After a string of ill-considered decisions led to the collapse of Seoul’s luxury department store and the death of 502 people in 1995, the disaster continues to offers an important lesson to other cities urbanising at such an impressive pace
Observers tend to describe the rise of South Korea as a miracle, and the actual story makes the word seem only a minor exaggeration. Having emerged an utter wreck from the Korean War in the early 1950s, by the 21st century the country had become a rich, infrastructurally impressive, technologically forward-thinking global economic and cultural force. But South Korea’s unprecedentedly rapid entry into the first world has taken its tolls, and no one event of its dizzying 20th-century period of growth forced as many of its people to face them as the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store.
Those who endured the hardships of the Korean War and its aftermath had to welcome whatever prosperity the future could bring, despite the repression of the dictators who oversaw it and the grinding nature of a national life rigorously dedicated to nation-building. But from the 1970s through to the early 1990s, even the most development-minded Korean couldn’t help but suspect that something had gone wrong. An apartment block falls to the ground, a hotel catches fire, a train station explodes, a bridge collapses: the built environment that had risen so recently and triumphantly around them had already begun to crumble.
From the beginning, South Korea has understood that development and urbanisation go hand in hand. In fact, it understands that almost too well, resulting in what ranks today as one of the most capital-centric countries in the world. The resources it has devoted to Seoul make the rest of South Korea seem almost like a mere support system for that 24-hour high-rise megalopolis of 25 million people, built over the rubble of the modest Japanese colonial city it had been before the second world war.
The creation of postwar Seoul involved plenty of rebuilding, but even more new building. The “old” city lies north of the Han River, which runs through Seoul much as the Thames does London. On the Han’s other side, the area known as Gangnam (literally, “south of the river”), made famous in recent years by pop music and television dramas, has grown since the 1970s as a deliberately designed hub of private affluence, corporate investment, and skyline-defining towers – a concrete advertisement for just how far up South Korea has come in the world.
A former landfill in Gangnam’s especially wealthy district of Seocho made the perfect location for the upscale Sampoong Department Store. Construction on this bright pink symbol of Seoul’s advanced consumer culture began in 1987, the year South Korea became a democracy and the year before the modernised country made its debut on the world stage by hosting the Olympic Games….[ ]