Posted by: Matt Kelley | 23 June 2009

Video: The Seoul of Design

When looking at the urban grit of Seoul neighborhoods, you’re forgiven if the words “good design” don’t come to mind. But seeing how quickly South Korea rebuilt after a devastating civil war, it’s not surprising that design just wasn’t a priority.

However, observing traditional Korean architecture and culture, it’s obvious that in times of peace and prosperity, pre-modern Korea honed a highly sophisticated design aesthetic. Which is why today, as a world economic power, it makes sense that South Korea is eager to recover its design legacy. In fact, Seoul’s mayor, Oh Se-hoon (오세훈) has made it one of his top priorities.

20090622_dancheongredA color scheme has been selected for the city with “dancheong red” as its base.

For starters, in 2008 a plan was unveiled to bring order to the city’s colorful chaos. A 10-color palette anchored by what’s called “dancheong red” was inspired by the city’s history. The colors will be applied to public buildings, signage and the transportation network. Already, street signs and neighborhood maps employ the colors and two new official city fonts.

20090622_designstreetsSeoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon’s “Design Streets” campaign aims to bring some order to Seoul’s chaotic roads and sidewalks.

But the mayor’s plan goes much further. In his efforts to transform Seoul from a “hard” city to a “soft” one, Seoul will radically change the character of entire streets and neighborhoods.

20090622_mediapolesAn artist’s rendering of dozens of media poles line a broad avenue near Gangnam Station.

In the spring of 2009, the first of some 27 “Design Streets” were unveiled. A 760-meter stretch near Gangnam Station was repaved and fitted with tall “media poles” that emit colorful light shows and can take your photo and even email it to you.

20090622_streetmapsSleek street maps are replacing the older models.

Some 43 billion won is earmarked for the design street projects, which will also add benches, footpaths and refuse bins around the city.

20090622_vendorsA ubiquitous fixture on Seoul streets, the new shops are less-colorful, and less comfortable, according to vendors.

And in the interest of creating a more pedestrian-friendly Seoul, in April 2009 the city started removing 700 hawker stalls in the central Jongno district. The area’s narrow sidewalks were famous for the scores of vendors selling trinkets and delicious treats, but on a recent visit, they were gone! This is part of a larger plan to remove 3,000 stalls outright, while replacing another 7,000 with a uniform design. But one person’s urban blight is another’s quirky character, and personally, I’m sad to see the vendors disappear. (Update 6/10: Be it a change of city policy or feisty vendors just responding to public demand, on a recent visit the stalls were back!)

20090622_banpobridgeA summer treat has been the Banpo Bridge’s water, light and music show.

But Seoul’s dramatic changes aren’t limited to its landscapes. As I’ve mentioned on an earlier show, the bridges on the iconic Han River have been outfitted with illumination systems. In particular, since May 2009, 20,000 nozzles on the 600-meter-long Banpo Bridge (반포대교) shoot 60 tons of water every minute. The fountain, colored by lights and accompanied by music, conducts several shows daily.

But if these design projects seem ambitious, there’s more. In 2011, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park will open alongside the city’s most famous shopping district.

20090622_ddpZaha Hadid’s controversial transformation of the Dongdaemun area (former site of historic sports fields) is the anchor of the mayor’s plan to announce Seoul’s design ambitions.

At a cost of over 400-billion won, the Zaha Hadid-designed, titanium-swathed structure will boast convention and exhibition spaces, offices and a museum, along with a large park. Ultimately, city officials hope the plaza will boost the city’s brand and support the domestic design industry.

20090622_wdcSeoul has been designated the 2010 World Design Capital. These posters have bee plastered throughout the city’s subway system.

This effort was given a big boost in 2007, when Seoul was selected by the International Design Alliance to be the 2010 World Design Capital. The designation recognizes Seoul for realizing the full potential of design to improve the city’s social, cultural and economic quality of life. In 2010, the city will conduct a yearlong celebration showing how it’s integrating design into a larger strategic vision.

20090622_designolympiadIndulging in a little bit of participatory art from last year’s Design Olympiad in Jamsil.

But in the meantime, Seoul is building its design infrastructure through annual events like its Design Olympiad, and the opening of the Seoul Design Foundation. No doubt, city officials hope these efforts will bring great design back to Korea’s capital.

20090622_busstopA cool bus stop near Gyeonghui Palace in central Seoul. More than just a pretty facade, the shelter includes an LCD monitor listing the wait times of upcoming buses.

More Information:
Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park Official Site (in English)
Seoul Design Olympiad Official Site (in English)

Getting There:
→ Reach the Gangnam Design Street via subway line 2’s Gangnam Station (exit #7). The stretch of Gangnamdae-ro from the exit to the Kyobo Bookstore (and the new subway line 9’s Shinnonhyeon Station) is lined with the media towers.

→ Reach the Banpo Bridge and Hangang Park via subway line 3 or 7’s Express Bus Terminal Station (exit #6). From there, bus Nos. 401, 406 and 143 stop at the park entrance. Admission is free.

(A version of this text aired on KBS World Radio on May 27, 2009.)



  1. Hi there,
    Am also dismayed to hear that the mayor regards the street stalls as a blight on the cityscape. Long live the pojangmachas and the street stalls selling my favourite snacks such as odeng and red-bean in fish-shaped pancakes
    ( forgot the Korean name)!
    Hope the update on 10.6 is a sign that the vendors have a fighting chance to make a living on the streets of Seoul.

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