Observer: The Life of the Seoul

In the summer of
2008, I was invited to give a week of lectures to a design class in
South Korea. Several students were scheduled to make brief presentations
at the end of the week on subjects they had been researching, and we had
a preliminary chat about the direction their talks were taking. Two of
them, it emerged, were concerned about the rapid changes to
Seoul’s visual landscape as a result of commercial pressures, some
from outside. One showed me a picture of a Starbucks plonked down
incongruously in a quaint, historic area. Respectful to a fault, the
students were hesitant to criticize these developments, yet they were
clearly uneasy and wanted to know what I thought about it.

If I had
any doubt that this was a pressing issue for some Korean graphic
designers, it was erased the same day when I was invited to meet a group
of professors who had been occupied all week with a workshop of their
own about design education. One instructor was especially eager to hear
my opinion on the authorities’ plans to bring visual order to
Seoul’s graphically unruly streets. On his laptop, he showed us
photos of commercial buildings where every inch of external wall, apart
from the windows, was plastered with commercial signs advertising the
wares on sale within.

I can’t read hangul, the Korean alphabet,
so I have no idea exactly what the signs said, but on a purely visual
level, they looked fantastic. Considered as architecture, the buildings
were bland, uninteresting boxes. The typographic signs turned them into
vibrant emporia, animated by a hubbub of messages you would never see on
a Main Street building in the U.S. The professor then showed some
official proposals to bring these three-dimensional noticeboards under
control. The signs could remain, but they would be squeezed to fit
neatly into narrow tracks that would run along the walls between the
windows above and below them. It was the worst of both worlds. The
buildings would still be treated as a handy graphic megaphone for
hailing potential customers. But the life had been sucked out of those
graphics. They looked like exactly what they were—an officially
sanctioned compromise. They were too neat and tidy. That’s what I
said, and it seemed to be the professor’s opinion, too. If he had
a solution, he didn’t offer one.

It was nice of them to ask for
my input, but I was in a curious position. As a first-time visitor to
South Korea, and with everything to learn, I was defending the visual
manifestation of a commercial culture I often want to oppose back home
in London. Moreover, as I made clear, I hadn’t actually seen any
of these buildings. My class was taking place at a hotel in Paju Book
City, a specially built zone for publishers and book manufacturers about
25 miles outside Seoul. I wouldn’t get to see the city until after
my class was over.

Seoul didn’t disappoint. Its streets are
loud, densely packed, pulsing with energy. And isn’t this what we
love about cities: the random layering, the dizzying toomuchness, the
sense of boundless possibility? In Seoul, signs shoot from every
surface, their messages colliding and clashing around you. Look down
even the smallest alley and you confront a multi-colored matrix of
announcements, each one leading to the next. Central Seoul has a
messiness that goes far beyond anything you would see in New York,
London, or Paris. It’s as though the signs, posters, placards,
shopfronts, stickers, and graffiti have torn loose from their tethers,
drifted out of position, and begun to merge in new constellations. There
is an abrasive confusion of textures as materials smash together
in—to a Westerner’s eyes—unfamiliar ways. Things look
improvised, haphazard, rather than preplanned and solid. Seoul’s
streetscape may not conform to global standards of urban decorum, but it
works on its own terms and is never dull.

The trouble is, for
Seoul’s new generation of civic leaders, this just isn’t
modern enough. The city’s mayor, Oh Se-hoon, who took office in
July 2006, is that rare bird, a politician in love with design. He told
BusinessWeek that “design is everything,” and he is
determined to reinvent Seoul as a globally recognized city of design. He
appears to be succeeding—the city has been appointed World Design
Capital for 2010 by the International Design Alliance. “Seoul will
send out the message that design is the power to change the world for
the better,” declares Oh Se-hoon. He established a new design
division led by a vice-mayor, and in October, the city hosted the Seoul
Design Olympiad 2008, aiming to attract 2 million visitors to a 21-day
event that included competitions, exhibitions, live performances, and a
conference attended by luminaries such as Daniel Libeskind.

As 2010
approaches, the pressure to bring Seoul’s street aesthetics into
line with its World Design Capital status can only grow. According to
BusinessWeek, the city has set aside $180 million to finance
urban and design-related projects, some of which will go toward
overhauling its streets, buildings, and parks. There is probably no
stopping this beautification, though the misgivings of some design
insiders were plain enough during my visit.

They have a point.
Seoul’s chaotic streets feel like a true expression of its people:
They sizzle with the urgency and industry of a nation that has become a
leading economy. Design reformers have always aspired to file down the
rough edges and “make it nice,” and Oh Se-hoon sounds like
earlier generations of design promoters in the West. Too often now the
consequence of self-conscious, market-led design is blandness and
slickness, a public environment that simply wants people to play the
role of the good consumer. My guess is that wherever they get the
chance, Seoul’s shopkeepers and hairdressers, as well as the
city’s bar, restaurant, and club owners, will carry on just as
they’ve always done because it’s simply who they are.