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Korea Blog: Finding a New Seoul in the Old Buldings of Kim Swoo-Geun, Architect of Modern Korea


Like many a Westerner with an interest in Korea (and without any stake in the relevant historical conflicts), I’ve also cultivated a parallel interest in Japan, and I find few things Japanese as interesting as I find Japanese architecture. Who, I began to wonder as I learned more about the architecture of Japan and the culture of Korea, stands as the Korean equal of a Kenzo Tange, a Kisho Kurokawa, or a Tadao Ando, with their deep concerns not just for the aesthetics but the shape of society to come? I didn’t have an answer until, on a walk through central Seoul with scholar of the both the Korean language and built environment Robert Fouser(whom I more recently interviewed here on the Korea Blog), I first visited Seun Sangga, South Korea’s first large-scale residential-commercial complex.

Built in 1966 during the mayoral term of Kim Hyon-ok, nicknamed “the Bulldozer,” the kilometer-long linear development, which stretches across blocks and blocks of downtown Seoul, didn’t take long to draw disdain as a “concrete monstrosity” (or the Korean-language equivalent thereof). “The phrase reverberates,” says defender of British brutalism Jonathan Meades in his documentary Concrete Poetry of that now-standard architectural slur. “Any modest, self-effacing newspaper columnist can be sure that he will please readers with the same ready-made formula. For, as we all know, concrete monstrosities are culpable of virtually everything: they promote every known social ill, and many which have yet to be revealed.”

Though it does contain plenty of concrete, Seun Sangga is, of course, not British, nor is it exactly a work of brutalism. We could, perhaps, call it a work of pure developmentalism, erected as both a symbol of and a contribution to to the country’s fast-growing postwar economy: in addition to the massive amount of retail space on the lower floors, this “city within a city” had first-class apartments (at least by the standards of Korea in the 1960s) on the upper and even boasting such then-unheard-of amenities as a fitness center. It nevertheless fell so far short of its even more ambitions original design, which included glass atria and a transportation system to connect all the buildings together, that the complex’s architect disavowed it.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.