Posts in the Skip Town in Seoul category
Like many cities, Seoul is divided in geography and perhaps (a little) in attitude, by a river. The Han snakes through the heart of the city, and is integral to it’s identity. In vastly over-simplified terms, Gangbuk (north) is the older, slightly unruly sibling of shiny new upstart Gangnam (south). Naturally, south-side is home to the glamorous Park Hyatt, our destination for the day. We had come to try the hotel’s signature Bingsu (a shaved ice milk desert) at The Lounge restaurant, and to take a tour of this impressive boutique-style hotel, renowned for it’s pared-back, elegant style.
Above: Striking entrance to conference area. Below: Details from the Presidential Suite.
The Bingsu was good, but the hotel is exceptional. The tone is set when, following an ear-popping ride to the 24th floor lobby, the doors slide open to reveal incredible wraparound city views – an unexpected treat and reason to visit in itself. Designed by Japanese architecture firm Super Potato in 2005, and positioned high above a major thoroughfare, all guest-rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows capturing those buzzing city views. To balance this outlook, the style of the interiors is super simple and, if I may say so, even ‘zen’.
This is a hotel that gets the details right; the decor is modern and streamlined while subtly referencing a more traditional Korean style. The (amazing!) Presidential Suite features beautifully carved wooden screens and carefully selected Korean antiques sitting alongside otherwise modern pieces. Plus, it has the world’s most dramatic bathtub which is basically giant, hollowed out boulder! Moving downstairs, the darkly ambient ‘Timber House’ bar, besides boasting an impressive whiskey menu, serves almost as an informal museum. The walls, which at first glance appear merely textural, soon reveal artfully arranged collections of ceramics, antiquated farming equipment and even preserved pumpkins. It’s a clever way to combine history and design without being overly precious about it. Add in a crazy sky-high pool and two excellent restaurants and you’ve got yourself a fancy-pants hotel that somehow manages to function as a relaxing retreat, even with those views serving as a constant reminder that you literally have one of the world’s coolest cities at your feet.
Above: View from lobby.
Above: The Timber House bar.
Above: Pool on the 24th floor.
Above and below: The Presidential Suite.
Below: The Lounge restaurant / Pat Bingsu.
The Park Hyatt is certainly a high-end hotel, although standard rooms are reasonably priced. If you want to splurge for a couple of nights this is a good option, and if not you can always drop in for some Bingsu and watch the world go by.
All photographs by Sean Fennessy, except the final pair courtesy Park Hyatt hotel.
For our last day of Seoul coverage we’re putting a new, but familiar, spin on our regular Fine Art of Travel feature. Nearly all the photographs featured this week have been taken by Skip Town’s own Sean Fennessy, although they differ greatly in terms of style and intention. On Monday, for our introductory post, they were definitely of a editorial nature. But today, the photographs are Sean’s choice; the pics that for some intangible reason cross that line into ‘art’ territory.
It can be hard to put your finger on when a photograph, especially one taken during travel, stops being mere documentation (which I actually think is incredibly important) and becomes, for want of a better word, art. I suppose it’s the intention at the time. What do you think? Ha! I feel like I’m back in art theory class.
Anyway, if I can attempt to describe Sean’s work, I’d say that he’s got a great eye for seeing potential in everyday scenes, the kind of things that you’d normally walk right past. But actually, he’s right here, so I’ll ask him! Okay, he says that they “loosely investigate themes based around order, organisation and repetition…” Yep, just like I said.
This is the post where I was going to attempt to tell you about the amazing food we ate in Seoul. Except that I’m not a food writer, at all. Don’t get me wrong, I love to eat, but I’m reluctant to judge my food. Melbourne is basically a city of food-critics, and I think I might be rebelling against this by NOT having an opinion, apart from ‘oh yeah! that was gooood!” which happens a lot since I’m not a fussy eater.
So, I’ve decided to focus on a favourite meal of the trip – spicy fried chicken at Han Chou. We found this very popular chicken restaurant thanks to a tip from a helpful shop-owner, and immediately felt as if we’d stumbled into a genuine, non-tourist slice of Seoul. The atmosphere was just as good as the food, with groups of beer-and-soju-drinking locals crowding tables. After an enormous plate of chicken that left my hands sticky and belly full, I decided we desperately needed a Korean fried chicken joint in Melbourne, until I came home and discovered we already had one. I’ll be trying that out VERY soon!
Han Chou – Garasu-Gil, Sinsa-dong
The streets surrounding Geongbokgung Palace are absolutely filled with galleries. It’s a lovely area for a walk, and one of the few parts of Seoul where you can still find neighbourhoods with traditional houses. Down one quiet street lies the unassuming Gallery Factory which, with founder Bora Hong at the helm, has been offering it’s own discerning take on (mostly) Korean contemporary art for almost a decade.
A few days before our visit, Seoul was hit by a devastating storm that caused havoc across the city. Factory sustained major damage to it’s vulnerable older-style roof, causing the gallery to flood and putting artworks at risk. But none of this is to be seen by the time we arrive; the sun is shining, the roof has been repaired, and flood damage is all but invisible.
Bora is clearly a very driven person. Over the past ten years she has shaped the gallery’s reputation; curating monthly shows, taking on art consulting work and developing workshops. She has also overseen the production of Factory’s annual magazine ‘Versus’. It’s an impressive large-format publication on beautiful thick matte paper, created to provide another, wider-reaching, outlet for the Factory aesthetic.
