Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
The Frozen Han: Wintry Seoul

Report on Seoul Fieldtrip
January 19-26, 2011
by Antony Wood

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It was minus 17.9 degrees Celsius the day we arrived. A frost lay like icing over the whole city and even the Han River had frozen over – something of a rarity. Of course, coming from Chicago, this was just a normal winter’s day at the office for us. I was in the city with 12 advanced architectural students from the Illinois Institute of Technology to work on a hypothetical tall building design project at the kind invitation and sponsorship of Daelim Construction.

Figure 1: A view of wintry Seoul

Our project site was on the edge of the Seoul Forest, one of the main green outdoor parks in the South Korean capital, and it was there that we headed within a few hours of arriving at Incheon airport and checking in to our accommodation in the international dorm at Korea University.

When we arrived, we found our site to be simply an enormous hole in the ground (see Figure 2). Site clearance and excavation had occurred for a planned high-rise a couple of years before construction of the tower was scheduled to begin and thus the view that presented itself was an unusual one; a perfectly manicured open basement, with an epic retaining wall structure perhaps 30 meters in height, but devoid of the on-going construction activity that would normally accompany such a scene. This “perfect hole” experience became something of a theme for our Seoul fieldtrip when, later in the week, we visited the site of the future tallest building in Seoul – the highly anticipated 500+ meter-high Lotte Tower – and found it to be a similar view; one huge hole in the ground (see Figure 3).

Figure 2: The Daelim Construction site for our project, on the edge of the Seoul Forest: a perfectly-executed huge hole in the ground
Figure 3: Lotte Tower Construction site: another perfectly-executed huge hole in the ground

Adjacent to our site was a project at the other end of the spectrum; the twin towers of the Galleria Foret project (see Figures 4 & 5) nearing completion. Hanwha Engineering & Construction gave us a tour of this residential complex with its Jean Nouvel-designed luxury interiors which, from the roof, offered fantastic views out over our site, the Seoul Forest, and the massive city beyond. Of all the high-rise cities I have visited, Seoul feels the most expansive. Whereas the “forest of skyscrapers” view from the top of the Empire State Building in New York offers a view of vertical density unmatched anywhere except perhaps by Hong Kong, the view from above Seoul is different: tall buildings as far as the eye can see, extending out to the mountains on all sides, then flowing, like a river, through the mountain’s gaps on to the outlying areas beyond (see Figure 1). Seoul is a city of over 10 million people, 70% of whom live in high-rise apartments and thus the ubiquitous 25+ story residential high-rise in Seoul feels like the equivalent of the American suburban single-family home.

One of the most interesting things about the Galleria Foret project was the presence of a puzzling small room in each apartment. Not much larger than a cupboard, it was located in some units off a corridor, while in others off a bedroom or other main space. Accustomed as I am to non-western spaces in Asian apartment layouts (such as the small puja – or prayer room – in Indian high rise), this space was a mystery to me. It was completely devoid of any furnishings or fittings except a metal lid in the floor. The lifting of this lid, however, revealed a telescoping extendable ladder and thus its purpose: a secondary inter-unit fire escape route (see Figure 6).

Figure 4: The Galleria Foret twin residential towers, with Jean Nouvel interiors Figure 5: Students enjoy the view atop Galleria Foret Figure 6: Inter-apartment extendable fire escape ladder, as a back-up escape route

Located in the same position on each floor, the route offered a complete secondary vertical route through the units, in addition to the two fire stairs in the core. I had never seen this in a high-rise building before, and am still considering the pros and cons. On the one hand the loss of floor space (there is one for each unit and thus likely four per floor, in addition to the fire stairs) and security issues would render the system hard to justify in most towers. Plus, having climbed up just one floor, I can testify that it is hardly a comfortable evacuation route even for the reasonably fit. But on the other hand, it does provide “last resort” evacuation in the case of the lobby access to the normal fire stairs being compromised (i.e. partial evacuation down one or two floors to allow access back into the fire stair). Although I doubt that the system would ever be used, I can understand that it would be a comfort to residents, especially in a luxury residential tower where a ‘personal’ escape route might be a strong selling point.

