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Seoul: City at the Center of the World
From gray and drab to green and fab, city on its way to becoming World Design Capital
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2008-06-04 13:28 (KST)   
In April I was invited by the Seoul metropolitan government to see their city, meet the mayor and the chief of design. Having lived on the outskirts of Seoul for four years, I was not prepared for the many surprises in store. I found that the city of Seoul is changing rapidly, that it has been voted World Design Capital for 2010, and that it now has plenty of mega and micro projects on the menu.

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I was living near Seoul when the first major development in the "greening" of the city started. I was vaguely aware that the city fathers wanted to uproot a major highway and give life again to a stream that had effectively been buried alive for 600 years. I didn't pay much heed then (in 2003) because Seoul's pollution and urban density problems were chronic, and one green capillary -- I thought -- wasn't nearly going to be enough. I had no idea then that Cheong Gye Cheon would inspire the whole nation to embrace pro-environmental design to the extent that it has.

Although the $200 million Cheong Gye Cheon project was completed even while I was still living nearby, I only got around to visiting the stream in April (5 years later). And it is only while walking along the chuckling Cheong Gye Cheon that I realized to what extent my original skepticism and cynicism had been misplaced.

Changing the Old Guard

I see that a lot has changed since I left Seoul. Lee Myung-Bak (the man affectionately known as "The Bulldozer"), was the man and the mayor who greenlighted the Cheong Gye Cheon project despite much initial protest and outrage from shopkeepers, commuters and urban developers. He has since become the country's president. He is also the perfect successor to Korea's first "Internet" president, because while Rho Myoo Hon left office with comparatively modest achievements, Lee Myung-Bak's unbridled passion and ambition has set the country back into overdrive.

Now Korea wants to showcase not only its products but also its identity to a wider audience.
©2008 N. van der Leek
When I met Seoul's mayor, I was impressed to learn that he too was an erstwhile environmental activist, and because his predecessor had been so successful at getting the community's enthusiastic buy-in, the greening of the city continues to enjoy solid support from Seoul's taxpayers. I can also see congruency building between the various projects underway as well as a tremendous increase in momentum, especially when one considers Seoul's ambitious plans for the future.

It's easy to see why there's so much momentum for "green design" in this country. With the president of South Korea and mayor of Seoul now both strongly focused on green design, the feel-good baton that came from Cheonggye Cheon is being frenetically relayed to every other part of the city. It's hard to imagine that anything is being overlooked. Even cables, I am informed, are scheduled to be tucked underground. Yes, it's not just big urban developments that are being looked at. Everything from litterbins to street signs is getting attention.

The city center, Gwanghwamun (an eight-lane-wide boulevard with the impressive Gyeongbok Palace at one end) is enduring the ignominy of having its spine ripped out, along with two lanes on either side. A more comfortable, walkable area with gardens and fountains is being constructed in its place (construction started on April 28).

The Han River Renaissance Project is another major resuscitation and expansion to the small bicycle paths that worm thinly alongside the city's giant river. The embankments are turning into wider, greener belts, and many of the cement walkways are being ripped up and replaced with wooden, walkable platforms, similar to those currently in place at Ilsan's Horseshoe Lake Park. Special elevators are being constructed on flyover bridges to allow pedestrians easy access to the park-like conditions below.

So the renovation of Seoul is not merely the design of fancy buildings, it is reclaiming or redeveloping natural areas for people (at the expense of cars), and thus there is a new interest in developing the "attractiveness" of the city. As it turns out, a pro-environment approach to design also tends to enhance attractiveness.


When I spoke to the city's deputy mayor and chief design officer, Dr. Young Gull Kwon, he confirmed what was fast becoming apparent. The success at Cheonggye Cheon has captured the nation's imagination to such an extent that leaders have been offered what amounts to a blank check to "green" the capital as a whole, and to go even further. The modest ambitions for Cheonggye Cheon have in fact morphed into a comprehensive makeover for Seoul, not a few random, haphazard projects.

