2017 Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism offers best time to explore Seoul

For the next two months, anyone in Korea should grab the rare opportunity to see Seoul displayed in various forms, scattered throughout the central district of the city.

With an overarching theme of tackling global urban issues, the 2017 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism began Saturday and will be held until Nov. 5. Various exhibitions and events will be available at each of the project locations including the newly built Donuimun Museum Village and the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP).

Donuimun Museum Village is unique in that it serves as a pathway from Seoul’s past to the present, while also offering a glimpse into its future. The urban history of Donuimun, also called Seodaemun, one of the four main gates of the capital, dates back to a century ago when commoners began to form villages there, project architect and designer Min Hyun-sik explained.

“In it there are the lives of the lower-class citizens, usually hidden underneath the shadow of architectural history … I wanted to preserve that picture here rather than go for lavish designs,” Min said. The small alleyways, walls and windows were all designed to capture the breadth of their history. “It seemed as though memories of the past were disappearing. I wanted to show the continuous evolution of history because that’s what shapes our identity.”

The various buildings, showcasing early modern architectural and traditional Korean housing styles, will display one to two projects during the two month-period. Each offers an idea or solution for urban problems such as ways of recycling, energy regenerating and utilizing modern technology. The works of 38 teams from 20 countries are being showcased here.

One design is the collaborative work of German architect Dirk Hebel and Swiss engineer Philippe Block. “It’s exciting for us to show we can use new materials that are rather weaker to make something that is durable and sustainable by getting strength through geometry,” Hebel said.

Having taken their project to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, New York and now Seoul, their project involves using unusual building materials. “We’re growing in the way these new materials are used in future cities including Seoul,” Block said.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) is another prime location to visit during the Biennale. It offers a different look into Seoul as well as its northern counterpart, Pyongyang. As soon as people enter the exhibition, one may find the Seoul and Pyongyang exhibitions on the left and right of the main hall respectively. And presented between the two is a project, “Letter to the mayors of Seoul and Pyongyang,” offering ideas for promoting dialogue between the two in the form of letters. Anyone can participate by submitting a proposal at the DDP or by sending a message by mail or internet. 

The Pyongyang exhibition has already garnered attention, as it showcases a typical interior of a middle-class apartment in the capital of North Korea. The living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom have been designed through consultation with North Korea experts.

Aside from the two exhibitions, the DDP also hosts urban projects from 50 cities around the world. They have been gathered into one place for the purpose of exchanging urban policies aimed at addressing the economic, social and environmental challenges.