SEOUL – Friday was a fine, late Autumn day, and I was walking back to the office from a long lunch. With time in hand, I took a detour to stroll through one of the megalopolis’s last few remaining neighborhoods of ambient, higgledy-piggledy alleys.
These alleys – some barely wide enough to walk through – front exclusively low-rise buildings: dusty antique shops, cozy family-run restaurants and tiny residences, usually inhabited by oldsters. Not a beautiful district, perhaps, but pedestrian-friendly, dense with life and bristling with character – especially compared with the high rises that tower over it.
So, I looked forward to the stroll.
Approaching it via an alley in Insadong – a specially zoned, modern tourism district of souvenir shops, handicraft sellers and upmarket traditional restaurants – I was momentarily befuddled. The alley was blocked off at the end by a gray hoarding.
Had I taken a wrong turn? I took the next alley. Same thing.
Realization began to simmer. A brief circuit and my fears became concrete. The entire neighborhood – a full city block – had been razed to the ground.
“What happened?” I asked a middle-aged man sitting on the ground repairing a motorcycle. “Jaekebal,” he said without looking up – “redevelopment.”
I ducked into a tiny restaurant on the periphery of the wasteland. “What is going to happen here?” I asked a young man who was clearing tables.
He looked surprised at the inquiry, then raised his hands in the global gesture of helplessness. “All these little alleys? They are going,” he said with a sad smile.
My feelings veered from shock to fury – but not surprise. These, after all, are the near-final throes of a trend underway for decades.
Out with the old
Seoul, like other Asia metropolises, is future-focused. But the focus here is particularly relentless. Modern history may explain why.
A hyper-speed industrialization program that kicked off in the 1960s sped Koreans from agrarian poverty to urban prosperity within the span of a generation. As the country surged up the metrics, its old-school character was sacrificed on the smoking altar of modernity.
The lure of the capital was particularly magnetic. Seoul expanded as millions swarmed into the capital to man the new industries in what became a colossal case of urban drift.
Traditional neighborhoods of single-story family dwellings were submerged. A vast tonnage of high-rise office buildings hosted the salarymen, while endless clusters of identical apartments rose to house their families.
Still, while the optics of a city established in the 14th century were being changed forever, top-down efforts were made to rejuvenate a culture that had been suppressed by three and a half decades of Japanese colonialism.
In the architectural heritage field, Seoul’s medieval royal palaces – emptied of their former residents – were restored. (That process is still ongoing.) Ditto the temples of the Buddhist priesthood, and the city’s old fortress walls and gates.
One could say “over-restored.”
Signs in palaces and temples refer to timescales of centuries – even though the visitor is frequently looking at a structure that, as is patently clear even to the untutored eye, has been restored (or plain rebuilt from scratch) within the last few years. This is particularly visible in the city walls, where the aged stones at the bottom are an entirely different color and texture from the new stones and battlements piled higher up.
This restoration process, focused largely on monumental architecture was not all-encompassing. Oddly, for a country and a city that is relentlessly middle class, there was no drive to preserve the residences or neighborhoods of the average man and woman of pre-modern Seoul.
A generation obsessed with all things new aspired to live in apartments – cleaner, more convenient and more secure than the hanok (traditional cottages) they had been raised in.
These curved-roofed residences were pleasing to the eye. But the vast majority lacked running water, flush toilets or safe electrical wiring. Their creaky walls and leaky roofs were the source of endless travails.
Psychology, as well as science, was at work. With modernity to the fore, apartments were more prestigious than the wooden-bodied, thatch- and tiled-roof cottages of yore.
Result? The hanoks’ curved, tiled roofs and ornate, wooden doors disappeared in clouds of dust as bulldozers and wrecking balls did their work. It went on years; for decades.
Meanwhile, a nation achieving prosperity sought to increase it.
For Koreans, the investment destination of choice was not capital markets – seen as risky if not downright crooked. The tangible brick and mortar of real estate markets was a sounder choice; property ownership became a path to riches.
For the lucky – the landlords – the more tenants you could pack into a space, the more won could be earned. That meant functional buildings, not attractive buildings. The emphasis was on verticality.
Amid this convergence of trends, it was not just architectural heritage that was hurled into the trash can of modernity.
Aesthetics, too, were ditched.
De-prioritizing prettiness, crushing character
If you visit a Seoul real estate agency you will see prices and floor spaces written up, but no photographs displayed. This, one might assume, is because people are interested in the economics and dimensions of a home, rather than its outer appearance or interior design.
And – perhaps because Seoul’s cityscape lacks architectural attraction – real-time views are not a thing.
Although the city is graced with a broad river and a sprawl of forested mountains, it is striking how few restaurants, bars and cafes offer views of them.
Equally striking is how many Seoulites use their apartment balconies as storage spaces to pile up household junk, rather than as platforms on which to sit and sip cocktails while watching the sun sink behind the horizon.
It was not just the old hanok that went virtually extinct. In ongoing waves of urban rejuvenation, buildings and neighborhoods dating from the 1960s and ‘70s also disappeared as the bulldozers continued their onslaught.
Granted, few of these offered much in the way of design. Still, these old-school, mid-rise districts offered some character – which is more than can be said of the samey-samey, cookie-cutter ‘hoods that replaced them.
There is a long and depressing list of properties and neighborhoods that suffered the wrecking ball. Even in the very limited space of Seoul’s central business district of Gwanghwamun, that list is long.
A block of hanok was destroyed, providing space for a giant police station and a corporate law firm. A character-filled old alley was cleared to permit the construction of an international, 5-star hotel. A bustling alley of old-style restaurants – Pimatgol – that was known nationwide for its ambience was obliterated to make way for a multi-use office block.
