Seun Sangga (세운상가) — also commonly written as Sewoon Sangga — translates into English as something along the lines of the "shopping arcade that attracts all the energy of the world."
Built in 1967 in what previously had been a dead space created by Imperial Japan to serve as a firebreak between districts, Seun Sangga was designed by well-respected Korean architect Kim Swoo-geun (김수근) in a concrete "New Brutalist" style inspired by the ideas of the European "Team 10" architect collective. Korea's first modern building and first urban regeneration project, it's a bit of a misnomer to dub Seun Sangga a mere shopping arcade, because it actually is a mixed-use structure. As constructed, it effectively was eight separate buildings, seven to thirteen stories each, arranged in four clusters and connected by elevated people-only walkways for a total length of 1 km (0.6 mile). It originally provided "space for around 2,000 stores and businesses, a 177-room hotel, and 851 apartments."
You could call Seun Sangga a Modernist "Groundscraper" because it is so much longer than it is tall, but that's not really correct because of its segmented design. Furthermore, unlike the worst of 1960s groundscrapers — that often are inward-looking and effectively ignore the outside environment — Seun Sangga respects the street grid and was designed to be porous. The ground floor is lined with outward-facing retail often across from retail in surrounding buildings, the people-only bridges and walkways were intended to accommodate a small row of outdoor vendors as well as people passing through on foot, and there are many staircases that once connected the elevated walkways of Seun Sangga directly into the warrens of the surrounding neighborhood.
Seun Sangga was economically successful in the 1970s and 1980s and became known as the place to buy electronics and appliances as well as books, records, and movies in Seoul, but it began to decline in the 1990s because of competition from more modern malls and changing shopping habits. It's not clear exactly when the majority of the connected walkways were destroyed, but one was destroyed in 2005. In 2009, Seoul decided to demolish Seun Sangga altogether. One unused 2013 plan intended to replace the buildings with a narrow ribbon of a park that would be integrated with Cheonggyecheon (청계천).
Even after being battered by decades of economic decline, neglect, and abuse; the Seun Sangga community refused to die. Although the design of the buildings themselves arguably are unattractive, there is something special about the community that the mixed-use Seun Sangga managed to create internally as well as the relationship between its occupants and the people and businesses in the surrounding neighborhood.
On one visit to Seoul, travelgasm.com was based in the Hotel PJ (호텔PJ), the originally 177-room hotel built in 1970 as part of Seun Sangga. It has been renovated many times since then — even to add two more floors — and it's now an entirely respectable 250-room, four-star hotel. It definitely shows that with some money and attention, the other buildings in the series also could be improved.
Hotel PJ is inexpensive for a four-star hotel in central Seoul because the immediate area — which includes the other buildings in Seun Sangga — mostly is a collection of small-scale electronics manufacturers, repair places, print shops, book binders, and paper goods stores, rather than shops of interest to most tourists. It is within a block or two of three metro lines, and it is very close to the tourist-slathered districts of Myeongdong (명동) and Dongdaemun (동대문), though.
Naturally, tourists staying at Hotel PJ might be aware of Seun Sangga, but it is unlikely they will appreciate it, understand its historical significance, or even know its name. Accordingly, we consider Seun Sangga to be a worthwhile choice for our "7 Things Tourists Don't Do in Seoul, but You Should."
One common complaint of those staying at the hotel is that there is nowhere to eat nearby, but that's actually not true. There is an entire labyrinth full of restaurants nearby, but they're Korean. Note that any Korean restaurant with a grill likely will require two people and refuse a single customer, but other types of Korean restaurants should be happy to serve an individual or a couple as long as you can at least point to what you want to eat. Three eateries in the area well regarded by Koreans include Honam (호남식당) for Korean short ribs, Eulji Myeonok (을지면옥) for noodles, and Guilin (계림) for stir-fried chicken. If you want something quick and Western, there's also a location of the ubiquitous Paris Baguette chain in Seun Sangga just outside Chungmoro Station, Exit 8.
If you spend some time walking around in Seun Sangga, you no doubt will notice that the mix of merchants and residents is quite diverse. One building contains an entire floor of vintage video game arcade cabinets and karaoke equipment. One contains a floor of metal hardware and lighting fixtures. Another contains a variety of wholesale floral shops. Other floors have small software startup companies and people building and repairing electronics. Still other floors are a mix of residential units and offices. There also are community kitchens and even a church or two. Seun Sangga isn't beautiful, but it is interesting.
When wandering around in these buildings, we found ourselves wondering whether in a world of coworking spaces, startup companies, software hackathons, and hardware maker spaces, if Seun Sangga could find its footing once again. It's effectively been providing these functions since its creation.
In 2016, Seoul abandoned its plan to demolish Seun Sangga. Instead, inspired by the "fourth industrial revolution" of 3D printing and the Internet of Things (IoT), Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon decided to change course and, indeed, focus on supporting the existing small manufacturing businesses and encourage new startups to join the ecosystem, as well. In 2017, Seoul even started rebuilding the elevated walkways. It's behind schedule, but it will be interesting to see how this development changes in the coming years and whether or not it will be able to regain its former glory or even evolve in completely new directions.
We've mapped out the location of Seun Sangga and the most convenient metro stations below.
How to Get Here: The closest station to Seun Sangga is Chungmuro Station (Orange Line, Line 3 and Royal Blue Line, Line 4), Exit 8. However, it also is close to Euljiro 3-ga (Green Line, Line 2 and Orange Line, Line 3), Exit 6 and 7 and Euljiro 4-ga (Green Line, Line 2 and Purple Line, Line 5), Exit 1 and 10.
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