In November 2015, a much-publicised process of crowdsourcing ideas and putting them to a vote culminated in the city of Seoul unveiling its current English-language slogan: “I.Seoul.U.” It met with more ridicule from the local English-speaking community than most of the South Korean capital’s international PR moves (including, but hardly limited to, photoshopped versions for the long-suffering village of Fucking, Austria).
“The arrogance, the vitriol and the self-appointed expertise evident in this explosion of online bile is extraordinary,” wrote Korea Times columnist Andrew Salmon as he surveyed the announcement’s aftermath. He argued that “the obvious, natural focus for Seoul tourism promotion is China and Japan”, and that“the stark simplicity of I.Seoul.U may well speak to tourists hailing from these high-potential target markets [who have], on the whole, a poor command of English”.
To a great extent, Seoul is Korea and Seoul’s image is Korea’s. The country and the capital have developed in tandem, and the inextricability of those two processes lies at the heart of Korean architecture professor Jieheerah Yun’s recent study Globalizing Seoul. Yun assesses the historically inward-looking city’s efforts to turn outward, presenting itself no longer as an “industrial ‘hard city’ emphasising speed and efficiency”, but as a “soft city”, one that values “the appreciation of invisible things, such as cultural and emotional wellbeing” – prioritising aesthetics as well as economics.
The idea, she writes, has been to move away from the “development dictatorship” that produced a monotonous, hastily constructed concrete-and-steel metropolis filled with lookalike office buildings and apartment towers (also plagued for a time with disasters, most tragically the 1995 collapse of the Sampoong department store) towards a more participatory process to remake Seoul as a “versatile ‘cultural’ city filled with tangible and intangible resources”.
In the past 15 years many urbanist-celebrated projects have popped up based on these rather abstract notions. There is Cheonggyecheon, a life-filled stream running through downtown Seoul where an elevated freeway once stood; the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), an unearthly metallic museum and shop complex designed by the late Zaha Hadid placed in the centre of a busy market neighbourhood; and most recently Seoullo 7017, an overpass turned urban park that has been compared with Manhattan’s High Line since opening in May.