A decade ago, the sci-fi novelist William Gibson famously described Japan as “the global imagination’s default setting for the future”. Today, whether the global imagination knows it or not, it would more likely be South Korea. You only have to take the metro in Seoul to see why. Across from you will be a row of commuters glued to their giant Samsung smartphones, possibly live-streaming a TV soap in HD using the city’s ubiquitous broadband. This is a nation of frenzied early adopters, road-testing the near future and then selling it to the rest of us.
Seoul may be 2,000 years old, but there are precious few signs of that history. This megalopolis, with the second-largest metropolitan area in the world after Tokyo, is an instant city in the Asian mould. Driving in from its gleaming Incheon airport, you cross an eerie hinterland of mudflats and mobile phone towers disguised as trees. And then they hit you: row upon row of identical tower blocks. These are what pass for suburbs here, not leafy villas but satellite towns with populations bigger than most European cities. The intensity of Seoul, its sheer vertical energy, is alien to the European sensibility.
It’s difficult to define Seoul in a pithy phrase. Indeed, Korea’s brand image itself is an evasive thing, a cause of some angst to the country’s Presidential Council on Nation Branding. Its marketing slogan, “Korea, Sparkling”, hasn’t been setting the world alight. Somehow, while the country has had its head down rebuilding the economy after the devastation of the Korean War, it has failed to communicate a brand message. The “Korean Wave” – the country’s incredibly successful TV soaps and boy bands, with their sugary K-pop – has been tearing across Asia. Elsewhere, however, the country draws a blank. “Isn’t there a South Korean playing for Manchester United?” The Presidential Council decrees more money will be pumped into marketing. Which is fine, because if there’s one thing they have, it’s money.
In the business pages of the Korea Herald and the Korea Times, which are delivered to my hotel room every morning, the news is all good news. And you get the impression that the business pages are the ones that count, with electronics firms Samsung and LG and car manufacturers Hyundai and Kia making international headlines, not just domestic. “Investment in research and development set to hit record high this year”. “Samsung to launch OLED [Organic LED] TV”. The thing has a 55-inch screen and costs over $9,000. If you’re into gadgets, this is the place. Meanwhile, these electronics giants are busily figuring out how all your consumer goods, from your car to your fridge, will be able to communicate with each other. This is what Gibson would call living “several clicks down the timeline”.
Technology and design have become mantras in Seoul. One of the fruits of its tenure as World Design Capital in 2010 is the Dongdaemun Design Park and Plaza, which is taking shape to the east of the city centre. Designed by British architect Zaha Hadid, this suite of slug-like buildings conjures up a futuristic city. It’s not clear what’s supposed to go in them, but they’re a very public display of the city’s faith in design with a capital D. Ex-mayor Oh Se-hoon had a crush on design, and started tarting up the city with new bus stops and other accoutrements. But beyond such displays, there are districts in Seoul where a cooler, hipstery vibe evokes Tokyo and London, oases in the generic megacity.
In the Itaewon district, next to a French-style coffee and cake place and across the street from a Commes des Garcons store, I met Minsuk Cho. “When I moved my office to this area a few years ago everyone thought I was crazy,” said Cho, Korea’s hottest young architect. The US Army keeps a garrison in Itaewon, one of the legacies of the Korean War, and this used to be a seedy entertainment zone catering to marines on R&R. Now it’s one of the coolest areas in the city. Around the corner from Cho’s office is a café and alternative gallery called Ggooll. Established by the artist Choi Jeong Hwa, it’s an eclectic, wilfully undesigned place where the creative set hangs out – or crams in, if there’s an opening or performance. “Who’d have thought that Korea would become this fashionable little country between China and Japan?” said Cho.
A few blocks away, and far more institutional, is the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art. This trio of buildings, designed by Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel and Mario Botta, is another dose of European starchitecture imported for local edification. When I visited, there was a retrospective of the Korean artist Do Ho Suh. His incredibly delicate architecture made of diaphanous nylon recreates places he has lived in New York or Seoul, keeping them alive as physical memories. For some reason I was forbidden from taking a notebook into the show. “No paper,” said the lady. Next to her was a placard announcing that you could download the exhibition guide to your phone by scanning the QR code. Another click down the timeline.
In the permanent collection, among all the pale green Celadon pottery, I found an 18th-century map of the city. With red streets like veins, it charted a place that is now just a tiny downtown zone in the new, steroidal city. The map is ringed by mountains, and these too have been swallowed by 21st-century Seoul. It’s unusual to find cities with a population of 10 million on mountainous terrain, but here they pop up unexpectedly through the sprawl. Minsuk Cho had remarked that instead of architectural icons, Seoul has mountains. But apart from the topography, what remains of the streetscape painted on this tattered map?
In search of the old city, I headed to Gwanghun-dong. This street lined with shops selling local craft goods appears to be for the tourists, who diligently stock up on dainty teapots. The buildings are not old – unless you count mid-20th century as old – but they are on a more human scale here, a pleasant break from the skyscrapers. I bought some incredibly expensive green tea from a specialist teashop (I didn’t realise quite how expensive until, back in London, I found that the cylinder I’d bought contained a tiny sachet of leaves – still, it’s good tea). From an old man in a gloomy corner shop I bought some calligraphy brushes made of goat hair. He made me an offering of a Yakult bacteria drink. I’d heard that South Koreans are obsessed with “wellbeing”, so perhaps I looked like my immune system needed a boost.
