Seoul, it has to be said, doesn’t enjoy the rosiest of reputations when it comes to architecture. In a now infamous Lonely Planet poll that placed Seoul as readers’ third-least favourite city in the world, one traveller railed: “It’s an appallingly repetitive sprawl of freeways and Soviet-style concrete apartment buildings, horribly polluted, with no heart or spirit to it. So oppressively bland that the populace is driven to alcoholism.” As with many rants, there are elements of truth to this. Seoul has way more than its fair share of dreary concrete blocks and mammoth, permanently clogged roads in the city centre. (There’s no shortage of pissheads, either, though the extent to which that can be blamed on the architecture is moot.)
However, according to Ken Nah, a design professor at Hongik University who I interviewed for a magazine story, Seoul’s shortcomings are actually a key reason why it was designated 2010’s World Design Capital. “The Design Capital designation,” he said, “is not based on what a city is today or what it has done so far. It is about cities that use design as a means to upgrade the city. In this regard, Seoul has enormous potential.” The other thing, and this is something I only really noticed when I started looking, is that there are actually some fascinating things going on already in the city regarding its architecture. But because they are so swamped by grey monoliths and tatty shop-fronts, they can be easy to miss.
One place that’s not very well known, but would cut a radical figure in pretty much any city, is the Kring Building.
Located just down the road from exit 3 of Samseong Station, Kring is all the more eyecatching for the sheer drabness of the buildings surrounding it. I was lucky enough to interview one of the architects behind Kring, and he said that the building’s amazing facade — resembling spreading soundwaves — was inspired by the name of the development company: Woorim, meaning “echo.” When I asked him whether it was difficult getting approval for such an unusual structure, he said, tellingly, that as soon as they told the local council and the developer that the building would be a “landmark,” all initial misgivings disappeared.
Though not as impressive as the outside, the interior is an interesting mix of wide open exhibition spaces, gathering areas and a cafe. There’s also a nice little arthouse cinema that shows a range of highbrow fare from around the world. The architect said that making the building (which houses offices on its upper floors) genuinely accessible to the public was one of the central parts of the brief. And, at least ostensibly, this is the mantra underpinning much of the new development taking place in the city.
In the last few years, there have been some conspicuous government-led attempts to improve things in Seoul. Two of the best known are undoubtedly the Cheonggyecheon Stream reclamation and the spectacular fountain and light show on the side of Banpo Bridge. As city governments with dreams of grandeur are wont to do, however, the Seoul authorities are now looking to trump those with the Dongdaemun Design Park and Plaza (DDP), a lavishly conceived behemoth currently under construction on the site of what was a colonial-era baseball stadium, and right next to Seoul’s famous all-night shopping centres.
The above picture shows what the titanium-clad, US$1.2 billion beast will look like when it’s finished sometime in 2012. I took a look around the site as it is, along with its nicely appointed visitors’ centre, and though it was all very impressive, I felt a nagging uncertainty of who it’s all for (the government insists that the DDP’s main purpose is to help educate Seoulites on the importance of design and to demonstrate how it can improve their lives). Still, there can be little doubt of the scale of Seoul’s ambition with the project. Having brought one of the world’s best-known architects on board to design it, the city authorities apparently foresee this bulging construction — which will host parks, exhibition halls, libraries and assorted other facilities — as the spearhead of Seoul’s drive into the major leagues of urban design. Whatever one thinks of the DDP, and whatever people’s misgivings about its cost, there is always something strangely cheering about Koreans’ breathless zeal to succeed at whatever wildly ambitious project they put their minds to.