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Sunday, January 16, 2022

From Human Town to Gather Town

Interesting to draw a parallel between OH Se-hoon's last two urban concepts: 'Human Town', which he didn't have time to fully roll out and scale up before the abrupt end of his previous mandate (see " OH Se-hoon launches the "Seoul Human Town" concept"), and 'Gather Town' ('Moa Town'), which has just been announced, less than a year after his return to office.

Both concepts rely on a common goal: revitalizing neighborhoods without destroying them with the usual 'New Town' model, offering community services usually found in big projects while preserving a nuclear, lower rise structure.

Seoul notes that 87% of low-rise neighborhoods don't meet requirements for redevelopment, often because they are not derelict or old enough. Yet many are poorly maintained because they stretch without a common purpose, and their dwellers already struggle to maintain shared spaces within their own buildings.

Where Human Town proposed a smart and light cosmetic revamping, Gather Town hybrid formula includes partial redevelopment to replace shared houses and 'villas' with low-to-mid-rise apartments, while preserving the street structure. Key regulations will be eased, for example the threshold for the proportion of deteriorated units, the type of buildings included. Where big projects cover over 100k square meters and take 8 to 10 years to complete, Moa Towns will start from 1,500m2 and only require 2 to 4 years. Seoul aims at 20 projects every year, and 2,404 units by 2025.

So unlike with Human Town, where individual units keep evolving at their own pace, it won't really the same neighborhood. But shared infrastructures can go much further, for instance a big underground parking that will fully liberate street level, and allow the removal of all these ugly ground floors on pilotis in favor of actual life spaces (shops, terraces, plants and parks, community services like libraries or day care centers...). 

Provided the design is up to the ambition, lively pockets can emerge in the middle of forsaken neighborhoods, and radiate across them.

I like the notion that pragmatism allows the combination of several techniques (certain sections can be redeveloped, other maintained, see schema below), but I wouldn't want it to become just a shortcut to build quickly something that lacks consistence and soul. You want a village where citizens breathe and enjoy walking.

If this rendering of a street (below) doesn't seem very exotic to Western eyes, 80s zoning sure beats the 50s Grands Ensembles that have kept popping up across Seoul ever since the sixties. And this looks much more welcoming than dense, tree-less 'villa' clusters. Provided of course these mid-rise sections conveniently hidden in the background remain a tiny part of the program. Note the post-covid architecture with individual balconies and on the second floor a shared outdoor space running along what must be community services or shops.

The first two projects mentioned on January 13th are Myeonmok-dong, Jungnang-gu, a vast low-rise neighborhood at the feet of Achasan, and Beon-dong in Gangbuk-gu, around Dream Forest and Odong Park, between Suyu-dong, Mia-dong, and Chang-dong, close to the Ssangmun-dong of Seong Gi-hun and Cho Sang-woo (both fictional characters sharing a lot with their author HWANG Dong-hyuk, a true local*).

The Beon-dong project is not small at all (50,000 m2), and the one in Myeonmok-dong is almost twice bigger (97,000 m2). Sorry, but to me, this looks much more like a mini-New Town that to an improved old-town:

Beon-dong's 'Gather Town'

Obviously, 'Gather Town'  is less human centric than 'Human Town'. More top down than bottom up, with a top that rises a bit too high above 'low rise' levels... 

Seoul Village 2022
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* BTW ICYMI I was mentioned in Charlie Usher's article on not so glamorous Seoul neighborhoods ("The heart of Seoul – the working-class neighbourhoods captured by Squid Game and Parasite"). Of course, less glamorous doesn't mean less valuable, to the contrary. And if you haven't watched it yet, go binge "Squid Game - an addictive slap in the face".

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Seoul Village Season XVI

Happy New Year of the Tiger! Let's see how this young cub grows and roars.

And let's hope the pandemic will spare us another scary sequel...

As we've known from the start (see "Kudos to Korea's 4 Ts, but please no complacency"), we can never let our guard down while riding such roller coasters. This year, as expected, after failing to secure vaccines as early as other wealthy nations, Korea caught up very quickly once they arrived. But a populist decision to ease restrictions at the worst moment (during a surge and before year end festivities - not to mention an unexpected new variant) led to record cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Fortunately, the population started to react and the government to backpedal, so the last couple of weeks have seen a steady decline in the number of cases. Keep safe and carry on.