The deputy mayor nodded vigorously when I used the word "integrated," saying that the greening projects underway, though design-based, were geared toward "softening" the city from head to toe, from the most visible urban spaces (such as the city center), to the design, rolling out and use of something as arbitrary but ubiquitous as newspaper booths. More-tasteful booths will be sent and setup on subways and dispatched to each and every street vendor. Once again, the idea of using green design to make the city more attractive and "human friendly" came across strongly.

The Deputy Mayor showed me a PowerPoint presentation featuring their design commandments:

1. Genius Loci.
2. Pro Environmental.
3. Safety.
4. Hierarchy.
5. Human.

There are 16 more points, including affordability, access, identity, attraction, health (at No. 19) and the last one, fun, at No. 21.

To have pro-environmental as a second priority in terms of a comprehensive, congruent and massive redesign project for Seoul is nothing less than revolutionary. Seoul certainly needs this sort of green focus if it aims to be a "global city." Seoul and South Korea's worst feature is the quality of its air. To address this aspect is the most intelligent place to start. To address attractiveness is important, and here green design is the logical place to start.

Some Things Haven't Changed

During a drive to the French Quarter in Seoul, I notice -- at an estimate -- 40x50 floor apartment blocks under construction alongside a 5-kilometer highway corridor. This area alone, I'm guessing, represents more urban development than the whole of South Africa, including all of South Africa's World Cup Stadium Projects. But Seoul's ubiquitous apartment complexes also give the city the appearance of an endless flotilla of wedding cakes. Are there any grand schemes in place to add some diversity, especially to these endless white monoliths, I wonder?

The director of global marketing for Seoul, Yoon Young Seok, shows us a presentation with historical depictions of Rome and London as "the (urban) centers" of the world, at various times in our common human journey. The idea is stated explicitly here: their intentions are that Seoul becomes first a Global City and then the undisputed city at the center of the modern world. Arguably, New York is that city today.

To achieve the first goal, millions of dollars have been set aside to develop foreign strongholds (such as Itaewon, upmarket Myeong-dong and Umyeon in Yeouido -- near the impressive 63 Building among several other sites), as well as to provide an integrated level of service. Alan Timblick, OBE (Order of the British Empire) at the Seoul Global Center in Jung-Gu has been tasked to provide services that enable and assist foreigners with everything from getting credit cards and mobile phones to finding a place to stay and helping foreigners start up a business in the city.

The Coming Age of Design

"The 21st century is the age of design. From today on, we are all designers with the task of making Seoul the best city in the world."
--Mayor Oh Se-hoon, July 2006

The Age of Information was essentially an introduction to computers. Now, design is how not only information but also the environments, machines and people use and feel about that information. In some ways it is a branding exercise. Finding the value and meaning in informational clutter. Seoul is attempting to do this with its urban environment and as a means to address itself as a brand to the wider world. South Korea is one of the world's most understated and unknown countries, yet it is the world's 11th strongest economy, and projected to be at worst the second wealthiest country per capita by 2050.

Every day more and more people around the world use Korean made products. Samsung is a leading innovator in the world, responsible for 20 percent of Korea's total GDP. Koreans after all are probably the world's most dynamic designers and innovators of electronics hardware. They lead the world in this area. Now Korea wants to showcase not only its products but also its identity to a wider audience.

As World Design Capital in 2010, Seoul is about to be introduced internationally once again. The city brings with it all the confidence and enthusiasm it enjoyed during the Olympics (now 20 years ago) and the FIFA World Cup (in 2002). With breathtaking landmark projects such as the D'Plaza Design Project and the massive Dream Hub project in Yongsan* (featuring a complex with a tear-shaped 152-floor central spire** and the most expensive building ever built), and with the pace of every other development I've seen in the city, it is easy to imagine Seoul emerging soon as a softer, greener, brand new Global City.

It's also fair to say that the hard working Koreans have earned all the prestige that goes with having their city at the centre of the world.
*The current site of a US military base will become Yongsan International Business District.

**Dream Tower.

For more information about the writer visit www.nickvanderleek.com.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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