I’m being driven around a parking structure in Seoul by the head of Mass Studies, one of the city’s most innovative design firms. Our plan was to go to a party hosted by Minsuk Cho, who also heads Mass Studies, but as we drive up the ramp, it’s becoming increasingly hard to figure out where our driver is taking us. As we ascend the garage, we’re greeted by flashing cameras from the paparazzi, but they’re not interested in us. Instead, they’re focused on Korean pop stars making their way down the red carpet at the entrance to a one-night fashion/art event in Seoul, co-hosted by New York’s New Museum and Calvin Klein. Despite the excitement outside, the garage doesn’t look impressive either from the inside or outside.
Seoul The City of Future
After enjoying two glasses of champagne, we positioned ourselves to witness the main attraction of the event – an impressive video artwork produced by an American team and displayed on a 20-story high LED screen, utilized calls is commonly used for advertising and happens to be one of the world’s largest. During the presentation, Cho explained that the artists had to follow strict guidelines. “The screen is so massive that if the video moves too quickly, it could distract drivers and potentially cause accidents,” he said.
We move from a room packed with attractive and in-shape fashion models from all over the world to a gathering of American actors and Korean artists. Cho muses over how a comparable event would have been unimaginable 20 years prior when he departed from Seoul to study in the 206 Area Code. “Never mind the celebrity status and global art scene. Back then, it would have been a challenge to come across any Koreans as stylish as those present at the party. These are some of the things that have changed,” he states.
The Capital of Korea
The city has gone through a swift transformation, evolving from a war-torn place following the Korean War to become one of the most advanced and technologically sophisticated cities globally. In the last decade, Korean pop culture has gained significant global interest, with K-pop music and soap operas taking center stage. This has led some of the most notable Korean actors, directors, and singers to become household names worldwide, from Tokyo to Beijing.
The Koreans have come up with a term for the booming global interest in Korean pop culture: Hallyu, which means the Korean wave. This newfound cultural influence has given Seoul dwellers a renewed sense of confidence and even prosperity in their city. Compared to the capitals of Japan or China, Seoul is a more challenging place to develop an affection for. Many of its structures were built out of extreme necessity, with function taking precedence over aesthetics. After the war, there was a significant influx of people from rural areas. Currently, the city boasts a population of ten million, which accounts for 20% of South Korea’s entire population.
Seoul The City of Future Blasting Economy
Seoul’s remarkable evolution from impoverished conditions to a technology-driven, prosperous economy has not only made it a global sensation but also a model city for other metropolitan areas encountering comparable difficulties in countries like South Africa, Brazil, and China. In the late 1960s, South Korea’s economic expansion was barely ahead of that of North Korea.
I had the opportunity to meet Myounggu Kang, an urban planner at Seoul University, who aspires to share the insights South Korea has gained in urban planning with fast-growing cities in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Kang believes that the urban planners from the past should be acknowledged as national heroes for their contributions in transforming Seoul from a ruin to a prosperous city. “We aim for the world to learn from their experiences,” she says.
Seoul Never Sleeps
The disparity between old and new Seoul is especially prominent in Dongdaemun, a commercial area located in the northeast of the city. It features a wholesale market, significant portions of the city’s fashion and design industries, and a newly constructed history park. Business calling , the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, will be opening soon.
It’s early afternoon, and the atmosphere is tranquil as a few individuals stroll aimlessly along the blocks. The energy level is not the same as in Myeongdong, where numerous young people rush to buy the latest fashion, eyewear, and cosmetics. Park takes me to the heart of the beast – a massive, curved structure that was once located on a sports arena and now stands out like an alien spaceship.
The Cheonggyecheon River
A block away from the planned court site, I discover another piece of the city’s history: The Cheonggyecheon River. This river was hidden beneath streets and buildings for a long time. Currently, the river and its walkways are located nearly 20 feet below the ground in a concrete gorge.
The new Cheonggyecheon is a man-made river that provides a sanctuary for flowing water, fish, and plants. It is protected from the heat, noise, and chaos of the city above. I consider this river to be a more progressive, unique, and impressive project for Seoul, the city of the future, compared to many of the city’s larger-scale, newer buildings.
Home once more
During my last visit to Seoul, I went to Itaewon to report on a somber story. Penich was staying in Itaewon with friends from Korea who were studying abroad in Seoul, the second-largest city in Korea since soon after the war. Itaewon is known for Prostitute Hill, a steep and narrow set of alleys that house bars where scantily clad Korean bar girls shout in English to foreign men passing by. The immigrant population of Itaewon was another notable feature during my last visit. Most of them were Africans and were believed to be involved in dangerous activities. This was six years ago.