Doojin Hwang’s Most Urban Life (2017): Sŏsomun Apartments

The following is a draft translation of the chapter on the building(s) “Sŏsomun Apartments” from architect Doojin Hwang‘s Kajang tosijŏk in sam 가장 도시적인 삶 [The most urban life], pp113-125.

Looking from the north end of Sŏsomun Apartments.

Sŏsomun Apartments: an index for multipurpose “rainbow cake” buildings

Following along Manch’och’ŏn, a stream lost from view

“Manch’och’ŏn 만초천 (Manchocheon) Stream” is an unfamiliar name. Even those with a fair knowledge of Seoul geography may not have heard this name. The monster in Bong Joon Ho’s film, The Host (2006), lives in Manch’och’ŏn. In the film it is portrayed as a place that originally had concrete pillars and looks like an underground sewer. Strictly speaking, this is the end section of a natural waterway that flows into the Han River at the northern terminus of Wonhyo Bridge 원효대교. During the Japanese occupation period, and sometimes still today, it was called Ukch’ŏn 욱천 (旭川 Ukcheon). Other names are Mu’akch’ŏn 무악천 and Tŏngk’ullae 덩쿨내.

Map showing Manch’och’ŏn Stream before it was covered over.


The source of Manch’och’ŏn is in the region of Mu’akchae 무악재 ridge, between the mountains of Inwang-san and An-san. The stream passes by the high-rise apartments of Donuimun New Town 돈의문 뉴타운, traverses Seoul Station, and flows on to Yongsan Electronics Arcade, before finally meeting with the Han River. Its total length is around 7.7 kilometres. Except for a short section between Samgakji and Yongsan Station, the entire river has been covered over so any traces of it are hard to find. The covering of Manch’och’ŏn occurred during 1962-1977 so overlaps with the project to cover Cheonggyecheon Stream. As a consequence of its disappearance from sight, little public consciousness remains of Manch’och’ŏn. Only an elevated road section running between Namyeong Station and Yongsan Electronics Arcade bears the name Ukcheon (Ukch’ŏn – Google Maps link).

In The Host it is portrayed as dark and dank, but Manch’och’ŏn was originally famous for its clean water. In the late Koryŏ period it appears in Mok’ŭn Yi Saek’s 牧隱李穡 목은 이색 poetry cycle, Yongsan p’algyŏng or Eight Views of Yongsan 龍山八景, as the site of a spectacle of lighting lamps to fish for crabs. They say that even today one section shows signs of crabs living there. When it rains one can see significant water flowing at the uncovered section by Samgakji. Similarly, at Sŏsomun Apartments if one opens the manholes on the ground floor of the commercial sangga units one can see the upper reaches of the stream flowing below. Manch’och’ŏn is an important waterway for the region west of the old Seoul city walls. If Cheonggyecheon is the main stream within the city walls, Manch’och’ŏn is the equivalent beyond.  There is even an “Ukcheon Revival Association” 욱천살리기모임 led by residents of Yongsan District.

Manch’och’ŏn has disappeared from sight but its flow is still perceptible above the ground. It is the road that cuts between the main buildings and carpark of Seoul Red Cross Hospital nearby Seodaemun, and that loosely curves its way between the back gate of Ehwa Womans University and high rise buildings such as the Vabien Suites. Gradually bearing south, this road crosses Tongil-ro Road 통일로, that extends from Independence Gate to Seoul Station. As the flow of water changes direction, the street bends like a bow towards Seoul Station. The building constructed on this bend is Sŏsomun Apartments (서소문 아파트Seosomun Apartments – Google Maps link) of Migeun-dong ward. A “waterway” mentioned on the Sŏsomun Apartments’ registered construction address as 건축물대장주소 “covered waterway area,” is Manch’och’ŏn.