This year, barring more surprises (and we've had our share of those lately), the presidential election could be the most defining moment for a country where the balance of powers has been dramatically altered over the past few years.

LEE Jae-myung is now leading in the polls, with the help of YOON Seok-youl (definitely not a seasoned politician), and of course MOON Jae-in. Interesting contrast: while LEE remains totally protected from any investigation around the Daejang-dong scandal, the controversial CIO has been spying the phones of campaigning opposition members in a local version of the Watergate...

In a brilliant lame duck move, MOON pardoned PARK Geun-hye, the equivalent to throwing an elephant into the opposition's already unstable porcelain store before the elections: now YOON, who investigated the scandals surrounding the former president and CHOI Soon-sil, will have an even tougher time getting votes from hardcore PARK supporters... 

That LEE Jae-myung could envision the White House in spite of his sulfurous reputation and the ruling party's unpopularity speaks volumes about the opposition's ineptitude. Character-wise, LEE is clearly closer to Donald TRUMP than to KIM Dae-jung - but at least, unlike the former POTUS, he's working very hard to change his image during the campaign.

Beyond securing the elections, MOON is focusing his final months on an intense lobbying to formally end the Korean War, which requires an agreement from other stakeholders. But unless Trump returns to power, the US will demand significant concessions from KIM Jong-un, and that is precisely what MOON wants to avoid.

MOON Jae-in's goal is to remove pressure on the North Korean regime and US troops from the Peninsula. South Korea's recent displays of weaponry and hikes in military budgets are supposed to prove that the nation can defend itself (should of course its leaders actually decide to defend it). Needless to say, both China and Russia would also love to see Yankees go home. 

Soft-power-wise, at least, Seoul can count on its Weapons of Mass Distraction, even if topping 2021 will be very hard for 'k-content' providers.

We'll need some cheering up to cope with real life drama (and at the macro level household debt, inflation, rising rates, overdue bubble bursts across the globe...).

Maybe we don't want that tiger to roar, after all. A cute yawn could be a welcome break.

Please be safe, but remain wild and playful. Have a great, full, and happy 2022.

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Sunday, December 26, 2021

7 Seoul subway / railway updates

MK published yesterday an interesting article* on the impact of 7 recent or upcoming subway / railway developments on real estate, which allows us to see of these old friends have fared since their announcements**.

The Maeil Kyeongje's 7 projects (NB our focus below doesn't follow these numbers)

 . Line 1 extension Northwards from Soyosan Station (3 new stations - Choseong-ri, Jeongok, and Yeoncheon): 

Since this extension mostly doubles an existing train, the article logically mentions a low impact on real estate. but it does make commuting more seamless for densely inhabited parts of Yeoncheon-gun, and allows Seoulites to venture further up the Dongducheon valley (not necessarily closer to the DMZ, though: it follows the same axis in this area).

 . Line 4 extension Eastwards from Danggogae Station (3 new stations - Byeollae Byeolgaram, Onam, and Jinjeop):

To be inaugurated next March, this 14.9 km extension is a game changer for this section of Namyangju dotted with major new towns (Byeollae and Jinjeop-eup). But as usual, what a shame that such major clusters were not connected to the grid from day one. 

Of course, this means more commuter traffic for a line already supporting older generation bed towns, but it will also help one of them, Nowon, grow as a cultural hub in Northeast Seoul. Furthermore, the article reminds us of two other projects that will help cope with the flow:

  • Seoul considers doubling Line 4 with an express service for the 31.7 km section within city limits, between Danggogae and Namtaeryeong, with potentially 12 more stations concerned (all the ones connected to other lines). That would leave 12 stations with only the standard service, along with the ones in Gyeonggi-do.
  • The extension of Line 8 Northwards from Amsa Station to Byeollae Station (Gyeongchun Line) by the end of 2023 could later be prolonged to Byeollae Byeolgaram Station via a new station, Byeollae Jungang, further anchoring Byeollae to the South, and making it a transport hub east of Seoul around a decent 'Byeollae Line' backbone.

