Architecture and Design in Seoul

From ancient palaces to the futuristic new city hall, Seoul is a marvel of architecture and design. Evidence of this modern way of thinking is everywhere. Just take a stroll in downtown Seoul to discover it for yourself.

161 Sajik-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
This “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven” was once the heart of Korea. It was the power center of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897), and was originally built in 1395—some new digs for a new dynasty. Like the Forbidden City in Beijing, the palace is a complex of buildings—a throne hall, the king’s living quarters and more—a sort of city inside a city, accented by gardens and pavilions. The Japanese flattened the place in the 1590s, and the site remained a ruin until a complete reconstruction in 1867 brought back more than 500 buildings. At the Gwanghwamun Gate, soldiers, beautifully costumed in red robes, still perform the changing of the guard. Seoul has other palaces, but this is the one to see if your time in town is limited.

110 Sejong-daero, Myeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Seoul’s City Hall is a swooping mass of glass and steel tucked snugly into the heart of the city at Seoul Plaza. This modern architectural marvel stands out starkly behind the small stone building of the Seoul Metropolitan Library—the building that previously served as city hall since Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945. The man responsible for the design, Kerl Yoo, has commented that the building is supposed to represent Korean traditions as well as embrace the future. Not sure how exactly the newfangled monstrosity is traditional in any way, but it’s worth taking a stroll around the two structures to see the glaring contrast between old and new. Get there via the City Hall subway station.
종로51 종로타워 17층, 종로1.2.3.4가동 Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
One of the most distinctive buildings in central Seoul is the 33-story Jongno Tower, a triangular glass and steel tower topped with an oval floating above seven stories of emptiness. Across the street is the traditionally reconstructed “Bo-shin-gahk” belfry, housing a large bronze bell. During the Joseon dynasty, the bell would be rung 33 times every morning, (symbolizing the 33 heavens of Buddhism), to open the city’s gates. At dusk, the bell would be rung 28 times (linked to the locations of constellations) to signal the shutting of the city’s gates. The original bell is now in the National Museum, but a reproduction still hangs here, and every December 31, it’s struck 33 times to ring in the New Year. The basement of the Jongno Tower connects with the subway and a shopping arcade, including “Bandi and Luni’s,” one of Seoul’s largest bookstores, with a good selection of English publications. While there is no public observation deck at the top, there is a restaurant/bar, and if you take the elevator to the top, you can linger for a few minutes in the foyer area to catch a view without having to buy anything. (Incidentally, Jongno Street, one of the city’s main east-west thoroughfares, means “Bell Street.” The bell’s been ringing here since the end of the 14th century.) To get here by subway: Take Line 1, exit Jonggak station. More info about the architect, Uruguayan Rafael Viñoly, and the architecture:
513 Yeongdong-daero, Samseong-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
During my last stay in Seoul, I spent most of my time in the historic heart of the city north of the Han river. I did take a Sunday afternoon, though, to walk around the Gangnam district—the chic high rise–dominated neighborhood south of the river. (As recently as a few decades ago, this area was still rice-paddies.) Just around the corner from Bong-eun-sa temple (which dates from the 8th century), this striking building caught my eye: the headquarters for the Hyundai Development Company. Designed by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, it’s known as “The Tangent.” In the architect’s words, “the Tangent is a project that is about the relationship between the ever-changing circle of nature and the straight line of technology.” (Those words could also succinctly describe the recent history of postwar Korea.) In my mind, though, because this structure reminds me of one of my favorite artists, this is the Kandinsky building in Seoul. And across the street, beneath the Korea World Trade Center tower, is the COEX mall, Asia’s largest underground shopping center. Grab a bite in the food court and get a feel for the youth pop-culture vibe; a K-pop dance competition just might be taking place on a nearby stage. To get here: Take Subway Line 2, exit Samseong (COEX) station.
511 Yeongdong-daero, Samseong-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
The COEX Complex in Gangnam is more than just a mall, convention center, and exhibition hall. It’s a few city blocks filled with cool buildings that will thrill those who have a penchant for unique architectural design. Perhaps the most iconic of the buildings in the COEX complex is the 54-story Seoul World Trade Tower. Used as a backdrop in the Gangnam Style music video, the tower is unique for its unusual ridged edge. It’s up to you whether to do a reenactment of the galloping dance while standing in front of the building. To get there, take subway line 2, and exit at Samseong (COEX) station.
Euljiro 7(chil)-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
This sleek, silver structure looks as if an alien spaceship had landed in the middle Seoul. It all makes sense, however, when you realize it’s the work of the late architect Zaha Hadid. Completed in 2014, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (known to locals as DDP) set several new design standards—there are no straight lines or angles to be found in the entire cultural complex. Today, the building and surrounding park provide a space for the exchange of ideas through exhibitions, conferences, and pop-up shops. It’s also the site of Seoul Fashion Week. For a magical experience, visit at night when the entire building is illuminated in a patchwork display and the field behind Exhibition Hall is aglow with more than 25,000 LED white roses.
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