Seoul is a city in constant movement; a place where the architecture of the city intertwines with the architecture of the self. Walking the streets reveals both centuries of history and a portal deep into the future. Submerged in cyberspace, the city’s digital influence is vast: it provides the world with Samsung Galaxies, LG televisions and KIA cars. K-pop and K-drama serve as the intermediary between the virtual and the real in the South Korean capital.
On top of that, Korean entertainment has propelled a $6 billion dollar domestic beauty market, making it one of the world’s fastest and most advanced cosmetic sectors. South Korean women spend more than twice than American women on beauty products, while men spend more than anywhere in the world – there’s an unparalleled desire in South Korean society to look good.
This desire transcends the beauty market. Since modernisation in the 1960s, renowned architects such as Kim Swoo-geun, Mario Botta, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid have helped shape the city, producing a skyline that is modern and futuristic but peppered with historic palaces and temples of the Joseon Dynasty. In 2010, Seoul was named the World Design Capital, a testament to its commitment to compelling and distinct design that helps export its culture to the world. As the identities of global cities converge more and more, Seoul remains unmistakably itself. Or, as Rem Koolhaus said, “There’s a form of resistance to the developing global condition, and that makes it especially exciting.”
As dusk fell on the South Korean capital, we took to the streets to see firsthand how the city embraces the new while incorporating the past – from architecture to cosmetics and cyberspace to retail, she’s in a constant search for the sublime.
Sulwhasoo Flagship Store, Gangnam
There are few products that embody Seoul’s melding of the ancient and the modern like Sulwhasoo. The cosmetic giant made its mark on the industry in 1973 when its founder first combined saponin, a ginseng extract, with modern beauty products, propelling Korean cosmetic culture onto the world stage.
The Sulwhasoo flagship store is a space in which the multidimensionality of museum, opulence, tradition and future coexist. Designed by Neri&Hu Design and Research Office, the building is a dichotomy of light and dark, delicate and grand, open and confined. Counters and displays rise effortlessly through the timber floors, and the basement spa is an intimate shelter clad in brick and stone. In contrast, the rooftop hovers over the brass within while mirrors extend the interior into the vastness of the sky.
Like the products they create, Sulwhasoo’s architectural mark on the city shows how traditional Asian aesthetics can be seamlessly brought into the modern age.
Seoullo 7017 Skygarden, Jung-gu
Restorative spaces are immeasurably important in cities with a 24/7 bodyclock. In 2017, MVRDV were engaged to transform a 983-metre overpass into an ‘urban nursery’. Its name takes from its two formative years – 1970, when the overpass was originally constructed, and 2017, when it was rebirthed.
It’s clear that the High Line model has been embraced here, but, as Robert Hammond touched on the importance of in our Around the Block interview, the Seoullo 7017 Skygarden responds to its local context to bring something new to the city.
That something new includes more than 24,000 plants and a new direction for a city that has long been defined by harsh urban conditions. It provides new pedestrian links with hotels, retail precincts and city gardens as well as an important piece of public realm that encourages people to slow down and take a break from the intensity of the street below.
For hundreds of years, hanoks were the dominant housing typology for the middle class in Korea. With doors and windows framing the environment outside, their blueprint coupled privacy with a large communal room where people could gather and enjoy time together – harmoniously integrating people and nature.
As South Korea modernised from the 1960s onwards and people began moving from the countryside to the cities for work, apartments soon replaced the hanok for many South Koreans. Efficiency of space came with a downside: people were alienated, often not even knowing who’s living next to them.
Treehouse re-envisions these two ways of living together. Similar to a hanok, the co-housing experiment contains a communal room where people can mingle, watch films and relax together, but goes a step further by including a communal kitchen, office, pet washing area and garden. Each of the residents have their personal space – an apartment that offers privacy for sleeping, cooking and bathing. This 72-unit co-living complex is in the heart of Gangnam, the start-up hub of Seoul, and has been embraced by a youthful, digitally-native audience who appreciate the need for both social spaces and solitude.
