If cities were stu­dents,

DestinAsian - - DISPATCHES -

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 wellde­served break.

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-bull­dozethis-neigh­bor­hood-to-make-way-for-an­oth­er­boxy-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.

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 souve- nir 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, ques-

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

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