Here’s Why Seoul Has Become More Exciting Than Ever

From an elevated High Line–esque pedestrian park to the world’s fifth-tallest skyscraper, the ongoing redesign of Seoul is picking up pace, as a recent visit attests.

If cities were students, Seoul would have the “most improved” award all but sewn up. Its rapid rise from the crushing legacy of poverty and destruction left by the Korean War was a monumental feat by any stretch, but also saddled the city with a patchy urban canvas and a reputation for bland utilitarianism. So the South Korean capital reinvented itself again, this time with an emphasis on creativity, livability, and visual flair. It now scoops up international design awards and hosts pilgrimages by global architects eager for a glimpse of what has become a kind of poster child for the modern Asian metropolis. High time then, one would think, for Seoul to pat itself on the back and take a well-deserved break.

Here's Why Seoul Has Become More Exciting Than Ever

Nighttime on Seoullo 7017, a former elevated highway built to expedite the flow of traffic over the railroad tracks that run into Seoul Station. Photos by Robert Koehler.

But no. Because then it would no longer be Seoul, which, much like its denizens, is practically synonymous with a certain relentless—at times reckless—pursuit of achievement. And as I discovered on a recent trip, the new projects emerging around the city only seem to be getting more daring and ambitious. That’s a boon for repeat visitors like myself, who will apparently never be able to say with any confidence that they’ve seen it all. Or even come close.

Encouragingly, the Seoul Metropolitan Government generally eschews the let’s-bulldoze-this-neighborhood-to-make-way-for-another-boxy-shopping-complex approach to progress. The latest case in point is Seoullo 7017, an elevated park running through the heart of the city. It’s regularly compared to New York City’s High Line, but it couldn’t possibly have emerged anywhere else.

Here's Why Seoul Has Become More Exciting Than Ever

Views over central Seoul and the Nam River from Korea’s highest observation deck. Dubbed Seoul Sky, it is located 500 meters up Lotte World Tower, which debuted in April as the country’s first supertall skyscraper.

So, the name let’s get that out of the way first. Seoullo is an approximate English transliteration of the Korean words for “Seoul Road.” The 70 commemorates the year (1970) the former highway overpass that forms the bulk of the park was constructed. And 17, of course, refers to the park’s opening earlier this year. It may not roll off the tongue, but like so many other seemingly obscure things in Korea, the moniker is underpinned by a certain intricate logic and reverence for history.

Having seen designs for the project—by Dutch architects MVRDV—in advance of my visit, I was prepared for Seoullo 7017 to dazzle. And that it does, rising gracefully from, then arching over, the city’s central streets like a garden in suspended animation. The flora—nearly 24,000 plants and trees with an emphasis on native species, all carefully tagged and housed in molded beds—is, collectively, the park’s star attraction.

Or rather it will be, since many of what will be the more magnificent examples are still in their infancy. But Seoullo 7017 is also equipped with observatories and fountains, cafés and souvenir shops, trampolines and puppet theaters, all tiny and tucked into unobtrusive, capsule-like designs so as not to unfairly lord it over their surroundings. The diminutive scale of many of its amenities gives the venue a toy-town feel in places that’s distinctive, endearing, and just ever-so-slightly surreal.

None of this is to dismiss the park as pint-size. Certainly, it’s not a creation that dazzles with its scale; in its current incarnation (extensions are planned), it takes no more than a half-hour or so to walk from end to end, even factoring in some sightseeing time. But it’s impossible to overstate how much Seoullo 7017 has already changed the areas around it.

To explain this one must go back a decade or two, to when the old Seoul Station, while a magnificent Renaissance-styled structure in its own right, was surrounded by what can only be described as an urban planner’s nightmare. A hodgepodge of roaring, multilane roads, questionably placed crosswalks, shadowy tunnels, and disused tracks made navigating the area around the station an unpleasant prospect for pedestrians. People tended to stay away, and the neighborhood took on a somewhat dilapidated character as a result.

Here's Why Seoul Has Become More Exciting Than Ever

Seoul’s new Seoullo 7017 elevated walkway is pat of an ongoing regeneration effort that has seen the creation of traffic-free streets and redesigned sidewalks to make the South Korean capital more pedestrian-friendly.

But Seoullo 7017 has brought entirely fresh perspectives on the district, as well as new means of exploring it. Walkways now lead directly from the park into glistening new buildings that seem to be multiplying, as well as to historic markets and sights in the vicinity, like the city’s old gates and walls. Taken in at leisure from above at dusk, Seoul Station’s quasi-Moorish main dome, the LED pyrotechnics splashed across office towers, even the traffic lights, meld into breathtaking visual crescendos. Cars are forced to navigate around broad pedestrian islands where children can now roam (relatively) freely.

While not without its detractors, Seoullo 7017 is admirable in terms of what it says about the city’s priorities. By adapting an obsolete overpass that was widely viewed as an eyesore, the government hopes to show it is “moving past an era of rampant demolition, based on the
idea of erasing and writing a new history” toward a “new era of urban generation that seeks to repair and reuse,” says Lee Soo-yeon, general manager at the Seoullo 7017 Management Office.

“The opening of Seoullo 7017 marks more than the birth of a new attraction,” Lee adds. “It’s a declaration that Seoul belongs to the people, and does not cater only to the vehicles that fill its streets.”

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