Granted, there have been a handful of efforts at urban preservation. One village of hanok, Bukchon, which sits on a hill between two of Seoul’s palaces, has been preserved. Well – sort of.
With City Hall offering grants for hanok “renovation” in this last redoubt of old-style housing, many owners have, over the last 20 years, taken the money. But instead of using it to upgrade their properties, they have flattened their authentic old hanok, and built new, ersatz hanok in their place.
The result is a “Disneyland Castle” effect: Busloads of Chinese tourists have asked, “Where are the old houses?”
The last line of defense: Millennial hipsters?
Are there any grounds for hope? There may be.
Seoul is not the poor location it was in the 1960s and ‘70s. Generations of Koreans have grown up in middle-class prosperity, with good educations and overseas travels. They do not have bad memories of creaky, windy old hanok.
Moreover, they are – it is unkind but fair to say – more aesthetically sophisticated than their parents and grandparents.
And they are winning a global reputation. The personnel who man the city’s creative industries have generated a wave of content – BTS, “Parasite,” “Squid Game” – that has enthused the world.
At home, cutting-edge designers, baristas and craft brewers cater to the tastes of a rising population of, well, hipsters. The good news is that these younger Koreans are not attached to now old-fashioned concepts of “modernity.”
As a result, there are organic developments underway that offer some hope for the future. There is a renewed love affair among the young with hanok – although few want to live in them. But converted to restaurants, cafes, pubs, wine bars, galleries and photos studios, a handful of hanok dotted around the city have won a new life.
And this lure of nostalgia extends to neighborhoods.
Youth flock to Ikseon Dong, a 15-minute walk east of the central business district. Formerly a district of often poorly maintained cottages inhabited by elderly residents, Ikseon Dong has been converted into a dense network of alleys and neo-hanok hosting upscale eateries, cafes and pubs.
This is hanok cool.
And it is not just hanok that beckons youth. The distinctly unlovely and often crumbling concrete precincts and niches of Euljiro (aka “Hip”-jiro), another 15-minute walk southeast of the CBD, are now one of the city’s hottest districts for partying.
This is retro cool.
The two districts showcase possibilities and present models.
The district that used to exist adjacent to Insadong could have become, with the right zoning and regulations, a combination of Iksan-Dong and Eulijiro. Of course, now it will not – it has been obliterated, victim to the mighty (and corruptive) power of the property developer.
Can that force be halted? Perhaps. But if Seoul’s hipsters are going to colonize and gentrify other, older areas, they had better get a move on.
Other sub-districts in the broad area of Jongno, north and east of the central business district, are also slated for jaekebal – the grim “compulsory purchase” order, or “redevelopment.”
These are some of the very last remaining chunks of pre-modern Seoul. When they are gone, they will be gone forever and the city will lose a core component of its character of yesteryear.
That damned foreign voice
Of course, there is an element in this column of the outsider complaining.
For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Koreans were beholden to powerful foreign powers. During the period of economic development, there was almost a national fetish of benchmarking “advanced nations.”
Those days have passed. Seoulites must choose their own destinies. Those destinies include what kind of city they wish to inhabit.
After all, they inhabit a lively, vibrant democracy. They can – and do – demonstrate at the drop of a hat. Some demonstrations are one-person affairs; others, such as the “candlelit protests” that overthrew President Park Geun-hye in 2017, lure millions.
However, there is no protest movement to preserve old buildings or neighborhoods.
Moreover, Korea is a vibrant capitalist economy. Seoul property owners have the right to develop and upgrade their assets. These go-getters will not be trammeled by foreign voices arguing for cultural heritage preservation, or urban aesthetics.
Yet as the bulldozers mass on the perimeters of the last, few, tiny holdouts of old architecture left in Seoul, there may, just may, be foreign benchmarks that could feasibly be consulted.
Multiple capitalist cities – in Western Europe and North America – have strict regulations on the development of old properties and old districts. Some have extremely strict regulations which make it downright onerous to make even minor changes to buildings of a certain vintage.
These regulations are accepted by their populaces as part and parcel of living in cities where the elected municipal governments see the pluses of preserving distinct urban heritages.
Minutes to midnight
Seoul in the 1960s was the capital of one of the world’s poorest nations. It did not have the luxury of prioritizing aesthetics or inner-city heritage. Nor, did it have the kind of architectural and design manpower available to create beautiful spaces, or to renovate and preserve old ones.
Seoul today is the capital of the 10th richest nation on earth. It is also home to a population whose younger members have sound and advanced ideas about technologies, trends and designs.
Moreover, a city that was formerly known as a base of stern-faced industrial warriors is today a bona fide welcoming destination for regional and global tourists. Many of these tourists will be drawn to millennial, high-tech, bright and sparkly Korea: The neon! The technologies! The high rises!
But many will also want to see Seoul’s unique character – i.e. what differentiates it from other regional cities such as Shanghai, Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong. Granted, much of this differentiation exists in fields such as cuisine and popular culture.
But cities are physical spaces. Visitors will not ignore what they see and experience around them. What is a city’s look – its feel? What is its character – its spirit?
This is not just a question for Seoul, but for other Asian capitals and cities. Perhaps due to the traditional preference for building in wood rather than stone, perhaps due to the modern trend for ultra-fast development, urban heritage across the region is being crushed to dust.
But to return to Seoul, specifically. The risk is increasing that the very last few remnants of Seoul’s distinct character – barring its palaces and temples – will disappear forever.
Surely, there must come a time when the city government stands up and says to the real property developers who are poised to bulldoze yet another of the city’s last, few remaining oases of pre-modernity, “Enough is enough!”
Given that there is so very, very little left to preserve, that time could be nigh.