Whether you call it Seoul as in “se-oul” or Seoul, as in “soul”/”sole”, the economy in the south Korean capital has been booming for decades now. In the recent years, the city has been polishing its skyline with more architecturally advanced and taller buildings than ever before. Seoul’s skyline however, is an eclectic mishmash of modern and contemporary architecture – from towering steel and glass structures, to concrete blocks, to free-flowing organic curves and forms. The fact that the city was appointed as a UNESCO City of Design in July 2010 just ensures that it won’t disappoint travellers and especially design enthusiasts. Here are some places that every architect must visit (without fail) in Seoul.
One of Seoul’s most extravagant modern buildings, Dongdaemun Design Plaza, completely transformed the surrounding area of Dongdaemun. And is without question the heart of all things design in South Korea. To match Korea’s expectation for creating an extravagant design landmark, there was no better architect to turn to than the queen of avant-garde, Zaha Hadid. Its features are unique and highly contemporary and neo-futuristic, standing for power and elegance. The complex houses various exhibition halls and a craft store, as well as venues for performances, such as the bi-annual Seoul Fashion Week. And hence, the DDP should be one of the first things to look for, once in Seoul.
2. LEEUM SAMSUNG MUSEUM
The Leeum Samsung Museum of Art houses a balanced mix of traditional and modern artworks by different Korean and international artists. Undoubtedly the most famous private art gallery in Korea’s capital, it is a must-visit for all art aficionados. A group of three international superstar architects — OMA, Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel — collaborated by designing a building for the well-integrated art complex. The project is a rare opportunity for three distinct designs to be featured in one massive space.
Museum 1, by Botta, has a collection of traditional Korean artefacts with the central stairway atrium, being its identity. Museum 2 by Nouvel, houses various works from international and Korean contemporary artists. Koolhaas building is indisputably his, where the Samsung Child Education & Culture Centre resides, it is a large space with tall concrete columns and a glass facade, housing another smaller volume, made in beautiful black concrete, along with all exhibition areas occupying the spaces in-between.
3. EWHA WOMAN’S UNIVERSITY
Also known as the ECC – by the Ewha students – it is set into the landscape, forming a grand entrance to the building through a dramatic “valley-like” promenade, with an ingenious park-like green roof that sits atop the structure. The words “building”, “landscape” and “sculpture” perfectly fits this beauty designed by Dominique Perrault.
Inaugurated in 2008, the campus saves on 25% more energy than any other conventionally built structure of the same scale. Despite the fact that majority of the structure is underground, the campus is still very naturally lit, open and airy. Hence, a must visit for all the architects in town.
4. JONG-NO TOWER
Any lay-man would find the Jong-no tower bizarre yet attractive in the first glance. The tower is divided into 3 sections- a triangular base, a rectangular mid-section and a large ring at the top which seems to be supported and connected by the exposed elevator cores. The top levels are filled with restaurants and bars which are famous for its view of Jong-no and other areas of Seoul. Designed by Rafael Vinoly, it’s a must-go for the architecture enthusiasts
5. SEOUL CITY HALL
Two buildings already serving as the city hall (since 1962 and 1986 respectively) were demolished in 2006, to make way for this state of art and uber futuristic building. Completed in 2012, the building’s façade appears like a high ocean wave. While the outside is a fascinating combination of jungle and outside space, the inside has escalators, space-ship like pods and eccentric art installations crawling up the walls and columns, which will leave you in awe of the space. Definitely a must-go!
6. THE 63 BUILDING
Opened in 1985, the Korea Insurance Building is nicknamed as “Building 63” because of the number of floors it has – 3 underground and 60 aboveground. It is one of the most recognisable buildings in Seoul because of its golden façade and being one of the tallest of the towers in the city. It was made right in time for being the symbol for 1988 Olympics. The top floors are home to art exhibitions and similar public spaces, which give a full view of the city. Designed by SOM, the mass producer for High-rise towers in the world, it’s definitely worth a visit.
7. SAEMOONAN CHURCH
The design of this protestant church highlights four things; historicity as the mother church of Korean protestant churches, symbolic gates opening to heaven, expressing Christ as light through different spaces and signifying the water as holy as means of baptism and harmony. These ideas along with the basic theme of loving god and loving neighbours are beautifully portrayed in the layout. With openness and public-ness of the façade and a suspended cross, the space has a very pristine feel to it, therefore making it necessary to visit it at least once in a life time.
