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2010 Travel Diary #14: Seoul as World Design City

Tuesday 4 May 2010. More interviews today. First, the Seoul Design Foundation. We enter an anonymous office block, and ascend to the ninth floor. Exiting the lifts, the signature colour on the wall is the fashionable lime green which seems to be used in all this year’s kitchen design catalogues. It’s a busy office, with lots of energy. We have come to meet Ken Nah, Director General of World Design Capital Seoul 2010. It’s a job he manages to combine with his teaching responsibilities at Hongik University, where he lectures in design management.

Ken Nah, Director General of World Design Capital Seoul 2010
Ken Nah, Director General of World Design Capital Seoul 2010

What is the first thing you notice about Korean architecture as you make the long road journey into Seoul from Incheon? Probably the identical apartment blocks which cling to the side of the hills. Their only distinguishing feature is that they have different numbers on the side. To many visitors they seem monotonous, uninspiring and slightly tired. At the time of their construction the priority was to provide much-needed accommodation for Seoul’s rapidly growing population, and in that respect they have undoubtedly served their purpose. But as if to mark a break from this utilitarian past, Seoul’s new design guidelines require all new buildings to have new features. Or put another way, no new property can be identical to another one.

Seoul’s last Mayor, Lee Myung-bak, started the improvement in Seoul’s environment by getting rid of the Chonggyecheon expressway and reopening the stream as a breath of fresh air through the heart of downtown Seoul. Other urban projects to improve the environment were the greening of Seoul’s forests. The current mayor, Oh Se-hoon, has taken over where Lee left off, but while Lee’s programmes sometimes had to bulldoze their way against protest and incredulity1, Oh has made design and the environment part of the organisational structure of the city administration, with a Deputy Mayor specifically responsible for design. The city has a Chief Design Officer who is an ex-president of the Korea Institute for Design Promotion and a professor of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

The way Seoul has embedded design into the metropolitan organisation was possibly a key differentiator in its selection as World Design City 2010. Ken Nah explains:

“World Design City” is the title given to a city that utilises design to upgrade itself socially, culturally, and economically. So the selection criteria look at the past (what you have achieved already), the present (the resources, organisation, and infrastructure), and the future (the will, the consistency, and the future plans and visions). They look at every detail. What we have done in Seoul in a few years is comparable to what has been achieved in 200 years in the UK.

Being World Design Capital has a number of benefits and obligations. One of the tasks Seoul undertook earlier this year as part of their design leadership was to host a Design Cities Summit, attended by the mayors and design teams of major cities from around the world. The summit signed up to a new manifesto, “The Seoul Design Declaration,” presenting three core principles for urban development through design:

The Pyramid of Design Infusion
The Pyramid of Design Infusion
  • Cities will create designs for everyone;
  • Cities will enrich the citizens’ lives through design;
  • Cities will create sustainable designs.

Nah’s aim is to embed design into everything that Seoul does, from a state where people are not interested in design or think of it as a fancy optional extra, to a situation where it is part of the process of everything that is done, and where it improves people’s lives. He draws a little diagram for me on a scrap of paper. I can see that he really wants a blackboard so that he can have a bigger canvas for his ideas, and to be able to make sweeping arm gestures as he explains how we need to move people step by step up his Pyramid of Design Infusion.

The Cheonggyecheon, before and after
The Cheonggyecheon, before and after (photo credit:

Seoul has a Green Project and a Blue Project. The former speaks for itself, though includes the Chonggyecheon, Seoul’s parks and the greening of Seoul’s streets – and I’m not sure whether it’s my imagination, but I’m sure that on this visit I’ve noticed much more in terms of landscaping and greenery in central Seoul. One thing that I haven’t particularly noticed, but which apparently has had a markedly beneficial effect on Seoul’s air quality, is the increasing use of natural gas to power Seoul’s buses. The Blue Project meanwhile is all about opening up the banks of the Han River for recreation and exercise. These projects all seem to tick the three objectives of the Seoul Declaration noted above: sustainable designs which enrich everybody’s lives.

While the early days of Seoul’s design journey focused on the visual aspects of design, now the focus is on “liveability” – improving people’s lives through design. It’s seemingly the little things that can add up to making a big difference: standardising the various different kinds of traffic signals which control pedestrian crossings so that people know exactly how long they have got to cross the busy intersections; improving wheelchair access to the subway system; extending Seoul’s cycle network; standardising signage – including the creation of Seoul’s own typefaces: design seems to reach into a lot of areas.

Scenes in Garosu-gil (photo credit: Kim Jiyoung)
Scenes in Garosu-gil (photo credit: Kim Jiyoung)

Another initiative is to make some areas more human in scale. A particular pilot project can be found in Garosu-gil (가로수길) in Apgujeong-dong, a street 200-300 metres long. On both sides of the street are small shops, ethnic restaurants and design studios, all of them different. The project started in the main street itself, and is now spreading into the side streets. “It’s a totally different feel from Seoul’s usual street scene. The whole block is becoming a very attractive place,” says Nah.

I couldn’t resist the question: if Seoul can care so much about its environment that it can pass a micro-managing regulation that every new building should be different from the last, and can work to produce attractive new shopping streets on a domestic scale, why can it not pass a regulation to preserve some of the unique traditional neighbourhoods which used to add variety to the urban landscape but which are rapidly being lost for ever?

It’s an unfair question, because this is clearly not Mr Nah’s brief, though I can tell that he is saddened by, for example, the destruction of the Pimatgol neighbourhood. “The fact is, that when a multi-storey building is worth so much more than a single-storey one, there is money to be made from knocking down traditional housing. By keeping a building as it is, people pay a big opportunity cost. There are many stakeholders to consider.”

Hangang Renaissance Project
Hangang Renaissance Project

Mr Nah turns the conversation back to his day job. “As Director General of Seoul World Design City, my personal goal is to increase ordinary people’s awareness of design.” In a year when so many high profile design-related events are occurring in Seoul, that doesn’t seem like too much of a challenge, but he sees his role as much longer term. Part of the objective is to catch people young. Tomorrow is Children’s Day, a national holiday, and Nah has organised a design event for children to let their creative talents run riot.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Zaha Hadid's Dongdaemun Design Plaza, to open in 2011

Next year, Zaha Hadid’s high-profile World Design Plaza will be completed, a permanent showcase for Seoul’s design credentials: Nah’s team will be moving there next year, and Seoul’s annual Design Fair will have a permanent venue there. Seoul as World Design City is not just about a single year of exhibitions and competitions: it’s about making a lasting impact on the lives of Seoulites.

Further reading:

Photo credits:

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  1. See Seoul Selection’s book Lee Myung-bak: Korea’s CEO President, pages 16-18 []

2 thoughts on “2010 Travel Diary #14: Seoul as World Design City

  1. The Han River is getting really nice nowadays with lots of playgrounds, sports facilities and picnic tables….

    btw, you have a typo in the Garosgil paragraph. Assume you mean ethnic restaurants rather than the ethical ones you’ve got at the moment!!

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