2010 2012 2012


day,”says de­vel­oper Stan Gale. And as a planned“pro­to­type”city, set­ting up home or of­fice here is prov­ing very ap­peal­ing.

Soul of the City

Songdo is a com­mu­nity in marked con­trast to the an­cient fortress city of Seoul, which in­stead of start­ing with a clean slate, was faced with the task of re­con­struc­tion in the dev­as­tat­ing af­ter­math of World War II and the Korean War. Pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture, homes and com­mer­cial es­tab­lish­ments were built and de­signed solely for util­i­tar­ian pur­poses. Weigh­ing their aes­thetic value wasn’t part of the equa­tion.

“Seoul has earned a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing a less than at­trac­tive city,”says Mau­reen O’Crow­ley, vice-pres­i­dent for in­ter­na­tional mar­ket­ing and con­ven­tion at Seoul Tourism Or­ga­ni­za­tion (STO).“The em­pha­sis on de­sign has changed that and now Seoul is earn­ing a well-de­served rep­u­ta­tion for its trendy sky­line.”

In 2010, UNESCO awarded the Korean cap­i­tal a place in its Cre­ative Cities Net­work by des­ig­nat­ing Seoul as a“City of De­sign.”It was cho­sen for its rich her­itage and cre­ative po­ten­tial. The city joined coun­ter­parts around the world, in­clud­ing Buenos Aires, Ber­lin, Mon­treal, Nagoya, Helsinki, Shen­zhen and most re­cently, Cape Town, on UNESCO’s list of cre­ative cities in the field of de­sign. This is recog­ni­tion of Seoul’s mas­sive ef­fort to in­cor­po­rate arts and cul­ture in city de­vel­op­ment.

The project to trans­form Seoul into a beau­ti­ful city wor­thy of be­ing called“Soul of Asia”was the brain­child of for­mer mayor Oh Se-hoon, who upon his elec­tion in 2006, out­lined a vi­sion of city-wide re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture and the con­struc­tion of eye­catch­ing mod­ern land­marks.

“We must create a city en­vi­ron­ment where peo­ple want to come and live with their busi­nesses and their fam­i­lies. At­trac­tive­ness is the key to na­tional com­pet­i­tive­ness,”he told a re­porter in 2008.

Con­sid­er­ing the speed of Seoul’s astro­nom­i­cal eco­nomic rise, black spots are min­i­mal.Yes, there may be some red tape, but the govern­ment is tak­ing clear mea­sures to cut it.Yes, English is limited, but a gen­er­a­tion of Tiger Mums, af­ter-school hag­wons (small pri­vate cram schools) and in­ter­na­tional school­ing will mit­i­gate this. And yes, there may be signs of po­lit­i­cal wran­gling in­flu­enc­ing in­dus­try, par­tic­u­larly con­struc­tion; but the rate at which im­pres­sive, suc­cess­ful projects such as IFC Seoul, and now Songdo, are ris­ing far out­weighs that of stalled projects.

Even the ever-loom­ing shadow of North Korea has not been enough to sti­fle Seoul.“With North Korea the geopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion is clearly a shadow but ob­vi­ously it has not been an im­ped­i­ment,”says Free­man, cit­ing the huge de­mand they have ex­pe­ri­enced from in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Sony, Philip Morris and ING for of­fice space in IFC.

In the end, it’s the city’s peo­ple who have their foot on the ac­cel­er­a­tor.“This is a re­mark­able coun­try, and clearly a re­mark­able peo­ple, when you con­sider the ut­ter dev­as­ta­tion and the in­come lev­els of Kore­ans in the early 1960s. The his­tory has cre­ated a cul­ture of peo­ple who are very hardy, na­tion­al­is­tic and proud of their her­itage, and I think that is pri­mar­ily the rea­son why Korea has be­come so dy­namic,”says Free­man.

Cer­tainly, ex­am­ples of South Kore­ans do­nat­ing their per­sonal gold dur­ing the 1998 IMF bailout af­ter the Asian Fi­nan­cial Cri­sis, and the con­stant sense of ur­gency and will­ing­ness to pro­vide and move for­ward, il­lus­trate this point. The “bbal­ib­bali” (“hurry hurry”) cul­ture that one so of­ten hears about does not just re­fer to Kore­ans’ef­fi­ciency, but also their de­sire to per­form, com­pete and suc­ceed – and this is some­thing you im­me­di­ately sense when you in­ter­act with Seoul’s peo­ple.

“I can as­sure you that I’ve never been in any other coun­try that op­er­ates as ef­fi­ciently,”says Free­man. With such a solid fun­da­men­tal eco­nomic base to work from, and equipped with the ca­pa­bil­ity, pride and de­ter­mi­na­tion of its peo­ple, it seems that Seoul’s as­cent will not be plateau­ing in the near fu­ture. BT

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