The possibility of preservation through the impossibility of redevelopment

If Nakwon Arcade and Apartments building pays a price of occupation 점용료 for having been built astride a road, then Sŏsomun Apartments pays the same for being built astride a waterway. Compared to buildings erected on land, that will be divided into taxed plots of real estate 재산세 토지분, both buildings possess an extremely unique aspect. It shows just how much pressure for development there had been at the time. As it was not easy to secure land, they even erected buildings over roads and rivers! Another case is Yujin Sangga 유진상가 that straddles Hongjech’ŏn 홍제천 Stream. Redevelopment usually proceeds under the premise that buildings have no value but that the price of their land lots will increase. But here there is no money to be made 공식이 먹히지 않다. As even a discussion of redevelopment is inappropriate, the opposite possibility of preservation increases. However, Sŏsomun is aging badly. This building received its approval for usage on 23 January 1971, a time when apartments accounted for no more than two percent of the residential market. It was built by a company named Ojin Construction 오진건설. The name of the designer 설계자 is unknown. Counting from 2017, this “young middle-aged” building is no more than 47 years old, but unfortunately it looks much older than its physical age. It struggles to hold itself up, but its historical significance is not insubstantial. Among researchers it is one of the most popular apartment buildings. It was almost designated one of the “future heritage sites of Seoul” 서울 속 미래유산 but due to opposition from residents it was removed from the final list. It is truly an old general that has been through the battles and led a bittersweet (웃프다 lit. “happy and sad”) life.

It should be banned {lit. “be a taboo”} to simply say that the building is currently in poor shape while ignoring its history. Even today among those who have lived in Seoul a fair while Sŏsomun Apartments is remembered as a famous spot where many in the broadcasting industy resided and was thus frequented by celebrities. Owing to this fame, it appeared in the film My Dear Enemy (2008) 멋진 하루  directed by Lee Yoon-ki 이윤기. Around the first floor sangga commercial units, there is also a quite famous eateries frequented by gourmet lovers. With reliable hot water, thanks to a bunker oil-based central heating system, and flushing toilets, it was originally an apartment complex boasting the most advanced facilities of the time. As evidence, there is still a chimney stack on the back side of the building. How, then, may we evaluate {어떤 존재 lit. “How is the existence of”} Sŏsomun Apartments?  Not through its illustrious anecdotes [of its past], or the wonder of being built above a waterway, but as a building? Specifically as a uniquely linear-shaped 선형mixed sangga (commercial arcade)-apartments-type building? For this, we must set aside all preexisting knowledge and carefully exam the building as it is today.

Reading Sŏsomun Apartments

First of all, the building is 115 metres in length. Even today there are few examples of buildings in central Seoul that can boast such a length. With the first floor comprising commercial units (sangga) and six storeys of apartments above, totalling a height of seven storeys, its scale is considerable. Now it is surrounded by high rise buildings but when it originally stood by itself it would have exhibited a greatly majestic/dignified aspect 위용. According to the architectual listing 건축물대장, there were eighteen shops on the ground floor including mostly restaurants and cafes, as well as beauty parlors and convenience stores. From the second to seventh floors there were 129 apartments ranging between 36 and 56 square metres in size. Although a single block (tong), there are a total of nine stair cases, each numbered as a separate block or tong. Although from the outside it is a seven-storey building, if one ascends one of the narrow staircases, one reaches an eighth floor. Like many other buildings, this is because the fourth floor has been skipped due to the inauspicious associations {of sa 四 사 “four” with sa 死 사 “death”}.

The tong numbering starts from the north and appears related 유관하다 to a gradual slope of the road in front that runs southwards. To account for this slope, the first tong block facing Tongil-ro Road is slightly higher than the others. The pavement along the road in front exhibits a soft aspect 재직이 연질임을 보다, and so demonstrates consideration for pedestrians. In the evenings the restaurants place tables and chairs on the pavement creating a lively atmosphere. As the road is just two lanes, overall there is not too busy an atmosphere.

Although Sŏsomun Apartments is commonly known as being a curved-shaped building, this is not the case. It is actually comprised of three straight lines that turn direction between the tong 3 – 4, and 6 – 7. If the entire building had been a single long curve there would have been significant limitations on such matters as furniture installation. Although a seven-storey building, it unfortunately has no elevators. As a rule, permission is no longer given for building above waterways. Without special measures, the only method for preserving this building is {minor} structural change rather than full redevelopment. But how then can the elevator problem be solved? Because the building is structured around staircases rather than corridors the challenges are not trivial. Because there are no stakes to be held in the land, there can be no expectation for the real estate value to increase through redevelopment {as is common elsewhere}. Perhaps because of this, the units are rarely bought or sold. However, because the location is good, the market for monthly rentals is vibrant. This is a reflection 읽히는 부분 of Korean society’s thoughts about the value of homes. When the vicious cycle of building and destroying gradually diminishes with the end of the high growth era 고도성장기, then the current circumstance 풍토 {lit. “topography”} in which people only care about asset value and ignore usage value {of real estate} will gradually change {for the better}. A July 2017 posting for Sŏsomun Apartments on the real estate website “Peter Pan’s Good Room Search” 피터팬의 좋은 방 구하기 (peterpanz.com) stands out. It reads, metro stations are nearby, there are many parks in the area, local markets 재래시장and supermarkets are not far so food shopping is convenient, and the area is safe as there is a police station immediately adjacent. Guessing from the content, this was posted by a young person. The photos attached to the post show the interior tidily arranged {고치다 lit. “repaired/fixed”} and a convenient lifestyle within. This demonstrates well the attraction of downtown sangga apartments.

