Long before New York City was lauded for rethinking public spaces with the 2009 opening of the High Line, municipal architects in Seoul were identifying areas within the expansive metropolis that could become places for the city’s roaring middle class to congregate. While Seoul has been transforming unused buildings since the turn of the century, the initiative picked up greater steam when Park Won-soon became mayor in 2011. Park assembled a regeneration task force, securing the city’s reputation as a global leader in design and civic landscaping.
“‘Urban regeneration’ is the buzzword in Seoul right now,” said Yim Dongwoo, the co-founder of design firm Praud and an assistant professor at Hongik University’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, in an email. “In the design community, the term ‘urban renewal’ harkens the the merciless destruction of city fabric that ran rampant in many parts of the world during the 1950s and ’60s.”
An outpost of desolation after the Korean War, Seoul has undergone a meteoric rise to global prominence since the first time Korea hosted the Olympics in 1988. Now, the capital is righting the wrongs of a city that grew too quickly. “Although ‘regeneration’ isn’t as easy to define, in Seoul it implies that we’re all striving to appreciate the existing built environment as we move towards the future,” said Yim. As a result, Seoul’s leaders have continued to find the right purpose for underused buildings or sites.
Here’s a shortlist of Seoul’s greatest hits thus far, all of which are worth visiting during the Olympics and beyond.
According to Yim, the public projects in Seoul can be divided into two categories: redesign or demolition. Cheonggyecheon’s redesign, one of the capital’s earliest successes, is a compelling mixture of both. The municipality dismantled a soaring overhead highway in order to excavate an old stream long buried under the city’s gridiron. The five-mile-long space — a Low Line, if you will — runs along the sides of the snaking stream and opened to the public in 2005. Despite the almost $400 million price tag, it brought a much-needed artery of nature and fresh air to the clutter of towers and became the poster child for future restorative works in the Korean capital.
Constructed to debut in conjunction with Seoul’s Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism in the fall of last year, the brand new Seoullo 7017 initially received mixed reviews from the design community: a low-rent version of New York’s High Line, said most. To be fair, it is also a green space on a raised strip of concrete (a former highway overpass, in this case). Seoullo might be polarizing, but the project should be thought of as Cheonggyecheon 2.0 — by partnering with MVRDV, a design firm of international repute, the city elevated the project from a pragmatic endeavor usually tackled by civic planners to a venture worthy of international discourse.
Gyeongui Line Forest Park
Another tracks-to-trees regeneration project, this lateral park connects several neighborhoods like Hongdae and Waugyo with its ribbon of green. The park replaced an old railroad after it was moved underground. In the Yeonnam-dong area, the students of the adjacent Hongik University have come to call it Yeon-tral Park after it started to pull compelling restaurants, shops and galleries into its orbit.
Marked for demolition by the previous government, the brutalist concrete husk of Seun Sangga was saved by Mayor Park Won-soon. Park earmarked it for one of the most ambitious revitalization projects in the city: to turn a half-torn-down building into an enviable multi-use hive without catalyzing any surrounding gentrification. Interestingly, the hulk of a structure was created in the 1960s after the city unceremoniously razed a handful of dwellings. This time around, the city’s regenerating task force isn’t letting history repeat itself as it makes the white elephant’s mixture of residential and commercial space (the Korean capital’s first) relevant again in the modern era.
Oil Tank Culture Park
The high-security Mapo Oil Depot facility — off limits for over 40 years — opened its gates to the public in late 2017. Located near the World Cup Stadium, which was built on a former landfill, the adjacent park has transformed its series of massive oil holding drums into fully integrated spaces hosting cultural events sponsored by the city government. Stop by Tank 6, which houses an information center, cafe and a rainwater recycling system in its basement.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Of all the regeneration projects in Seoul, Dongdaemun Design Plaza is the most glamorous. Yim argues, however, that it’s also a public space refurbishment that most aptly falls in the “demolition” bucket. The spaceship-snake design bears all the stylish hallmarks of its “starchitect” creator, Pritzker Prize-winner Zaha Hadid, who envisioned a multi-purpose facility that would erase any trace of the two large stadiums that were once the cornerstones of the city’s eponymous district. The project, while worshipped like a piece of landmark architecture by most tourists (think: Sydney Opera House), has garnered a fair bit of controversy as well. In a city that’s remarkably utilitarian with its contemporary architectural flourishes — the skyline is an impressive exercise in redundancy — Hadid’s work has been derided by some for being different simply for the sake of being different, and prioritizing style over substance by sacrificing usable space to create more Instagrammable moments.
Up next on the city’s roster of integrated public works is Nodeul Island in the middle of the Han River, under a bridge that connects the two parts of the city. Several competitions for a dramatically sited opera house were held over the last decade, but the city government pivoted toward embracing the islet’s faraway feel and put out a call to find a design firm to morph the overgrowth into a forested sanctuary. MMK+ and Taehyung Park won with their proposal to create two distinct zones — an open space and a commercial enclave — plus a dedicated plan to reseed the island’s greenery and gradually turn the overgrowth into a forest primed for joggers. There is no completion date yet for the project.