Hyper-density – The Condition of Contemporary Korean Architecture

Extracted from KIM Sung Hong & Peter Cachola Schmal Eds., Megacity Network Contemporary Korean Architecture. Berlin: Jovis, 2007, pp.43-45.

It is incontestable that a major influence on Korea’s contemporary urban architecture has been the rapid increase in population in the capital city. From the 14th century until the Japanese occupation in 1910, Seoul’s population was no more than 300,000. After the Korean War, however, the population took off. There were 1.6 million in 1955, 3.5 million in 1965, 8.4 million in 1980 and over 10 million in 1990. Housing construction could not keep up with the accelerated demand for more physical living space. An urban planner calculated that, between 1960 and 1980, about 800 people moved into Seoul every twenty-four hours, meaning that on average a 20-story apartment had to be built each day.[i]

Photo by KEE CORP

Disparity between Population Density and Building Density

 Today Seoul has become the quintessential Korean city and a symbol for the nation itself. It has become the world’s most populated city, surpassing Sao Paulo and Mumbai in 2006[ii]. Approximately half of the total population of South Korea resides in the greater Seoul metropolitan area, with about half of that, or over ten million people, living in the capital city proper. This concentration is twice that of Tokyo or London. In fact a comparative study of six world cities—Seoul, Tokyo, London, Paris, New York, and Los Angeles—showed Seoul to have the second highest population density behind Paris, while having the second lowest building density of typical high-rise residential areas and downtown renewal areas next to Los Angeles.[iii] The disparity between population density and building density indicates that Seoul’s urban density is the highest of all, creating tremendous pressure on spatial intensification, amplification and verticalization of architecture.[iv]

 The average parcel size in Seoul is only 267 square meters. This is about three times the size of a typical apartment unit. While the average building height in Seoul is comparatively low—only about 2.5 stories—this figure is bound to continue to rise, since land prices have been skyrocketing. A typical parcel adjacent to a major street in Seoul can cost at least $6,500 USD per square meter, and a parcel in prime areas such as Kangnam can reach $16,500 USD. To compensate for the rising land acquisition prices, developers and clients need to pursue the maximum FAR (floor area ratio). A new building must be larger, higher, deeper, and more complex. Urban development on a moderate scale is no longer tenable, as profitability usually demands the complete demolition of existing buildings and the surrounding urban fabric.

Larger, Higher, and Deeper

 The result is a unique urban landscape, with one-story traditional timber structure houses standing side by side with 20-plus story office buildings or apartment complexes. An office building in Seoul today typically has at least six floors below the ground level—about one third of its total floor area—which is mainly used as parking space.

 It is an accepted fact in Korea that the lifespan of a building is shorter than that of a human being. High-rise apartments built less than 30 years ago are being demolished and built again to sustain higher volumes. The four satellite towns on the outskirts of Seoul that provided residences for over one million people—the so-called bed towns— were planned, constructed and occupied within 6 years. From the 1970s, the rapidly growing need for apartments near the city led to a boom in the construction industry, which in turn was the driving force to rapid industrialization.

 By 1997, just before the foreign exchange crisis, the construction industry occupied 15% of the total GDP, twice as large as in the United States. Most of the major construction companies became chaebol, conglomerates such as Samsung, Hyundai, and Daewoo, supplementing their domestic profits by conducting mammoth construction projects in the Middle East.

One of the major challenges that contemporary Korean architecture has been facing in recent decades has been to simply keep pace with rapid industrialization and the corresponding densification of its major urban center, the megacity known as Seoul. Rather than fighting against the enormous pull of influence the capital city wields today, leading-edge Korean architects have begun to realize that it is through the megacity and its network of influence across the country that a new vision and identity for Korean architecture is made possible.

 Complete Essay


[i] Korean Institute of Architects (2007). Seoul Architecture and Urbanism 2007, p.15.

[iii] Seoul Development Institute. International Urban Form Study: Development Pattern and Density of Selected World Cities, 2003.

[iv] KIM, Sung Hong & Schmal, Peter Cachola Eds. (2005). Germany Korea Public Space Forum, KOGAF & DAM, p.19.


About sonomad

Professor of Architecture & Urbanism
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3 Responses to Hyper-density – The Condition of Contemporary Korean Architecture

  1. mtlcan says:

    mtlcan (2010.10.30)
    What’s most interesting about Seoul is that even though its density is really high, we don’t feel it that much (unlike Tokyo for instance). I guess, as you said, it is because of the low rise buildings. The fact that they don’t build on the mountains in and around Seoul probably helps a lot too. I have that image of looking at Gyeongbokgung from Gwanghamun Square with the green mountains in the background and I remember not feeling like I was in the heart of the city, while still being located in the middle of Seoul!

    I have a question though. I agree that the land prices are really high and that the density factors have forced the creation of Seoul’s urbanism, but do you think it will change in the coming years? If we look at the low birthrate and the over-production of apartments (over 123 000 units unoccupied in 2009)**, shouldn’t architects start thinking about “high density architecture” in a new light? Or are the powers of the chaebols too strong to start working in a new way that would not only incorporate new 21st century lifestyles and solve urban problems (traffic congestion, fragmentation of the urban fabric, etc.), but that could also bring down the speculative real estate market?



  2. chiaravotta says:

    I stayed in Seoul for my studies a few months ago…I completely agree with the previous comment, I remember high-tech mixed-use skyscrapers in the administrative/commercial part of the city, residential towers with their own artificial green spaces and wide boulevards on the one hands, and, a lot of districts in which low-rise density buildings occupied every square meter avalaible, narrow irregular alleys, and small private green spaces on the other , but except for a few apartment complexes mainly along the river (like banpo-gu) I felt not like I was in the more dense city in the world!!!…
    Anyway density in Seoul it’s an important issue since 70’s, when Seoul reached the maximum extension and ground became an important limitated resource…city planning began to consider the vertical growth in ever more overriding…today, except in certain cases, housing projects consider only buildings with 30 or more stores, and this is also for economic reasons, chaebols hold the real estate and urbanism go in this direction. R.Koolhaas in Junkspace sais that it’s very curious that those who have less money inhabit the more expensive resource, the ground, and those who pay much more inhabit the air that it’s free of charge! This is true expecially for megalopoli as Seoul…
    I also think that towers can’t be the only solution…if the state of art doesn’t change, small and medium size buildings still existing in Seoul will disappear soon and the urban landscape will become an aberrant image of a city without substance, because in these tipology of buildings flow the history of the city, it’s important to find a solution of continuity, this is the primary mission of far-sighted planners and designers…
    this is only my personal opinion…

    Great Blog! Very interesting!…in internet there is anything else for people interesting in korean architecture(that don’t know hangul!!!).

  3. Pingback: The Free Market for Internet Access Stops at Apartments

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