If one ascends to the rooftop, a wide view of the area unfolds. On the rooftop, aside from the usual flowerpots, washing and various electric cables, a particularly noticeble element on the north end, facing Tongil-ro Road, is an incredible amount of electrical apparatus. This is probably equipment related to mobile communications. Because the building curves one wonders to where the flow of the building continues. The direction of the building points towards Seosomun Park, that is currently under construction. Behind the park, and surrounding it like a folding screen is the enormous combined commercial and residential building of our own era, Brownstone Seoul 브타운스톤. Beyond that is the road running behind Seoul Station. Beneath that street flows Manch’och’ŏn Stream.

Horizontal connectedness and urban etiquette

Despite Sŏsomun Apartments’ enormous size and its quite rough-looking exterior, if one examines it closely they can discover a significant delicacy/finesse to the building. This is particularly demonstrated in its attitude towards the surrounding area. The sangga shops and restaurants on the group floor do not finish with the building, but continue on to surrounding streets. That is to say, the ‘horizontal connectedness’ 가로의 연속성 is extremely well achieved {lit. “managed”}. The two ends of the building are truly interesting for this same aspect. Looking at the opposite end from Tongil-ro Road, the {southern} direction {intersecting with Chungjeong-ro Road} that faces towards the Gyeongeui-Jungang railway line, the line of sangga on this end of the building turns the corner and continues along the adjacent building {on Chungjeong-ro Road}. The apartments above, however, are walled off {i.e. without windows}. Perhaps this end facing the railway was judged not to have enough of a street presence {lit. “street personality”}. It may also have been necessary in order to block the sound from the railway line. However, had they also blocked the sangga at this end, then the flowing line of sangga along the street of  Sŏsomun Apartments that reaches to Chungjeong-ro Road would have been broken.

At the Tongil-ro Road end, the sangga on the corner is constructred in an open manner {i.e. without a pillar or wall on the corner}. Not only that but they have treated the ground plan 평면 {lit. “flat plane”} at this end differently in order to take into account that the end of the building meets together with Tongil-ro not at a right angle, but at an acute angle. As result, the side of the building is exactly parallel Tongil-ro. Additionally, at this end of the building the upper floors all have windows facing Tongil-ro. Although now they are covered with non-transparent sheeting, the originally intention is clear, namely: Sŏsomun Apartments is also a building present on Tongil-ro, one of the main arteries 간선도 {lit. “trunk road”} of Seoul. Sŏsomun Apartments is thus readily fulfilling its urban role that any building situated in its location should have. Unfortunately, such consideration 배려 for the location is not exhibited by the other buildings that have been built in the area since. The adjacent police station 경찰청 is an archetypal authoritarian building surrounded by a fence. The lower floors of the nearby high-rise office buildings behave similarly stern/unfriendly towards the street. With the horizontal connectedness of the area thus broken, Sŏsomun Apartments, too, appears quite diminished, but its clear reading of the surrounding area maintains significant {spatial} meaning.

Passageway through the building between tong 7-8


The point at which Sŏsomun Apartments’ urban finesse is most visible occurs between tong 7 and 8. Here there is an open passage through the building. Sacrificing the place of an extra sangga, they have constructed a passage connecting through to the backstreet running behind the building. As a result, the flow of ground-level sangga starting from Tongil-ro Road connects both to the backstreet of Sŏsomun Apartments, as well as to the Gyeongeui Railway Line end of the building. This is a characteristic virtue 특유의 미덕 of Sŏsomun Apartments that cannot be replicated by current-day apartment complexes, that rather seek to wall off the surround area. This quality is not something to be ignored just because the building is old. Recent buildings could learn from the fundamental attitude of that period when {designers’} reading and interpretation of the city was physically implemented. Namely, they should learn urban etiquette 도시적 예의범절. This is the reason that Sŏsomun Apartments, this experimental work of the developmental period, remains worth protecting 소중하다.

Translated from: Hwang, Tujin (Hwang Doojin) 황두진. 2017. Kajang tosijŏk in sam 가장 도시적인 삶 [The most urban life]. Seoul: Panpi 반비.

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