We had a wonderful week in Seoul. Despite the harsh temperatures, we spent many hours each day tramping around different parts of the city: up Namsan Hill and the N Seoul Tower
(see Figure 7), through the historic center with its mixture of grand palaces and cutting edge architecture (the high-rise highlights being Rem Koolhaas’ SK Telecom Tower (see Figure 8) and Rafael Viñoly's Jongno Tower (see Figure 9) with its “Cloud” restaurant), and around Gangnam south of the river, with its “new-CBD” skyscrapers.

Figure 7: N Seoul Tower Figure 8: SK Telecom Tower, Rem Koolhaas / OMA Figure 9: Jongno Tower, Rafael Vinolyio Botta

On the Saturday, developers and CTBUH members Gale International sent an executive coach for us (which the students enjoyed!) to spend the day in Songdo (see Figure 10). Songdo is a new city, now largely complete, located about an hour’s drive from Seoul and situated on mostly reclaimed land near Incheon airport. Our tour began with an overview of the development, courtesy of David Moore of Gale, at the visitor center (see Figure 11). We then took in the First World Towers and Central Park high-rise complexes, including a construction tour of the No.2 Central Park towers courtesy of Posco Engineering & Construction. The day’s highlight came when we visited Stan Gale's penthouse apartment at the top of First World Tower No.1, with its commanding view out over the whole of Songdo (the apartment itself was rather impressive as well!).

Figure 10: Songdo’s view out over Central Park Figure 11: David Moore of Gale International overviews the Songdo development

We saw many tall buildings during the week, including Daelim's soon-to-be finished Garak Tower (see Figures 12 & 13) with its undulating facades somewhat reminiscent of the organic feel of Chicago’s Aqua building, Mario Botta's Kyobo Tower (see Figure 14), and KPF's recently-completed Samsung Towers, reminiscent of a scene from “Inception.” 

Figure 12: Garak Tower, overall Figure 13: Garak Tower, looking up

The high-rise highlight of the week however was the tour of the Boutique Monaco building (see Figures 15 & 16), hosted by Sungpil Won of Mass Studies. The tour of this building (known as the “Missing Matrix” by its architects), with its distributed web structure, 3-level bamboo-adorned skybridge, changing floor layouts on every level, skygarden voids and rooftop garden, was simply a sublime experience.
Figure 14: Kyobo Tower, Mario Botta Figure 15: Boutique Monaco, Mass Studies Figure 16: Boutique Monaco's atrium

We also had time for several great cultural experiences during the week, including a tour of Samoo Architects & Engineers’ offices and sunset drinks at the top of Jongno Tower. Perhaps the highlight of the evening activities was the traditional Korean dinner in a restaurant somewhere in the twisting narrow passageways of Insadong, at the kind courtesy of Professor Soung Jong Kim (formerly a Professor at IIT in the 80’s and now an architect practicing in Seoul). The food, as we sat with crossed legs (mostly) at the traditional low Korean table was fantastic and the fermented rice wine even better. But the most memorable part of the evening came when we cleared the dinner plates away and conversed as a group of 14 on the culture of Korea in the context of the world.

Figure 17: Chicago and Korean students

The students (see Figure 17) returned to Chicago after a week-long visit to begin the high-rise design project which will occupy the months of February to May. After a few days in Shanghai to inspect potential venues for the CTBUH 9th World Congress 2012, I joined them for what will no doubt be an interesting semester...

The Council, and the Illinois Institute of Technology, would like to thank the following people and organizations for their support of this fieldtrip, and the specific activities involved: Mr. Lee and Daelim Construction for their sponsorship of the studio and introductory presentation on the first day; On Young Min of Daelim Industrial for the tour of Garak Tower; Professor Young Ju, Professor Seiyoung Kim and PhD student Cheong from Korea University / Korean Chapter of CTBUH for establishing the fieldtrip and its logistics with us; Jason Lee of Lotte Construction for the tour and presentation of the Lotte Tower; David Moore of Gale International for the day tour of Songdo new town; Sungpil Won of Mass Studies for the tour of Boutique Monaco; Jae-Guen Kim and Hun-Sung of Hanwha Construction for the tour of Galleria Foret; colleagues at Samoo Architects & Engineers for the tour of their office; Posco Engineering & Construction for the tour of No. 2 Central Park, Songdo; Professor Joung Sung Kim for the Korean dinner and conversation; Ahmad Abdelrazaq of Samsung Engineering and Construction for showing me the remote structural monitoring project on the Burj Khalifa (!); and finally all the architecture students and professors at Korea University who assisted and supported our students in their studies.