The Three Faces of Seoul

February 2, 2012

One striking aspect of Seoul is the contrasting aesthetics we find on every corner. The Beautiful Seoul Project that Eun Shil Park was so kind as to introduce me to has produced this remarkable “Seoul Time Lapse 2010” video which puts forth an image of Seoul so radically different from what most of us old timers are accustomed to, but quite powerful. I must say I am very much reminded of the Tokyo I knew back in 1991 & 1992.

This photograph of a set of stores I walk by every day on my way to the subway speaks powerfully about the three faces of Seoul today. There are three shops essentially right next to each other. All of them are in the traditional one-story buildings that date back to the 1960s and were once representative of the shopping district around Cheonggu Station. One mart  represents the traditional store, aesthetically unchanged since the 1970s, a very straightforward vision of a better Korea without and frills. The second shop, the KT store next door, represents the new presence of larger, global firms, in the local economy that bring in a new level of sophistication, but are quite uniform in their own way. Finally, there are the smaller firms built by local innovators that have their own souls and create a new space, often as exciting as anything you will find anywhere.

The three faces of Seoul: Three different worlds that exist simultaneously in Seoul: traditional stores, flashy stores created by large firms and innovative stores created by thoughtful and imaginative individuals

The Malgeun Mart (Bright Mart) represents well the ideology and aesthetics of the 1970s. A small mom & pop shop (now grandma and grandpa) selling basic supplies for daily life with a very simple and clean cut aesthetic of a bright new future. For most young Koreans, the style seems a bit old fashioned and stifling.

This KT Olleh store was set up just a few weeks ago. Very hip and trendy layout which radiates "global savvy" The store is run by a large firm and the design is essentially decided by a designer working for KT who probably has never visited Cheonggu Station in Sindang-dong. We see more and more of these stores that represent the new presence of large firms in the local economy.

KT Store up close

Boni Park is a beautifully designed little store selling clothes that was set up by a local business person. It represents the third part of the economy: highly innovative individuals in Seoul who build their own distinctive environments.

Here is a very traditional restaurant. Straightforward lettering, functional glass doors and plastic vats for kimchi. Many Koreans over 50 feel very comfortable in such an environment, even if they could afford to create something more fancy.

These three stripe awnings from the 1980s are the classic representation of the "modern" aesthetic of the 1980s. Silver, yellow, silver, blue, silver, red is the basic pattern. Solid colors and simple modern image is projected.

Paris Baguette represents the new aesthetic in Seoul. They are popping up everywhere and I must admit that as a product of the US and Europe I find the aesthetics and the food comforting. The gap between the Paris Baguette and the traditional restaurant is immense.

2 responses to “The Three Faces of Seoul

  1. Sean Brown (@seanbrown_) February 5, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    “The gap between the Paris Baguette and the traditional restaurant is immense.” To say nothing of Paris Croissant, the sister chain of Paris Baguette ;-).

  2. zivlazar February 8, 2012 at 9:09 am

    Having lived in London since 2003 until six months ago when I came to Seoul, I am pretty sure that I am witnessing similarities in the way that the UK’s culinary expectations went through a massive change and opened up to international food chains that allowed a much wider spectrum in what was essentially, a fish and chips country. I see Korea is going through this stage now as people develop new tastes for cheese and bread products and the difference between bread and cake becomes clearer 😉 It will be interesting to see the changes in 5 years.

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