Asia Pacific / Social Issues

After decades of growth, South Korea is now a land full of apartments

by Chico Harlan

The Washington Post

South Korea is a nation covered by apartments, so much so that from above, it resembles a coast-to-coast game of dominoes. Apartment buildings snake around mountains and form jarring clusters in the countryside. In cities, they align in grids that stretch for several kilometers.

Apartment houses first sprouted decades ago as a way to accommodate South Korea’s booming middle class, and they were the picture of a nation in rapid ascent.

But the most remarkable thing about them isn’t the national transformation they heralded, urban design experts say. It is their staying power.

South Korea today is dominated by tech giants, its streets filled with neon lights, coffee shops and barbecue joints. But despite its first-world status, it has not seen a new demand for townhouses, city-center living or artsy warehouse districts. Rather, people still prefer to live in apartments that look nearly unchanged from the boom years — units built by Hyundai or Samsung or Lotte, in buildings from 15 to 30 stories tall.

Although the country’s real estate market has slowed, apartments form the backbone of pre-planned cities under construction, such as Dongtan, where 100 complexes — for 310,000 people — are being built in a loose ring around a golf course. Apartment buildings are also pushing into some of Seoul’s classic neighborhoods. A few mid-size cities have built mega-towers, 60-some stories high.

Some South Koreans say that the apartments have become a symbol of success and that moves into bigger units serve as milestones in their lives. After college: a first apartment. After marriage: a bigger apartment. As children grow: a similar apartment in a better school district. The average Korean moves every five years, a steady vertical migration, and about 60 percent live in apartments, up from 1 percent 40 years ago, according to a recent book, “Apartment,” written by Park Cheol-soo, a professor at the University of Seoul.

Most Korean apartments are rectangular, and very few have balconies. Their biggest windows tend to face toward the south or southeast, allowing in the most sunlight. Most buildings have construction company logos and unit numbers stamped onto the sides. They do not rise from the street with businesses in the bottom floor or two. Rather, they are built in complexes that are strictly residential, with one or two guarded entrances. Only residents or approved visitors may enter. Many of the more modern facilities have playgrounds or fitness centers for residents.

Koreans are not blind to the downside of such a style. The walled complexes close off large plots of land to the public, and the apartments themselves cut the nation into millions of impersonal cells. At one complex in Jamsil, on the outskirts of Seoul, 19,000 people live in a single city block containing 72 high-rises.

“There isn’t much design inspiration. They’re just stacked up,” said Park In-seok, an architecture professor at Myongji University. He described a paradox in which the apartments are mocked for their appearance but coveted for their convenience.

“Almost everybody hates the apartment,” Park said. “But everybody wants to live in one.”

South Korean society emphasizes the family, not the community, and analysts say the apartments reflect that: The individual units look much nicer than the buildings they are in. Particularly in apartments built since the 1990s, the interiors are comfortable, with wooden floors and stainless-steel kitchens. Outside maintenance is taken care of, and families can focus on their own small spaces.

“It is convenient,” said Kim Sung-jin, an employee at Dell who has lived in three different apartment buildings over the past 17 years. “Plus you have a security guard. There’s a parking space for you. There’s a school nearby.”

The apartments, initially, were a means to hold the nation together during its postwar growth. Government officials sometimes said that if people became dissatisfied with their living situations, they would be likelier to protest against the government, at the time controlled by military leaders. The first apartment buildings, Korea’s national housing developer said in the 1960s, would “contribute to the aesthetics of the capital city” and serve as a useful propaganda tool — showing Pyongyang the affluence of the South.

Many of South Korea’s early apartment designers studied in the United States and were perhaps influenced by the boxy look of standalone suburban homes, some experts say. But they acknowledge that South Korea’s apartments have a distinctly communist feel and resemble the units seen in some parts of Moscow.

South Korean construction companies try to differentiate their apartment buildings — each firm uses its brand name, like the IPark, the Castle — but experts admit there’s little difference between them.

An annual contest is held to pick the best apartment complex constructed within the previous calendar year. Ten urban designers and architects tour the country by bus, inspecting applicants’ buildings and interviewing residents.

One judge says that copycatting is rampant and that modest innovations by one developer are soon adopted by another. Fitness centers. Artificial streams. Underground parking. Ahn Kun-hyuck, the lead panelist, said the contest in some years is “very hard to judge.”

If the apartments have a beauty, it’s best viewed from afar — a scale that recognizes their utility and militant geometry. Kim, the Dell employee, is an amateur photographer, and he sometimes darts out of work at dusk and heads to mountain ridges or scenic lookout points. The sky is orange, the massive Han River shimmers, and the apartment buildings catch just the right light.

But Kim said his best photos actually come minutes later, when the sun sets.

With nightscapes, “you only see beautiful lights,” he said. “You don’t see the ugly things.”