 . Inauguration of Namwirye Station (Line 8):

Located between Bokjeong and Sanseong Stations in Seongnam, Namwirye doesn't really support Wirye New Town which, as the author mentions, would have much more impact. But he's not taking into account a tramway bound to deliver the goods: the construction of the Wirye Line is just starting these days.

'#Seoul about to start the construction of its first #tramway in decades (#WiryeLine - 12 stations, 5.4 km - to open i 2025). Line announced 8 years ago ( #transports' (20211220 - @theseoulvillage)

 . Gyeongui Jungang Line extension Northeastwards from Imjingang Station to Dorasan Station

In this part of Paju, as the article confirms, 'nothing to do with real estate'. This line is simply inching further towards Kaesong, now a reasonable walk away... provided of course you've got all the papers to enter the DMZ at that most strategic point. For the moment, you're mostly connecting Seoul to a giant, empty parking lot: doesn't look like many workers will commute any time soon to the Kaesong Industrial Complex... Let's hope that some day, this dead end will be prolonged into a friendlier North Korea.

 . Seohae Line extension Northwards from Sosa Station to Wonjong Station (via Bucheon Stadium Station)

As we've already seen (in "Twice upon a time in the West"), there's a lot going on around Bucheon. This vertical will split much earlier the traffic to/from Seoul between the North (Line 1) and the South (Line 7). And it will later be prolonged not only to Gimpo Airport, but also across the river, to Line 3 (Daegok Station, after a stop in Neunggok Station).

If Daegok seems a bit isolated between Goyang's 'old and new' New Towns (Ilsan to the West, Hwajeong to the East), Line 3 leads to more glamorous sites: downtown Seoul and Gangnam. And I wouldn't be surprised to see this new, vertical airport line that will go from Goyang to Hwaseong (for now, Ansan remains the Southern limit) venture further to the North-Northeast and connect to more New Towns.

 . Sillim Line inauguration (from Gwanaksan Station to Saetgang Station)

Thanks to this precious new vertical connected to Line 9 (Saetbang), Line 1 (Daebang), Line 7 (Boramae), Line 2 (Sillim), 'I live in Bongcheon-dong' will sound a lot more uplifting. But in parallel to this LRT,  Western Seoul needs more verticals (Gangnam-gu already getting it's fourth!), starting with Seobu Line...

 . Shinbundang Line Northwards extension from Gangnam Station to Sinsa Station:  

The article made its headline on the star extension because it's about real estate and money, and we're talking expensive real estate (Gangnam-daero), and expensive stations: Gangnam on Line 2, Sinnonhyeon on Line 9, Nonhyeon on Line 7, and Sinsa-dong on Line 3. No new stations, but hopefully fewer cars on the Hannam Bridge once Sinbundang's next profitable extension to the North will lead across the river and Yongsan, all the way to Yongsan Station.


Beyond railway and subway projects, Maeil Kyeongje also mentioned work on more sections of the capital region's Second Ring Expressway, which will definitely have some impact. But what the region needs is more public transportation, and a better dialog within Gyeonggi-do, beyond the usual Seoul-suburbs dialog.

It's always good to connect existing dots, and the Ansan-Bucheon-Goyang axis is very welcome, but no new major urban projects should be allowed without a direct connection to the network.

The problem is that Gyeonggi-do is poorly managed, and this has something to do with the way big cities compete with each other without a real regional authority. Only the State has the potential to force some collaboration, or at least more coopetition and less competition within Gyeonggi-do. The lack of political will and strategic vision results in the multiplication of projects cannibalizing each other, a suicidal rat race as the population ages and declines. Clearly, there are countless ways of spending less, better, and still generating much more value for everyone.

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* ""딱 역 3개인데, 폭발력 엄청나다"…판교 분당 부동산 난리난 이유" (Maeil Business Newspaper 20211226)
** see "Seoul subway to gain 89 km by 2025" (June 2015), "Seoul LRT Projects Update (Part 1/2)" and "Seoul LRT Projects Update (Part 2/2)" (August 2013, following "If you ain't broke, fix it: Seoul, Welfare and Railways Deficits" - July 2013). See also all subway related posts.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Squid Game - an addictive slap in the face

Impossible not to mention the cultural phenomenon of the year on these lines, but warning / full disclosure: I'm more than a bit biased since I played a (tiny tiny) role in Squid Game.

