Architecture in Gangnam and the Tastiest Climbing Frame on Terra Firma


On Saturday after identifying my KOTESOL conference venue, I headed to Gangnam for some architecture photography. The area between subway Line 2’s Gangnam Station and Line 9‘s Sinnonhyeon Station is awash with new high-rise. In this area of high-priced real estate some of Seoul‘s most interesting architecture has sprouted up, enormous structures belonging to among others corporate behemoth’s like Samsung.

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First stop was The Urban Hive was designed by Kim In-Cheol from Archium and won the Seoul Architecture Award in 2009. The structure has 17 levels and is 70 metres high formed of white exposed concrete.  The perforated facia has a honeycomb structure which apparently made it possible to construct the building with slip-form concrete as the supporting structure and not steel, it has been nicknamed the ‘Cheese Grater’.  This form of construction eliminated the need for interior weight-bearing members, greatly opening up the interior spaces. The 3,371 holes that punctuate the building allow many different views of the Seoul cityscape.

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After coffee I glimpsed another giant sculpture down a side-alley, yet another monolithic male form. At the Gangnam station end of this thoroughfare is the GT Tower.  The solar-powered tower uses beautifully crafted glass curtain walling to create an optically challenging wavy façade. It’s the vision of Dutch architectural practice Architecten Consort. DSC_0346This awesome skyscraper is inspired by the delicate forms of Korean pottery, which is characterised by undulating shapes. The GT towers glass panels allow light to penetrate deep inside the building and act as solar cells to covert light to electricity. This corporeal, curvilinear, sculptural and radiant tower dismisses linear orthodoxy and embraces architectural schismaticalness. In the towers shadow sits  “With Us”, a sculpture of three golden arms reaching up as if tickling the façade a two-fingered salute to architectural convention.

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Our next tower is Boutique Monaco, one block West of the GT. Completed in 2008 and the winner of several design awards, the Boutique Monaco is a 27-floor building that is over 100 meters high. It’s a amalgamation of a hotel, offices, residential units, restaurants and the Page Art Gallery. The Boutique Monaco is also known as the “Missing Matrix” building, as 13  incisions were included in its u-shaped form. The architect Minsuk Cho says he deliberately detached corners and sections of the building to craft hubs for interaction. The missing sections enclose “sky gardens” that supply spaces for people to meet and interrelate. The absent spots also offer enhanced views and let more natural light to enter the building.

Across the street and directly opposite the GT Tower is the Samsung Headquarters. The architects, Samoo Associate Architects, claim the design is motivated by the emblematic joinery represented in established Korean woodworking, The buildings gesture in towards each other to promote pedestrian movement and interaction around the site. This over-policed monstrosity has neither soul nor invention.  At its core, in terms of design, is Samsungs want to look the biggest, unfortunately biggest is not always best.  The complex is of a Gargantuan Scale and disappoints immensely. I enjoyed being chased by security guards gesticulating and waving their communication bricks…..”no photo”, “nonsense”, “no-style”, “no problem”, arriverderci.

It was time for coffee at Cafe Rabbit, “take a seat”, “no not there that’s illegal”, “only two seats table sir”, “here sir”. So they told me where to sit, 2 seat tables are de rigueur, 4 seat tables are illegal! Korea, I will never understand you, your frivolity and über exuberant bonkersness never fails to delight and annoy in equal measure. The small cup of coffee was fruity, Ethiopian I think, and expensive at 6000 won. After serving me my liquid gold my chastisers settled down (all three of them) to an SMS marathon behind the counter. Why? Because this café with a capacity of maybe 300 had 6 customers, all six positioned around 8m apart at 2 seater “legal” tables. I’m just glad that SMS messaging is deemed more industrious than providing good customer service, Korea and the UK have something in common.

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Later that afternoon, after dropping off my bag at the Go Korea Hostel I headed towards Dongguk University for an afternoon stroll. Dongguk University was founded in 1906 by Buddhist leaders based on the idea that they could see the country prosper through education. Dongguk was established in Gyeongju, a city with a millennium of history, and the former seat of the Silla Dynasty. The University sits atop Dondaemun on the slopes of Mt. Namsan and behind the oldest buildings begins the Namsan Trail. It was a scorching afternoon and after the first 100 m climb the path leveled out and linked to the Namsan Promenade. The trails along Namsan Mountain that circle around N Seoul Tower to the north and south are covered with special shock-absorbing material, allowing visitors to have a comfortable hike as they take in the scenery. The northern promenade is less steep and more undulating than its southern twin and is the perfect place for a stroll in the heat of summer.

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Skirted by pine tree forest and a synthetic stream the route has may places to rest and take on water. It’s possible to orbit Namsan using this 8km route, it takes 3/4 hours and longer if you really want to enjoy all its attractions. The centre of the road has been laid to ease access for blind and visually-impaired walkers. This particular afternoon it was my intention not to be  to fastidious but to flaneur along with no destination, my knees would signal to me when to stop.

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The route today was busy; I passed sleeperz, couples cooling their feet in the stream, disabled citizens rolling along on their motorised buggies, ninja’s, botoxed mannequins, screamers, miseries and bikers. I even saw two guys sweeping the stream.

