I sat on the airport bus heading back to Incheon International Airport, trying to make sense of Seoul. It was sunset. The Han riverside was framed in the windows of the coach like a widescreen movie. An invisible cinematographer was busy creating an epic vision of rose-grey skies and fluorescent green meadows while the last of the sunlight caressed the mountain peaks and tower blocks. Something struck me about Seoul’s architecture that doesn’t seem to strike visitors very often: it really is a beautiful city.
Left: Kim Yong Kwan; Right: Sim Youn Suk
It’s also a hard one to work out. I know Hong Kong calls itself Asia’s World City; but Seoul is like several dozen world cities in one. In the past few days, this single conurbation of nearly 10 million people has felt like New York’s Fifth Avenue and Brooklyn, a London village and a German suburb in addition to the more expected geographic allusions: a Tokyo sidestreet, a hip Taipei block, a Singaporean park.
The evolution of Seoul’s architecture can be seen as the result of creative energy mixed with changing social dynamics. Maybe close-up is the best view. With the help of Seoul and Hong Kong-based communications expert Fiona Bae, we went to five places in one slightly mad north-to-south trip which tell us something about Seoul’s architecture old, new and shifting.
1. A Traditional House in Bukchon
Let’s start with a gentler side to Seoul’s architecture. Interior designer Teo Yang lives in my favourite part of Seoul, the hilly, arty village of Bukchon. Today he’s opening his 1920s house to readers – pilgrims, really – of an interiors magazine. Teo’s house, like Teo, is rooted in the traditions of the hanok (traditional Korean house). But as a traveller who studied design in Chicago and Pasadena, he also has a den of treasures. Pride of place: his first pair of designer trainers in a glass bell jar, a collection of art manuscripts and a showhome kitchen where, today, an upmarket lighting company is showing off its wares.
Entrepreneurialism, heritage and the confidence to take what you want from the West and leave the rest: Teo’s is a very contemporary Seoul mindset.
Left and right: Sim Youn Suk
2. A Lounge at Ryse Hotel
Ryse is the hippest hotel in hip Hongdae. After a bracing Swindler Sour (sweet potato spirit, grappa, yuzu, sea salt tincture, orange flower water) we tour a place that seems ephemeral and clubby until we happen across the Print Culture Lounge, a corner full of niche magazines and art.
It seems the further east you go in Asia, the more bookish people become. In Taipei, Tokyo and Seoul, the bookshops are real meeting places, not mere Instagrammable backdrops.
The Ryse backroom office isn’t in a backroom at all, but right in the public area. It’s a glass-panelled space full of moodboards and anglepoise lamps. A few years back, it became fashionable to put the restaurant kitchen on display. In Seoul, it seems entirely appropriate that the hotel designers and marketing people are also on public view.
3. A Bank HQ That Looks Like An Octopus
Kim Chan-joong is an academic – graduate of Harvard, visiting professor at Seoul – and his architectural practice, The Systems Lab, is maybe the most interesting in South Korea. His experiments with wafer-thin concrete membranes include the graceful, ethereal Kosmos hotel on the volcanic island of Ulleungdo – and this, perhaps the world’s strangest bank building.
The exterior of KEB Hana Bank Place 1 is covered with protruding, colour-changing portholes which so much resemble tentacle suckers that the building’s nickname was inevitable. It’s not an ideal spot for the trypophobic (those who fear clusters of small holes).
Inside, it continues to be unlike any financial institution you’ve ever seen. The underground car park has been decorated by a graffiti artist and doubles as a club and events space. There are bespoke retailers and a wonderful library and cafe.
This building changes things. Word has it that the country’s conservative corporations now all want an ‘octopus’ of their own.
4. S Factory, Seongsu-dong
Zinoo has just come from his daughter’s christening. He’s wearing a white shirt, black tie, indigo raincoat, short black trousers, white trainers and a red baseball cap: it’s very much a pop artist’s idea of formal dressing.
We are in Seongsu-dong on the north bank of the Han, east of the city centre. Over the past decade, it’s been busy turning itself from a place of old warehouses and auto workshops into the hippest ’hood in town.
Zinoo, sometimes called The Andy Warhol of Seoul thanks to his pop art leanings and publicity panache, has come up with a very contemporary Seoul deal: in return for cheap rent from the developer, Zinoo throws epic parties and invites interesting creators and entrepreneurs to share his warren of studios.
After Zinoo has shown us around the exhibitions and workshops, we walk around Seongsu. It’s soon apparent that you’re never more than a minute from a mural. There’s not an inch of finished plaster in the place. It has places like Café Onion, where you sip your brew outside on an office chair salvaged from a scrap heap, or Co:lumn, where we drank craft beer under a coconut-matting umbrella in a warehouse. Brooklyn? No. Brooklyn style with South Korean characteristics.
5. A Very Big Bookcase
COEX is not the place to visit if, like me, you suffer from ‘shopping legs’, a condition where over-exposure to retail outlets can rob the lower limbs of their usual locomotive function. There are 1,776,000 square feet of shops and it’s underground, adding to the creeping feeling that you may be doomed to spend the rest of your days in a prison of fluorescent lights, window displays and brand promotions.
The first jelly-like symptoms of shopping legs were just beginning to manifest, and I was wondering if I’d ever see daylight again, when there appeared – a library. Not just any library, but the Starfield library, an insanely grandiloquent temple to the written word in a complex otherwise devoted to the consumer dollar.
Imagine an airy railway station taken over by bookshelves the size and shape of small ocean liners. There are 50,000 volumes here: and if you can reach it, you can read it. People do. It’s a place where lost shoppers and intense students mingle and no one is there just for the selfie.
I emerged into the sunlight and descended again into my favourite urban underground train system. Within the hour, I was on that sublime sunset bus.
So that was a tour of Seoul’s architecture: from an urban village nestled in the mountains to the world’s largest underground mall. Seoul has given us Gangnam style and chiselled K pop star cheeks; but if you ever think it’s just a place of surfaces and gloss – take yourself into a quiet corner and read a book. There are plenty of places to do that.
The writer stayed at Ryse.
This story was originally published in February 2019 and updated in September 2020