Seoul’s Hannam district was once a cultural wasteland. Hemmed in by Mount Namsan and the Han River it was home to a mix of embassies, seedy clubs and a heavily guarded housing complex for US troops.
Then Blue Square, South Korea’s largest performing-arts centre, opened its doors four years ago. The theatre, run by conglomerate Samsung, features the latest Broadway shows seven nights a week. Despite its mainstream offerings, it has helped transform Hannam into one of the capital’s most popular neighbourhoods for independent small businesses, which have replaced many of the bars and clubs that residents considered a blight on the neighbourhood.
These newcomers like Hannam’s central location: it’s near Gangnam’s business district and the city’s entertainment centre, Itaewon. Some were lured by reasonable rents and the chance to start up in a small space. A 33 sq m room goes for just KRW2M (€1,650) – a quarter of the price of properties along Garosu-gil, Gangnam’s strip of boutiques.The migration shows no signs of slowing. Last October, Kwon Hye-yoon’s scented-candle shop Oh, Scent! replaced a restaurant specialising in dog soup. “I was drawn here because of the mix of small stores and homes,” says the 28-year-old Kwon.
More change is likely with the US military’s withdrawal last November from the six-hectare plot that it had leased from South Korea for three decades. Plans have yet to be announced but property developers can hardly wait for the concrete walls and concertina-wire barricades to come down.
Not everyone is happy with the new Hannam, however. As in many cities, people are concerned that the cleaning up of their streets is not always for the benefit of locals and that some of that grit was what made the area unique. Lee Jung-eun, for example, who sells ceramics made by young artists, worries about what she sees as the dark side of gentrification: the loss of a close-knit community. “It is getting harder to see familiar faces around here,” she says.
In January, voters in the small, central Indian city of Raigarh elected Madhu Bai Kinnar as mayor, a political independent in her mid-thirties who had never held public office. Kinnar is also a Dalit, the country’s lowest caste, and transgendered. She had previously earned a living by singing and dancing on trains for donations. Her election was a remarkable achievement in a country where homosexuality is banned and the transgender community faces discrimination.'
Were you surprised by your victory?
No, voters were tired of the two major parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress, and wanted me to run for office as an independent.
How will you deliver on your campaign promises?
My priority is to provide better sanitation for the people of Raigarh. I want to focus on local issues, such as upgrading the market where most people shop.
What rights would you like to see for the transgender community in India?
I am urging others who are transgender to also run for office in order to bring progress and development to their home regions.
Bright idea to be copied
Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-tallest building at 632 metres, not only cuts a striking figure in China’s financial centre, but it is also a model for how skyscrapers can be built more sustainably. Designed by US architecture firm Gensler and scheduled to open this summer, the tower will consume 21 per cent less energy than a comparably sized skyscraper.
Among the innovations are a spiral shape to reduce wind loads, a glass “skin” around the central tower to provide more natural light and greater insulation and wind turbines to power the building’s exterior lights. Landscaped atriums are given over to public use throughout the building. “This new model of vertical urbanism is unique globally,” says Grant Uhlir, the building’s project director. “It’s a place for workers, visitors and hotel guests to interact, have coffee and meet for lunch.”
Lessons from the city
South Korea’s capital is as confounding and confusing as it is charming: therein lies the rub. In terms of fun per square metre it’s untouchable.
- Getting around is an adventure and done mostly via landmarks so meeting new people is easy.
- The parking valet is the car-key-jangling king of the kerb; get to know your favourites and tip them royally.
- Lunches are for feasting and dinners are for alcohol; be sure to drink some water.
- Seoul is not the place for a sudden bout of performance anxiety; outdoor karaoke stages are common and dotted around the livelier parts of town. English is acceptable for warbling.
Smart housing solution
You can spot them everywhere: old homes that haven’t been lived in for years. These akiya (empty houses) numbered 8.2 million in 2013, accounting for 13.5 per cent of homes nationwide, the highest since the government began keeping track in 1963. As Japan’s population declines, the number of akiya is likely to surge.
Many prefectural and municipal governments are now starting “renovation schools”. These brainstorming sessions last a few days and are led by young architects and designers who give home owners ideas for low-cost renovations to turn homes into shops and offices.