Just like I've done in the past with other works, I'll simply share my two cents about a creation that's already left a mark on our popular culture. I won't deliver any spoiler, and I won't disclose insider tips (as you may know, in this game, fair play is essential).

This guys knows (backstage with the Front Man).

What I can say is that joining this adventure, even for only a few days, was a very intense experience, particularly in the middle of a pandemic. And that the whole crew was amazing, delivering magic at every moment. If the series are such a visual feast, that's because a lot of positive energy and passion has been poured into every single detail.

I can also say that from the start, I knew something special was going to happen. The script was such a page-turner that I simply couldn't put it down. And I couldn't wait to see these wonderful characters come to life. Expectations were very high, but the series turned out to be even more enthralling than I'd thought. Even if I knew every twist ahead, I couldn't escape the flow, and enjoyed the show in total wonder. Squid Game is truly addictive: when it's over you're left in utter withdrawal and craving for more (BTW I'm pretty sure that 99.9% of all viewers let the next episode run right after that cliffhanger end of episode X). 

Netflix gave HWANG Dong-hyuk the creative freedom he needed to carry his vision. He could even slice the series in uneven sections. Releasing all episodes at once ahead of Chuseok proved to be a genius move: it not only allowed en masse binge watching, but also instant discussions across family and friends circles, Thanksgiving-style. So fun watching viewers reacting across the world at different stages of 'enlightenment'!

Now about the content itself.

Squid Game doesn't just reinvent the survivor game concept. It's a merciless social satire, literally a slap in the face, a wake up call with a message that resonates far beyond Korea. When it comes to exposing what's wrong in our societies, few stones are left unturned. A riveting story bound to spark conversations about absurd rat races, destructive competition, appalling injustice and unfairness, everyday despair, our relationship to money, to fellow humans... For the reader, it was quite great to imagine Koreans root for a North Korean defector or a (probably Muslim) Pakistani migrant worker (eventually India's Tripathi Anupam).

If there is a lot of wit and humor along the journey, HWANG isn't afraid of pushing hard where it hurts. No holds barred - even more viscerally than in 'Silenced' (2011). And it works. If Squid Game is so powerful and popular, that's because it's resolutely, unapologetically character-driven, radiating with an immense rainbow of memorable, flawed and fallible characters.

Of course, casting big names (LEE Jung-jae, PARK Hae-soo, WI Ha-joon) helped raise interest in the project from the beginning, but I was very curious to see who'd play Sae-byeok and Il-nam, and delighted to watch JUNG Ho-yeon and O Yeong-su give life to cult characters that will haunt you forever. What a roller coaster ride for KIM Joo-ryung along HAN Mi-nyeo's telluric mood swings, and what a diverse collection of Korean talents gracing the screen, even if only for a few moments each (from the hilarious chief police LEE Dong-yong to the discreet KIM Young-sun)...

One key, omnipresent actor in the series remains invisible all the way, yet never hiding behind a mask: the man in charge of the score. I was warned that JUNG Jae-il was a musical genius, and he didn't fail to surprise with his bewitching gamelan-like rhythms, or the playful, medieval joust touch that illuminated the games. Simply brilliant.

Quintessentially Korean, ultimately universal, Squid Game is already permeating the World's popular culture, generating memes, and fueling all speculations about what comes next. All I know is that for the alchemy to work once more, it will have to start with another awesome script. And I fully understand HWANG when he says a Season 2 would require several writers: hard to top that without bringing new voices.

'OMG North Korea hacked Netflix: Squid Game / 오징어 게임 was aired a few days before the rest of the World (military parade below)' (@theSeoulVillage 20210910 -

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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Seoul 2030 - a software update

Mayor OH Se-hoon unveiled the 'Seoul Vision 2030' he announced on his inaugural address last April*, an occasion to highlight differences with his 'predesuccessor' PARK Won-soon.

By picking the slogan 'Seoul, a fair city that runs again', ever the ambitious OH delivers two not so subliminal political messages:

  • I want to rally all citizens who want an end to the unfair system that's controlling local and national politics, and 
  • it's not just Seoul that's moving again: I'm running again, with 2027 in sight.