8. FLOATING ISLANDS
The three floating river islands in Banpo Hangang Park are the world’s biggest man-made islands. Also known as Sebit Dungdungseom, meaning ‘3 Floating Lantern Islands’ the three flower-themed islets are called Vista, Viva and Terra.
The design is derived from the stages of a blooming flower: a seed, bud, and blossom. Vista, the biggest of them all, has the form of a flower, is the designated venue for performances, conferences and exhibitions. It is composed of layers of glass petals. Viva – the flower bud houses the Beat Square, Youth Woods and restaurants and an outdoor dance space. This island has an aluminium metal panel shell that is enclosed with metal framed petals. Terra, the smallest island, takes the form of a seed and has water sports facilities with slides that plummet right into the river and an outdoor garden, roof garden, club house, to keep the human interaction at the max. Also incorporated into this island are the septic and MEP systems that ensure the operation of all three islands having the least impact on the river. Totally worth the visit!
9. KRING KUMHO CULTURAL COMPLEX
With steel cladded façade and concentric ripple like circular windows, Kring Kumho Cultural Complex definitely stands out. Designed by Unsangdong Architects, the structure is experimental and futuristic in its true form and very well thought of spatially. The complex houses conference rooms, exhibition space as well as offices. One can’t resist visiting this place.
10. SAMSUNG TOWN
Located in the Gangnam district, is Samsung town, the place that houses Samsung headquarters. Instead of settling for one building, Samsung has 3 buildings dedicated for its headquarters, for every department, namely, Samsung Electronics, Samsung Life Insurance, and Samsung C&T.
Each of these towers is larger than life, just like the brand. Apart from the headquarters, the place has more skyscrapers, giving a surreal feel to the place, a must visit for architects.
11. HEYRI ART COMPLEX
The Heyri Art Complex in Seoul has various points of attraction; Hangil Bookstore, Heyri Theatre and White Block Gallery to name some. While the buildings at the art valley showcase art and design in all the splendour, as theatres/galleries/exhibition centres etc, the structures themselves are state of art and will make one go bonkers. This place is a win-win for all the artists and architects, because of both, the exhibits and galleries as well as the eccentric architecture.
12. INCHEON TRI-BOWL
The Incheon tri-bowl is a just stone’s throw away from the heart of Seoul, and a very iconic landmark that can be seen in a lot of music videos and movies. The thing that makes this structure so iconic is not just its shape. The designers started with the idea of being against the norms or architecture. It is composed with a curved floor and a flat roof instead of it being the other way around. The structure floats on a reflection pond. There is a long bridge that serves as the entrance path, just beneath the structure, defining a grand entrance to the building. The go-to place for futuristic architecture and clicking great photos!
13. GYEONGBOKUNG PALACE
Taking a break from modern and contemporary architecture, Seoul also has one of the most beautiful palace complexes in Korea. The Gyeongbokgung palace once housed over four hundred buildings within its vaguely rectangular perimeter walls, but during the Japanese invasions, most of it was destroyed or burned down. In an effort to symbolically destroy the Korean pride, the Japanese used this palace and converted it into a police interrogation and torture centre, and hence made a lot of changes to the original complex. The front gate was moved to the east, destroying the north-south geometry. All these things that shaped the Korean history can be clearly seen today and make the palace a must-see.
14. SEOCHO GARAK TOWER EAST (SGT)
Inaugurated in 2011 and inspired by the shapes found in traditional Korean arts and crafts, the SG tower is designed by Het Architecten Consort. The tower’s contours create a wave like façade. This makes the building stand out, as compared to the orthogonal neighbouring structures.
15. LOTTE INTERNATIONAL TOWER
At 555 metres, The Lotte International Tower is the 5th highest builidng in the world and the highest building in South Korea. Completed in 2017, the 123 floor high tower draws inspiration from traditional Korean art forms (like calligraphy and ceramics). The structure has a tapered profile that rises in a sleek straight form. This creates a sharp contrast with the city’s mountainous topography. The tower includes variety of spaces like retail spaces, offices, luxury hotel, an “officetel”, restaurants etc. On a cloudy day, if one goes on the top floors of the building, you will actually feel like you’re among the clouds!