LoL Park, Jongno-gu
Online gaming is big business in South Korea. Since the mid-1990s, internet cafes – known here as PC Bangs – have served as popular third spaces for a growing number of urban residents looking for a more social experience than the anonymity that’s usually afforded by sitting behind a screen. At the centre of the industry is one game, League of Legends (LoL). In 2016, the founding company, Riot Games, estimated that more than 100 million people were playing it each month.
The League Championship Series has ten pro-teams in each continent, and Seoul is home to regional competitions. Acknowledging the demand for a home base, in 2018 Riot Games opened LoL Park, an immersive e-sports experience dedicated to League of Legends.
For the non-gamer, LoL Park is a difficult experience to get your head around. On a day-to-day basis, the arena acts like a typical PC Bang on steroids, but when championships begin the pearly gates of cyberspace open up, allowing 500 spectators to watch the online battles on vast screens. Due to its sophisticated interior design, spectators can simultaneously view individual players’ screens and large audience-centred screens: a multitude of angles makes for an immersive experience. LoL Park is cyber-game heaven.
GENTLE MONSTER Flagship Store, Hongdae
Since the advent of ecommerce, countless articles have prophesied online shopping as the harbinger of death for bricks and mortal retail. Over the 24 years since Amazon shipped its first product (a hardcover edition of Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought) the online retailer hasn’t killed the high street, but it has pushed operators to reimagine the shopping experience.
GENTLE MONSTER are a Korean retailer creating stores that go beyond mere consumption to merge gallery spaces into fully cognitive immersive experiences. Since storming onto the market in 2011, they have been touted as revolutionising the retail market by everyone from the New York Times, to Vogue, to the Financial Times. The luxury glasses brand operates 41 stores around the world, each with their own design concept. With reputedly only six people hired to design their glasses, but 60 people to design their stores, their approach speaks volumes about their brand philosophy.
The concept at their Hongdae flagship store centres on a post-apocalyptic world and how it might provoke new ways of being. With a slant towards the positive, they depict people delving into their inner selves to find new possibilities.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Dongdaemun
In 2011, the neofuturist, Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) landed like a UFO in an area of Seoul caught in a time warp – famed for 24-hour markets and the South Korean fashion industry. It helped the city achieve designation as World Design Capital even before construction was completed and is today one of the city’s key cultural sites.
Hadid wanted to create an entity that would offer flexibility in space, and the 280-metre long aluminium structure does just that. Across its three subterranean and four above ground levels it has spaces capable of hosting city-scale events, like Seoul Fashion Week, and exhibition halls that have shown the work of the world’s biggest fashion houses (think Chanel, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Paul Smith). Smaller spaces host design labs that incubate the talent of the next generation of product designers.
DDP is a bold architectural expression that helped draw the world’s attention to the city, but it was just one of myriad deliberate decisions made by the city to, in the words of the then mayor Oh Se-hoon, “send out the message that design is the power to change the world for the better” – something it continues to do nearly a decade later.
About Study Tours
Study Tours are not intended to be city guides. Their purpose is to try and understand how different cities function, what kind of life they provide their inhabitants and what we might be able to learn from them. Think of them not as a comprehensive list of things to do but as a comment from a curious fly on the wall, delivered without an opinion of how the city ought to be better. All our Study Tours can be found here.
Nilesh Kumar is a freelance writer and the producer at STEAK FILM, a film production house based in Seoul that stages cinematic events throughout the city. In both of the house’s areas of work they promote deep culture through film.
Tour photography by Wonsk.
Shenaz Engineer is a Researcher & Strategist at Right Angle Studio. A Brisbane local, her innate curiosity and fascination for cities has seen her live across Amsterdam, Shanghai, New York, Paris and Sydney. With a background in both business and design, she continues to collaborate with curious minds from different industries across the world and has received both national and international awards for her work. Fascinated by the intersection of culture, architecture, health and technology, she is passionate about creating inclusive cities and crafting places for people.