But the most remarkable thing about them isn’t the national transformation they heralded, urban design experts say: It’s 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 hasn’t 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 15 to 30 stories tall.
Although the country’s real-estate market has slowed, apartments form the backbone of preplanned 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 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: 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.
‘They’re just stacked up’
Most Korean apartments are rectangular, and few have balconies. Their biggest windows tend to face south or southeast, offering the most sunlight. Most buildings have construction company logos and unit numbers stamped on the sides. They do not rise from the street with businesses in the bottom floor or two. Rather, they’re built in complexes that are strictly residential, with one or two guarded entrances. Only residents or approved visitors may enter. Modern facilities have playgrounds or fitness centers for residents.
Koreans aren’t 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.”