Seoul Kicks Off Its Year of Design

Seoul has long been known for its daring, innovative business culture, but the look of the place, which was drab and generic, never matched this ambition. Now 2010 may be the year that changes. In early February the city is set to unveil the first of three artificial floating islands on the Han River that will serve as host to the Seoul International Business Advisory Council and the G20 meetings this fall. The $83 million project is the latest step in Mayor Oh Se-hoon's initiative to reshape the city and turn it into a mecca for design talent, all in time for Seoul's tenure as World Design Capital. The city beat out notable rivals such as Singapore and Dubai for the biennial title--unanimously bestowed by a jury at the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID)--and will celebrate the honor with a slate of competitions, and exhibitions culminating in a 21-day design Olympiad in September and October. 

The city will also unveil its $98 million Dongdaemun Design Plaza this year, a futuristic wavelike edifice designed by British architect Zaha Hadid that will serve as a hub for visiting and local artists. This comes on the heels of recent adventurous renovations such as the Banpo Bridge's Moonlight Rainbow, a massive fountain that turns into an illuminated waterfall show after sunset, and the Hangang Renaissance, which is replacing the riverfront's concrete embankments with lush promenades.

Since taking office in 2006, Oh has made avant-garde aesthetics a cornerstone of his attempt to turn Seoul into an international trendsetter. He's instituted a plethora of training ­courses for young designers and has declared design to be a "growth driver" of the Seoul economy. Other analysts have compared Seoul's Year in Design to the city's 1988 Olympics in terms of the global exposure (and tourist dollars) it will bring, and The New York Times recently ranked the city third in its "Places to Go in 2010," in large part because of all the bold new building going on.

Multinational corporations are also taking note. Asian carmakers are snapping up Seoul's design graduates, and luxury-goods makers have opened a host of eye-popping stores in the city--including the moss-covered Ann Demeulemeester shop by architect Minsuk Cho and Hermès' flagship cum art gallery at Tosan Park. As one ICSID jury member pointed out, "it is telling" that prominent global brands such as the W Hotel are choosing Seoul as their first locations outside of North America or Europe. ICSID also credited the country's high-tech brands, such as Samsung, Hyundai, and Kia, with spreading the gospel on Seoul's forward-looking aesthetic. At this rate, the world's next fashion and architecture renaissance may well be on the banks of the Han.