The goal remains the same as a few months before he left office: to lift the capital into the World's top 5 cities. The difference is that since then, under PARK, Seoul has lost its momentum and regressed from 10th in 2010 to 17th last year, which makes the task all the more daunting. To foot the KRW 48 tn bill (USD 41 bn), OH bets on a surge in real estate revenues as well as on undisclosed budget trade-offs. Not sure the equation stands, but Seoul must do something to stop the bleeding as its population shrinks and its businesses struggle.

This 'Seoul Vision 2030' is more about software than about hardware. Typically, it doesn't challenge the urban planning part of 'Seoul Master Plan 2030' laid out in 2015, with its triangle of international hubs (historic center / Yeouido-Yeungdeungpo / Gangnam) and its 7 metropolitan hubs (Yongsan, Sangam-DMC-Susaek, Cheongnyangni-Wangsimni, Jamsil, Magok, Gasan-Daerim, Changdong-Sanggye). Such macro projects are freight trains that can't be rerouted at will. OH can't even stop lighter projects such as the controversial Gwanghwamun Square revamping**; only pause to adjust and adapt in order to limit the negative impacts and to improve urban continuity.

But of course, this being Seoul, a lot of real estate remains on the menu. And hundreds of thousands of new dwellings will be added to the existing oversupply.

The bad news is that redevelopment is unleashed on a large scale, with significant deregulation and the removal of key constraints (F.A.R.), and that a lot of the few remaining Seoul villages could suffer.

"Old #Seoul neighborhoods potentially open for redevelopment jumps from 14 to 50% through #Seoul's new #urbanism guidelines... brace for the worst." (20210527 -

Focusing around certain subway stations may help spare some of them, and result in Hapjeong-izing more neighborhoods (no mentions about new subway projects, but that could come, as usual, closer to next year's elections...):

"#Seoul confirms plan to 'revitalize' #subway station areas (250m radius around stations), starting with 13 pilot projects. Higher rise allowed, mixed uses residential / commercial / offices / services. Will #Hapjeong-style clusters multiply? I'd prefer more stations. #urbanism" (20210705 -
On the upside (literally), new neighborhood parks are planned in proto-urban limbos around Seoul mountains. If done properly (that's a big if), it could paradoxically protect the mountains themselves by creating sanitized but green buffer leisure spaces in stead of unlimited, littered gateways that push unruly crowds deeper into the wild. Most visitors would enjoy a pleasant moment without needing to reach any further, leaving more space to wildlife and respectful mountain lovers.
"#Seoul creates new neighborhood parks in decrepit mountainous areas where development projects have failed for 20 years, starting this year in #Cheonwangsan (#Cheongwandong and #Hangdong, #Gurogu) and #Choasan (#Changdong, #Dobonggu and later #Wolgyedong, #Nowongu). #urbanism"
(@theSeoulVillage 20210910 -

Seoul targets a 40% greenhouse gas reduction by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050, but to achieve that, will it continue to outsource part of the dirty job to Gyeonggi-do (see "Seoul Power Play: One Less Nuclear Plant, One More Coal Plant")?

Obsessed with Seoul's business competitiveness, OH Se-hoon wants to seize a momentum and snatch as much of the Hong Kong exodus away from Singapore as possible, and to attract FDIs getting cautious about Korea's neighbors Japan (who wants to be the next Carlos GHOSN?) and China (hard-soft power supremacy challenged worldwide, investors wary of XI Jinping's authoritarian moves). Foreign media were already flocking in before South Korea's government pushed its own laws stiffling press freedom.  In that context, the creation of an agency modeled after Singapore's EDB makes perfect sense. How it articulates with existing entities (SBA etc) remains to be seen.

How Yeouido can turn into an international finance magnet without structural reforms at the national level also puzzles me.

Like during his first mandate, OH wants to boost international tourism, this time up to 20M visitors a year. He insists on culture which is of course essential, but that will take more than a 'Seoul Festa' and kpop events.

I'm more interested in how Seoul intends to nurture and boost the local startup ecosystem, deep and wide. Hosting 40 unicorns by 2030? that's mostly for the show. Building new clusters? as if there weren't enough already... I prefer the concept of mentoring programs for seniors: recent trends already show more 50-year+ executives joining previously almost exclusively young crews, but there's a need for a much broader-reaching, more inclusive approach. 

