Is Seoul An Ugly City? Urban Planning in Korea’s Capital

This week the Korea Times posted an article called Filthy Shades of Grey that strongly criticized architecture and urban planning in Korea’s capital city. So how hideous is Seoul, really?

Gyongbukgung Palace Photo by Michael Johnstone

Gyongbukgung Palace
Photo by Michael Johnstone

You could ask a hundred different people, and likely get a different answer from each of them. Seoul’s not exactly a model city. It was designed in a hurry to rebuild after the armistice agreement froze the war between the North and the South, and for the majority of its modern history, Seoul was built under dictatorships.

Dictatorships, as you can well imagine, aren’t exactly conducive to the ideals of creativity. And while capitalism was booming under the regimes of the 1960s-1980s, conformity was in. Standing out was not. So while women measured skirts to ensure that they were of acceptable length, and men ensured their haircuts fell within the established regulations, not a whole lot was being done to make a statement about individuality.

Southeastern Seoul  Photo by Michael Johnstone

Southeastern Seoul
Photo by Michael Johnstone

You can see it in the architecture to this day. Buildings constructed during this era (and even well into the 1990s) are awful. Soviet style apartment blocks of 5-15 buildings that all look exactly the same, with their shades of browns, greys and other utterly depressing motifs. No style, just function. Cheap and simple, but that’s the name of the game when you’re trying to build housing for literally millions of people who just had their city levelled.

Photo by Michael Johnstone

Whatever these are, they failed.
Photo by Michael Johnstone

In more recent years, architects have been more ambitious. Buildings like the 63 Building on Yeouido Island are early attempts at breaking the mould, and even though they’re not fantastic, they’re at least modern, sleek, and notably un-communist looking. Anyone criticizing the 63 building ought to first take a look around at the apartment complexes sprawled about the city.

But the article makes a particular point that can’t so easily be disputed:

The city has even managed to waste its most significant aesthetic gift ― the Han River ― by flanking it with apartments that resemble stacked egg cartons.

This was perhaps my first observation upon seeing the Han River for the first time, several years ago. But even more upsetting than the “egg carton” apartments would be the classic 1970s concept of building freeways along rivers. That’s right: the vast majority of Seoul’s waterfront space is overshadowed by a network of freeways, anchored like bridges over the water. And while there are a lot of parks and green spaces below the freeways, it’s hard to relax when there are thousands of cars passing overhead every minute.

Photo by Michael Johnstone

A girl playing in the Cheongye River.
Photo by Michael Johnstone

One of the city’s best success stories is the Cheongyecheon. Once a natural river flowing through the city’s downtown core, the Cheongye was paved over and then transformed into an elevated highway system that cut through the heart of the city. It was abhorrent. Until Lee Myung-Bak, Seoul’s mayor who would later become president, decided that enough was enough and had the highway demolished. In its place they built an artificial river, diverting water from nearby sources.

The Cheongye river had been given a second life. And the results were astonishing: wildlife returned to the area, the economy was permanently boosted, and the area now can boast a summer temperature which is 3.6 °C cooler than the average of the rest of Seoul. In Seoul’s oppressive, humid, summer heat, this is a welcome relief.

On the far end of the new river, a reminder of what once was. Photo by Michael Johnstone

On the far end of the new river, a reminder of what once was.
Photo by Michael Johnstone

Year-round, the Cheongye is one of the most vibrant and upbeat parts of the city, playing host to lantern festivals, parades, concerts and a litany of other events. On any given day you’ll find Seoulites walking along the river path or even wading through the waters among fish and dragonflies. All  in the heart of the city.

Here’s the bottom line: Seoul has a lot of hideous structures. It’s also improving rapidly. Many of its new apartment complexes made up of  clusters of buildings around centralized courtyards, gardens and green spaces. Yes, Seoul is tacky. But there’s something to be said for its neon light obsession, which surpasses even that of Tokyo in its unabashed love for blinking, spinning, dribbling coloured light. Look at any of the newer parts of the city and you’ll find that variety is slowly starting to make its way into the nation’s capital.

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