Married couple Choi Sunghun and Park Sunmin art direct the magazine, and also create the deliberately lo-fi photographs that feature prominently throughout the pages. Each issue is based on a loose theme that is never disclosed (though you may guess it) and writers are invited to submit pieces. The layout design is by neighbouring studio Work Room, and in the issue we picked up, local experimental musicians were featured on a bonus CD.
Bora speaks of the challenge to stay ‘cutting-edge’ in a society that completely embraces the new. When asked why this attitude exists in Korea, she speculates that it could almost be an attempt to “annul it’s history by blindly believing that ‘new’ is the ultimate virtue.” But, she counters, “it’s really hard to stay in any business unless you constantly renew yourself, and Korean art has grown up so fast over the past five years thanks to it’s ‘newness’.”
Ultimately she believes that more collaboration between artists is needed to build up solid art practices that are not so trend-driven; “we need more time to grow things organically”, she says. It seems as if Factory, and Versus in particular, is leading by example.
Where we went
Gallery Factory – Gyeongbokgung,127-3 Changsungdong, Jongno-gu.
mk2 cafe (next door to Factory) – Gyeongbokgung, 122-2 Changseongdong, Jongno-gu.
The use of character mascots as logos is something I’ve always associated with Japan, but is HUGE in Korea as well. I know it’s perfectly normal in context, but I’ll never get used to seeing, for example, a bank represented by a flower petal mascot, or the police portrayed as cute cartoon characters. As for the banana below (banana? yes?) your guess is as good as mine!
Here are a few favourites from the streets of Seoul.
*Photos by Jess
The airy interior of cafe/gallery Take Out Drawing was the perfect resting place after an energetic first morning in Seoul. After arriving at our hotel in Itaewon the night before, we briefly wandered the busy Saturday night streets before settling on the simple but satisfying combination of Korean bbq, beer and bed. Determined to get to the bottom of our new neighbourhood (which we’d heard described as a “recovering ex-pat ghetto”) the morning saw us walking the streets and taking in an eclectic mix of international embassies, upmarket florist-come-cafes, suspect back alleys, art galleries, backpackers and french bakeries.
Take Out Drawing was a recommendation from our first interview subject, Illustrator Jung Park (pictured above), and in a happy coincidence, located just across the street from our hotel! We had already noticed that a lot of cafes in Seoul are also something else (a florist, gallery, shop) but at Take Out Drawing every detail is carefully considered and integrated into the whole. Tables are arranged around displays of art books, designer wares and installations by the latest artist-in-residence, and the menu doubles as a beautifully designed newsletter, detailing the latest events around Seoul. We settled in with iced coffees and chatted to Jung.
Quickly gaining a reputation for her off-kilter portraits and editorial illustrations, Jung’s clients include Dazed & Confused, Harper’s Bazaar and Levis. She works with pen and paper, later adding bright blocks of colour in Photoshop. She has a way with proportions – they don’t quite make sense, they’re almost naive, but somehow they work. Her next step, she says, is to get an agent in London and work for more international clients.
Jung has experienced a city in rapid transition, the change made all the clearer after a long stint studying in London. She says she had to leave because she wasn’t feeling inspired by Seoul at that time. Now, however, things are changing. In a sentiment we’re to hear many times over the following days, she describes Koreans as being very on-trend and fast adaptors. She says this also applies to the way she’s expected to work – ‘bang bang bang!’ she gestures.
We get off track, talking about the amazing recent history of this city with a very turbulent past. The apartment blocks we see on the hill below us are the result of hasty post-war redevelopment in the 1970′s, and many are now being torn down to make way for the new. Seoul was ‘World Design Capital’ in 2010, and much more attention is now being paid to city planning and architecture. Hopefully this time things will be built to last.
All illustrations by Jung
View to downtown Seoul from Itaewon
Today I’m excited to introduce the first in a week-long series of posts about Seoul! A city with a lingering sense of mystery, Seoul’s colourful charm and effortless style was was revealed to us over four very memorable days last month.
Despite its reputation as a centre for technology and production, there’s something intangible happening on the streets of Seoul. More like Melbourne than Shanghai, the narrow, winding streets host a jostling mix of independent stores, cafes, galleries and kids in thick-rimmed glasses and primary colours (unless you cross the river to Apgujeong – then it’s all Land Rovers, Prada and valet parking).
Very excellent stationery store and cafe, MMMG
In amongst the obligatory eating, shopping and sight-seeing, we also managed to get some local insight from a few inspiring residents, who you’ll read about later this week. Over and over again we heard how fast Koreans adapt to change and how much Seoul itself has changed in recent years. There is a sense of anticipation in this city, as if they know they’re on the verge of something big.
My interest in Seoul had been growing steadily for the past few years as I started to hear about the great design coming out of Korea (not to mention the food), but I still had little idea of what the city would look like or what we would do there. I just had a feeling I’d like it – and I did.
I’m not going to tell you where to go for the ‘Best Korean BBQ’ or the ‘Top 3 Palaces’ or anything like that (in just four days I couldn’t claim expertise) but hopefully this week’s posts will set the scene, so to speak, and provide a little insight into this often over-looked metropolis. I have a feeling it won’t stay that way much longer.
To kick it off, here’s a bit of a visual overview of our time in Seoul. Enjoy and stay tuned
mk2 cafe in Jongno-gu
Streets near Mt Bukaksan
Kids in the busy shopping precinct of Myeong-dong
Sinsa-dong shopping area
The street stalls of Myeong-dong
Eating and drinking in the student precinct of Hongdae
All photos by Sean (except the one of Sean!)