The 5 pillars of 'Seoul Vision 2030' are "fairness, coexistence, safety***, future sensitivity, global leadership", and 'future sensitivity' is a nice way of saying the whole population should be involved, innovation requires pedagogy and respect for everyone.

"Fairness", and "coexistence" are the most beautiful and difficult challenges. Seoul aims at equal opportunity, fostering women activity and youth employment, seniors access to lifelong learning programs, Seoul Learn online education platform for underprivileged students... Basic income will even be tested. Ending the gender war among younger generations should be added as a core Seoul Development Goal.

By the way, on Thursday, the 3rd SBAU (Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism) kicked off. An anticlimatic event in a most complex climate, but always the opportunity to connect a few new dots and to confront different visions of different cities:

Seoul Village 2021
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* The launch of a Seoul Vision 2030 Committee was the 5th pledged made by the new Seoul Mayor:

The 5 pledges of #Seoul mayor #OhSehoon (NB: good luck with that):" (@theSeoulVillage 20210428 -

** see among others "Gwanghwamun Square 3.0 re-Deep-Surfaces"

*** mostly in a pandemic context.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Miracle Korea Needs

378 Afghans airlifted from Kabul joined Korea yesterday. After landing in Incheon Airport, the usual covid tests, and a night in Gimpo, they were moved this morning to Jincheon and the National Human Resources Development Institute, where they will spend their quarantine.

This 'Operation Miracle' echoes the 'Ship of Miracles' of 1950 that saved 14,000 people from Hungnam, packed in the SS Meredith Victory as North Korean armies closed in.

"This is not the #SSMeredithVictory leaving #Hungnam but a US freight plane leaving #Kabul. We don't know which talents will emerge from this #ShipofMiracles, we only know that it will not return to save more lives." (@theSeoulVillage - 20210817 -

These 'special contributors' to South Korea, who already proved their skills and value*, come with their families and kids - 180 including a few newborns! A significant community to build upon.

After the Yemen refugee PR disaster, Korea must prove that it can properly welcome migrants from countries in turmoil. Jincheon-gun authorities showed the right example by displaying welcome banners in Afghan, English, and Korean. 

Of course, full success will require profound changes in mindsets across a nation where minorities of color tend to experience racism, and where Islamophobia keeps spreading, fueled by fearmongers and people who wrongly claim to represent a religion founded around a symbol of inclusion and tolerance who happened to be a brown-skinned Jewish Palestinian refugee.

I'm hopeful, because Korea has already spectacularly improved against certain prejudices by being more exposed to diversity and multiculturalism**, and because these newcomers come not only in numbers, but also with experience. This is the perfect occasion for the nation to show positive progress, and genuine cultural leadership.

This cultural evolution is the miracle Korea needs. So everybody, a warm welcome to our brothers and sisters from Afghanistan!

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* "Afghan evacuees in S. Korea arrive at temporary shelter in Jincheon" (Yonhap News 20210827)

** including through the experiences of its own diaspora.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Seoul: inhuman, all too human

"If Paris were a recurring hero in series of novels, Seoul would rather be a shape-shifting character, always mutating between two short stories. That could be the very definition of a city: a very real work of fiction always trying to liberate itself from its authors."

Published not long after Park Won-soon took office, my essay on Seoul urbanism is now available in English. You can download it for free on "Seoul: inhuman, all too human"*.

Fun to see what changed and what didn't since then. I might consider a sequel, which would probably cover the successes, failures, and impostures of urban regeneration.

(photo: urban farming along Danghyeoncheon, before Nowon-gu revamped it).



One megalopolis, a hundred villages, a thousand visages

1) The industry of dreams – the ideal city

. Industrial housing revolution: from the virtuous cycle to the bubble

. From mass market consumer goods to fashion and services, from utopia to

2) Humans in transit

. Communities and shared spaces

. Life and survival of villages

3) Ideal city 2.0 and new utopias

. The end of an era, but not yet the end of the real estate dream

. From "hard city" to "soft city"

. From New Town to Human Town, villages are back in favor

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* for the original version (in French), see "Inhuman, all too human Seoul"

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