An urbanist's tour of the city of Seoul

A view of the Cheonggyecheon (Stream), which runs a good 5.8km through the heart of Seoul, attracting more than 40 million people, mostly South Koreans, since its opening. 

Which of Seoul’s two new projects is the truer picture of what lies ahead for cities?

The streets of Seoul strike me as a uniquely rich and incongruous mixture of the urban future and the urban past. As soon as I emerge from the city’s subway system – so admirably planned, so meticulously engineered, so impeccably maintained – I step into a reality where street names and addresses suddenly lose their meaning. Much of this has to do with an only recently revised building numbering system, based inexplicably on the date of construction.

Verbal directions are delivered with a similarly disorienting rusticity: “Walk five minutes toward the mountain, turn right at the fried-chicken place, then go past two other fried-chicken places and turn left into the first alley you see, the one with all the trash cans. It won’t have any markings.”

I find myself walking between, on the one side, gleaming towers with lavish, celebrity-endorsed shops offering personal glamour and “wellbeing” in all its latest manifestations; and on the other, makeshift sidewalk eateries and converted trucks making their simpler pitches for produce, liquor, fortune-telling and glistening haystacks of fried food. Both ends of the commercial spectrum do a lively business long into the night, but I never quite shake the memory of stopping for street food and finding myself in the path of a lorry whose driver has decided to get up on the sidewalk.

Street life here exists in a delicate balance: to some (often South Koreans), it can seem tilted too far toward bygone decades of poverty; to others (often foreigners), too far toward blander, more sanitised and monument-strewn times ahead. If I grieve for anything, it is the pojangmacha – informal outdoor eating and (especially) drinking establishments, operated by night out of wagons or under tents, best patronised in the rain at the tail end of a long evening out.

Wonderful variety: The food street at the Nandaemun Market in Seoul.- File photos


While these pojangmacha have hardly disappeared – by most counts roughly 3,000 remain in Seoul, though their very nature makes a precise tally difficult – their ranks began seriously to thin after the turn of the millennium, especially during the administration of the modernisation-minded ex-Seoul mayor and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Most high-profile politicians seem to want to leave a legacy in the built environment, whether by getting rid of something, building something, or getting rid of something and building something else in its place.

This holds even more for those in charge of Seoul, widely considered the next most powerful position in South Korea after the presidency (which is itself widely considered second only to the chairmanship of Samsung).

Lee, during his mayoral term, saw to the questionable removal of pojangmacha, but also the laudable (to the 21st-century urbanist’s mind, anyway) removal of a 5.6km elevated highway in the centre of the city. In so doing, he undid one of the many efforts of Park Chung-hee, the even more modernisation-minded dictator who ran South Korea between 1962 and 1979 – an era when such a construction project looked like progress.

In the motorway’s place now runs the kind of construction project that, to the international community, looks like progress, the Cheonggyecheon stream: 11.2km of waterway, greenery and public walking paths, the walls of which bear images of the attraction’s unsightly, traffic-filled predecessor. Since its opening in 2005, word of the Cheonggyecheon’s pleasantness and ecological soundness (not that it doesn’t burn a fair bit of energy getting the water there in the first place) has spread far and wide – as, to a lesser degree, has word of its high cost (to the tune of US$281mil, or RM896mil) and rising operating expenses.

Still, strolling past the countless hand-holding couples, middle-aged drinking parties and unusually skilled buskers who enjoy the place every night of the week – and even joining them, sitting with my girlfriend on the stream’s terraced banks to break out some makgeolli, or fermented rice wine – I struggle to call it anything less than a success.

Metal curves

I also rue the fact that, in the roughly two years it took Seoul to take the Cheonggyecheon from initiation to opening, most US cities could not have got something similar through the first phase of navel-gazing and committee infighting. It sped things up, of course, that Seoul never felt the need to consult the public. This undemocratic origin may ultimately matter little in the case of something as beloved, or potentially beloved, as the Cheonggyecheon, but things have gone rather differently with the more visible – and much more controversial – Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a curvaceous metallic shopping and exhibition space in one of the most tourist-visited areas of central Seoul.

A view of the Cheonggyecheon (Stream), which runs a good 5.8km through the heart of Seoul, attracting more than 40 million people, mostly South Koreans, since its opening. 

Designed by Pritzker-winning Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, the plaza stands on the space once occupied by a pair of sport stadiums: one used for baseball from 1959 until 2007, the other built in 1925 but used in recent years to host a well-known flea market.

Indeed, some of the market’s vendors joined after they had been displaced from their spots underneath the elevated highway which was demolished to build the Cheonggyecheon. Lee may have promised these merchants use of the stadiums but his successor, Oh Se-hoon, under whom the plaza’s construction began in 2009, certainly hadn’t, which meant they all had to go. The completed landmark opened five years later, an eternity by South Korean building standards.

“It looks like an alien spaceship has landed,” says seemingly everyone who visits. They said the same about Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, which opened in Los Angeles (where I live) just over a decade ago. The two buildings have a great deal in common: steely, abstract-looking, not particularly easy to navigate on the inside, fast-tracked to the status of icons. Both announce the cultural arrival of cities once thought devoid of it; both repudiate the need for so much as a casual relationship to their surroundings.

Yet I’ve had fun in the plaza’s warren of aesthetically refined, product-filled showrooms – South Korea’s gift shop, essentially. This is a concrete announcement that the country has finally grown wealthy enough to care about things like design. (Actually, its walls only look like concrete; when I knocked on them, my fist hit a material I couldn’t identify.)

Seoul’s current mayor, Park Won-soon, has made no secret of his contempt for the building, nor of his unusual disdain for large-scale projects of almost any kind – which suggests the city won’t see another Dongdaemun Design Plaza or Cheonggyecheon for some years.

Thankfully, I have only to cross the street from Seoul’s alien spaceship to return to the reassuring realm of steaming kitchens in wheeled carts, discount socks in bulk, and spicy meat consumed on sticks. Even the most ardent urban renewers have so far failed to suppress these. Perhaps, instead, they will be forced to build new cities from scratch. – Guardian News & Media

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