, these aren’t public housing projects; rather, they’re apartment complexes, a result of the rapid—hasty—rebuilding of the country after the Korean War.

“Until recently we were a ‘hard city,’ putting first and foremost construction, business, function and utility,” says Lim Ok Gi, director general of Seoul’s design bureau. “Today we’re being reborn as a ‘soft city’ of culture, the arts and design.” Joining this revival are international architects: Two years ago Rem Koolhaas created the Prada Transformer, a temporary pavilion that changed shapes for events, like an exhibit for the Italian designer. Last year’s Pritzker-prize winners Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa are designing a theater, slated to open by 2013, which will feature the same sound system as the Walt Disney concert hall’s. That same year Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Park & Plaza, a 914,932-square-foot cultural space of organic lines and futuristic shapes, will open along the walls of a gate built in 1396. The stadiumesque building will house galleries, libraries and museums with seven acres of parks, a welcome addition to this mega mall–dense district. U.S. architect Daniel Libeskind is behind DreamHub, a $28 billion project on Yongsan’s waterfront area. On more than 30 million square feet will be some 20 buildings—the tallest will be 2,180 feet, with developers rumored to be luring hotel chains such as the Four Seasons and Shangri-La—that will be arranged to resemble a crown from the Shilla Dynasty (a.d. 669–935) when it is completed in 2016.

A major part of beautifying Seoul centers around the Han River Renaissance project, which is turning a formerly dumpy waterway that flows through the city into a 319-mile-long promenade of bike paths, pools and parks; 28 bridges transform into works of light art, producing stunning night vistas. Fendi’s fall/winter show marked the debut of the Floating Island, a manmade three-islet archipelago. The event—streamed live, of course—was held on the main island, on a circular runway inside a curved glass building illuminated by neon lights. An impressive engineering feat, the archipelago weighs 5,434 tons and includes a restaurant, a café and concert halls, as well as a water sports center. A much smaller waterway, Cheongyecheon, a stream covered by roads in the 1970s, was restored in 2005 as a place for strolling, picnicking and viewing artworks. Near Incheon airport, ranked within the top three best airports in the last three years, is Songdo, a city built from the ground up as a utopia of sorts (see “The New Sustainable Cities”). “Seoul is a fascinating place,” says Hadid. “The dynamism of Korea’s development is breathtaking. You can sense the enthusiasm, ambition and boundless energy of the upcoming generation.”

Often overlooked as an Asian destination, Korea has seen a steady rise in visitors. Last year there were more than 6.3 million tourists (nearly half from Japan and China), a 32 percent increase from 2005. This transformation of Seoul into a global city has led to a surge of new hotels, restaurants and shops, with one of the most apparent changes in the last few years being the restaurant scene, as young chefs introduce innovative cuisine as well as Western food done right (gone are the days when T.G.I. Friday’s was the city’s go-to non-Korean eatery). On any given night, restaurants and cafés bustle with savvy diners. Eating out is no longer an occasion; much like New York, it’s the norm.

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