It took me ages to find a rubbish bin to throw away that empty Yakult bottle. And yet the streets are spotless. Either there’s an army of street sweepers at work or this is an orderly society. As in Japan, no one jaywalks here. They’ll stand at an empty road until the light turns green. And the pedestrian crossings are marked with arrows designating which side you should walk, but I was pleased to see that everyone ignored those – there is such a thing as too much orderliness.
Just north of Gwanghun-dong is the Pukchon gallery district. The main road is lined with coaches carrying tourists, but they’re not here to witness a burgeoning art scene, they’re visiting the Deoksugung Palace. If they crossed the road, they’d find less orthodox treasures. One is a brand new building for the Kukje Gallery designed by young, New York-based architects SO-IL. The concrete shell is draped in chain mail, like an armoured version of Do Ho Suh’s fabric structures in the Leeum. But one thing the tour groups can’t fail to notice is the hoarding around the construction site of the National Art Museum. It’s adorned with a giant, naked Mona Lisa whose modesty is protected by two carefully placed fake trees. Along with spray-painted slogans proclaiming the “naked museum”, it’s all part of a cheekily provocative branding campaign. One graffito asks, “Is it really Korea?” In other words, if they can get away with all this, then things must be changing, Korea must be in the grip of a collective loosening up.
One can’t write about Seoul without mentioning the Han River, which is on the same monstrous scale as the city itself. In places it can be a kilometre across, and so it divides the capital into two very distinct parts. I got the sense that this was so when my hotel concierge handed me two maps, one for the north and one for the south. Fifty years ago the southern half was mainly rice fields. Now it hosts a supergrid of broad avenues lined with skyscrapers. Teheranno (named after a visit by the mayor of Teheran before this boulevard became South Korea’s Silicon Valley) is a canyon of glass and steel, and a visceral reminder the economic powerhouse this country is today.
The quickest way to get here from north of the river is to take the metro – but it’s also worth taking as an insight into Seoul. As you’d expect, it’s a few more clicks down the timeline. One station has a virtual Tesco’s. Using this touchscreen simulation of supermarket shelves, you can do your grocery shopping and have it delivered by the time you get home. But there are also more sobering offerings. Every station has several glass cabinets lined with gas masks. Is this in the event of a random fire, you wonder, or in case of an even more random attack from South Korea’s sabre-rattling northern neighbour? The week before my visit, North Korea decided to issue a statement reminding the world that it could reduce Seoul to ashes in three or four minutes. Despite their fabulous prosperity and hyper-consumption, that prospect is always somewhere in the back of the mind of Seoul’s citizens.
As I studied the map on the train, a kind lady asked me if I needed any help, and we fell into conversation. She told me that the reason why property was more expensive in the south was because if North Korea attacked, the tanks would take so long to cross the river that people would have more time to get away. Hmm. Perhaps she hadn’t heard the “three to four minutes” threat. I changed the subject. Yes, she agreed, Itaewon was the cool place to hang out. Had she been to Ggooll? “I am not a cool person,” she said.
When she got off at her stop, I looked around me to find that everyone was absorbed in their Samsung Galaxy tablet-phones, either texting or playing baseball games or watching TV. In Seoul, so the joke goes, you don’t have socialites but “socialight” – the glow coming off your personal device.
That evening I met up with an English writer living in Seoul to research his second novel. We went out in Garosu-gil, the hip district south of the river. Over light Korean beer and Soju – a kind of half-strength vodka – we talked about how popular Seoul is with other Asians. The Japanese and Chinese are coming in droves to take advantage of luxury hotels and shopping that are both cheaper than at home. We also talked about plastic surgery, which is wildly popular here but difficult to spot, as the most common procedure is a dimple on the eyelid that widens your eyes. Mainly, though, we talked about food.
Eating is one of the great pleasures of Seoul. It’s one of those rare cities where you can just take a chance on a random, humble restaurant and have a great meal. Unless there were pictures on the menu, I was never totally sure what I was ordering, but then steaming bowls of dumpling soup or pork fried in chilli sauce would turn up – all accompanied by several side dishes of Kimchi, Korean cuisine’s famous spicy pickled cabbage. One of the things I love about Korean food is the fact that it’s served piping hot, sometimes in heated stone bowls, as is the case with Bibimbap, the signature DIY rice stirfry. When you get up from the table you feel like there’s a small cauldron in your belly, which may be the secret to Koreans’ prodigious energy.
Strolling the streets of Garosu-gil, you could almost be in the backstreets of Aoyama in Tokyo, where each little fashion boutique is cooler than the next. The difference is that you don’t get the same fashion subcultures here, no Harajuku girls or biker boys. The kids here are generically, politely hipsterish. The shop interiors, too, are just edgy enough in a way that’s been impeccably observed in London or Berlin. When it comes to style, this is a city that gets it, but it hasn’t yet formed an identity it can call its own. In the Dunkin Donuts, the K-pop tune is catchy enough but the lyrics are “I want to get coffee” – not exactly pulse quickening. Which brings us back to what’s been niggling the Presidential Council on Nation Branding. How do you turn Samsung and K-pop into a compelling brand message? Nevertheless, something’s happening here, and perhaps it’s more interesting to seek it out in pockets than to be sold it as a punchy one-liner. Or maybe they should just pay William Gibson for “Korea: Several clicks down the timeline”.