I have flaneured Paris, London, New York and Rome, but due to time constraints most weekends I like to have a destination and schedule – the latest exhibition, lunch with FOBY, or something similarly time consuming. The term ‘Flâneur’ predominantly came into common use in the 19th Century through French literature, epitomising a character which took to the streets as a stroller or man of leisure; one could say an aficionado of the street. Almost like an elegiac explorer of the streetscape, it struck me that the supreme destination is the journey itself.

FOBY often questions why I walk so much and punish my knees, as Bruce Barton once wrote, “If you want to know if your brain is flabby, feel your legs.” Jefferson articulated. “The sovereign invigorator of the body is exercise, and of all the exercises walking is the best.” John Muir said “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” It’s sometimes liberating to be in another country and know no or little language, freedom embraces you, you are not then tied to their cultural rules and inventions. As Charles Beaudelaire said, “To be alone in a crowd to be one with its ebbs and flows, its conflict and resolution; to notice and admire each grand story as it marches past, mysterious forever.” OK, literature lesson over!

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I descended some stairs to my right emerging in a Wonkaesque land of canary yellow. The Lila Elementary school has a fleet of buses to bring the little munchkins from all areas of central Seoul. The school, founded by former police officer Kwon Eung-Pal (and named after his eldest daughter Lila), is apparently one of Seoul’s finest. I think branding is OK but this branding is so Delia; in saying this it is argued that Yellow is full of creative and intellectual energy so a good choice for a school. Yellow symbolises wisdom. Yellow means joy and happiness. People of high intellect favour yellow. Enough!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Passing the entrance to Seoul Animation Museum and the Korea Red Cross headquarters  I took a right and wandered back into the area of Chungmuro south and west of Dongguk, passing the myriad scooter and motorcycle retailers and garages stopping for a Chicken Teryiaki Sub and Coke Zero. After passing a new office development with yet another giant made of white cubes I took a well-earned shower at the hotel.

In the evening I took the 30 minutes walk across Chungmuro into Jongno, passing through the area famous for media (printing and film). These low-rise alleys sit in the shadow of the concrete 70’s monoliths that were commercial hubs some 40 years ago. I met FOBY for dinner and a few beers before returning to the traditional Korean mattress that would give minimum support overnight.

Sunday, the weather was predicted to be warm but overcast and so I persuaded FOBY to re-visit Seoul Forest Park as I’d previously landed there at the back-end of the autumn when it was becoming quite barren. This relatively new park, a 15-minute walk from Ttukseom station and is well signposted from exit 8. The park used to be a hunting ground in Joseon times, then became a horse-­racing track and sports fields, but is now a regenerating forest. Among the trees and lakes are deer enclosures, eco areas, an insect exhibition, a plant nursery, a Lotteria overlooking a pond and fountains that shoot up from the ground, which kids love playing in. You can also cycle through a tunnel down to the Han River and along the cycleway that follows the river in both directions.

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The park was much lusher on this visit; as before I’d taken a clock-wise direction and missed the giant body sculpture/climbing frame, we went anti-clockwise. Accompanied by my trusty Korean side-kick and translator I was confident of locating the structure despite the absence of clear signage. As we walked along the “no cycling” pedestrian path we dodged unskilled small people wobbling as if sojued on their hired contraptions. We had a far from uplifting and definitely none religious experiencing listening to the massed ranks of God botherers chanting in the trees. Pardon me if anyone takes offence but the Victorians developed parks as places to rest away from the pains and noise of a 72 hour working week not as receptacles for evangelical hordes pushing their personal beliefs down other folks throats! I attach a parks history lesson. Beyond the cacophony of noise we noticed the equestrian centre before taking a left for a rest stop. FOBY discovered that the structure in question was back across the lake bridge and around to the right. Crossing the man-made lake which is well stocked with Koi Carp we turned right and I could see the structure sitting between the trees.

It sits in what is labelled as a kids play area but I would suggest a supervised play is in order. It’s a great space with educational water features, slides and the aforementioned sculpture but there is an element of danger in all these activities. The stainless steel body is made of strong thick wire and kids can enter through a circular opening at its base and clamber throughout the frame. It is the most impressive an interesting and tasty climbing frame I have ever seen. There were some bear sculptures and a flattened frog inlaid in the concrete which manifested a few childish pictures for the album.

We followed the signs to the eco-park and deer enclosure walking the footbridge which gives fine views of the parks deer herd. The weather was becoming rather close and cloying so we doubled back along the parks perimeter to the site of an old water-treatment plant. We took in the tropical house which had some fine examples of cacti, FOBY has an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants and so a guided tour was less than essential. There was the usual screaming, shouting and homage to dodgem car school of spatial awareness but we tried to keep a safe distance between us and them. Eventually we crossed back into park one and snapped the racehorse sculpture that celebrates the sites history as a former horse racing track. It was time for lunch and we had some very edible pizza and pasta before heading back to Gangnam as FOBY had some enquiries about an iPhone service. Apple has no stores in SK maybe a consequence of the lawsuits with Samsung, the main chain of authorised Apple retailers is Frisbee. We attended the Gangnam stores but did not offer a technical service. It was late afternoon so after an hour at the ET roof garden FOBY headed to Cheonan and I to Chungers.

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