Of course, if sheer scale is what you’re after, Seoul can cater to that too. The city’s other landmark opening of 2017 was the Lotte World Tower, the latest addition to the global supertall-skyscraper family. Viewed from a distance—easy enough to do from just about anywhere in the city—there’s something almost sinister in the way the tower looms over the surrounding department stores and apartment blocks, like so many petitioners gathered humbly at its feet. Get a bit closer, and it’s easier to admire the building’s obvious grace; the way its bulbous base tapers into a delicate “lantern” tip that flares to life at dusk; the pale glass exterior designed to evoke Korean porcelain.
At 555 meters, Lotte World is not the tallest building on the planet (it ranks fifth). But it is the highest in Korea by a long stretch and has a few other vertical records up its sleeves, including the world’s fastest elevator and highest glass-bottomed observation deck. The latter, at 500 meters above street level, is worth a stop—if not for the unparalleled views of the metropolis and mountains on its periphery, then simply to witness the sheer terror of people confronted with stepping onto what their minds are stubbornly insisting is a long drop to the streets far, far below. I saw more than a few young people (men and women) clinging desperately to their dates; the older folks seemed more sanguine. Closer back down to earth, the attached Lotte World Mall has swiftly blossomed into what could be Seoul’s premier self-contained retail destination, with a star-studded roster of local and global brands, half a dozen dedicated “food streets,” and an aquarium.
My final stop was a humbler but, in its own way, no less notable addition to the exclusive Gangnam district: the Hyundai Card Cooking Library. Again, the name is not a straightforward indicator of what lies within an arresting metal-clad building on a quietish side street. While the four-level space contains thousands of books by renowned chefs and critics exploring the world’s cuisines, it is less a library than a temple to the entire culinary experience. The ground floor houses a deli with fresh-baked goods and tempting displays of cheeses and cold cuts; tables present living recipes with all the ingredients beautifully laid out. Ascending the stairs, mouth watering, I leaf through a few tomes before making a detour to the Ingredients House, a proto-laboratory where almost 200 spices, herbs, and oils used in dishes around the world can be inhaled, mixed, and sampled.
The space itself, designed by local architects One O One with interior work by London’s Blacksheep, contributes heavily to the atmosphere by maintaining a sense of openness throughout; the lack of barriers between levels leaves sights, sounds, and smells free to circulate throughout the building. On the upper floors, the dreams and ideas generated downstairs are brought to life in two state-of-the-art kitchens, where visitors can sign up for hands-on classes. Or they may elect to sit down for a meal in a stunning rooftop greenhouse, where star chefs are known to hold court with dishes featuring produce plucked from the outdoor garden.
Remarkably, this is no less than the fourth such “library” funded by credit card issuer Hyundai Card over the past couple of years, with previous projects exploring themes such as design and music. (For now, they are only open to guests accompanied by Hyundai Card holders, though those aren’t hard to find.)
It might seem odd for a consumer finance business to support the creative pursuits with such abandon, but according to Nayoung Kim of the Hyundai Card brand team, it’s all part of an effort to “encourage the pursuit of a higher quality lifestyle.” Those words, it occurs to me, could also serve as Seoul’s mission statement these days, and I’m already wondering what might be in store for my next trip.
Hyundai Card Libraries
Lotte World Tower & Lotte World Mall
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“High Times”).