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