Seoul and the Apartment Complex Landscape

If the symbol of Paris is the Eiffel Tower, and then what is symbol of Seoul? What is the first image that comes to mind when you think of Seoul? For me, it is the apartment complex. It is the dominant housing style in Korea, and covers the landscape of Seoul. Fans of apartments always say “I think apartments are the best places to live, because they are convenient.” Well, that may be true. And it is also a very ‘convenient’ answer.

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How did the apartment complex became the best option for Seoul citizens?

The indigenous Korean house is called a ‘hanok’, a one story wooden building with a gabled tile roof. The hanok is very different from an apartment. According to Korean law, an apartment building is a dwelling for multiple people, with at least five floors that accommodate more than 20 households. And ‘20 households’ sounds way too pretty. Actually a standard single Korean apartment building can easily hold more than 130 households (15 stories, 잠실주공APT, built by the Korea National Housing Corporation in 1978). Plus, apartment buildings never stand alone, they are built in groups. The change from single-family hanoks to massive apartment complex blocks was very drastic. What caused this change and why did people choose it?

The explanation goes back to the Korean War. Right after the war (1950~1953), there was nothing left but ash for Seoul citizens. The government was spending the majority of their rehabilitation budget on basic infrastructure such as roads, bridges and harbors, but not parks and social housing. Because of the lack of housing, citizens took initiative and created their own urban villages.

Next, the implementation of the 5 Year Plan of Economic Development (1962~1966) caused a huge increase in the middle class who demanded high quality housing. The government’s strategy to solve the housing problem was to let private companies deal with it. Since the urban situation was so unhealthy, construction companies decided to design apartment complexes that included parks, parking lots, and markets. At this time, these complexes were the only decent housing available. In this context, living in an apartment building connoted prestige and wealth, exactly the opposite connotation of apartments in western societies, as demonstrated by the demolition of Pruitt–Igoe in the United States (1972).

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Where were apartments complexes constructed?
In order to build massive apartment complexes, a vast blank canvas was essential. After the Korean War, old Seoul was about to explode because of population growth. Believe it or not, it was dams that made the dream of apartment complexes possible. Like many other megacities, Seoul developed near a river. Since river flooding was so unpredictable and sometimes dangerous for citizens, the government implemented the Han River Development Plan (1967~1970).

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During this time, President Park Jung-hee and Seoul Mayor Kim Hyun-ok both followed a very development-oriented policy and exercised an invincible power on their territory. The whole Han River went under construction. Major dams were constructed, stabilizing the water lever. Bridges were built and small islets were either destroyed or reclaimed, and the riverside was precisely defined by riverside highways. As a result, the sandy plain around Seoul turned into a dry, vast canvas, the tabula rasa for a new apartment city. But the riverside plain was just the first experiment. After proving the success of the apartment complex, they started to spread all over Seoul and now cover the rest of Korea.

Check back soon for part two of this blog post!

wonseok croppedBy
Wonseok Jang
daaegu(at)gmail.com

Disclaimer: The posts and comments on this site do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CITYNET or its members.

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One thought on “Seoul and the Apartment Complex Landscape

  1. I find it interesting that the apartments in South Korea and mostly in Seoul are built in blocks and it’s really well organized.

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