Friday, May 15, 2009

Ssamziegil

If Insa-dong changed dramatically over the past decades, Ssamziegil (쌈지길) clearly contributed as an instant hit.

March 2003 was the last time I had a yukgaejang in the restaurant that used to occupy this surprisingly empty and quiet space (just a few hanoks and trees surrounding an informal parking space) in the center of a reviving touristic hub.

When I saw the houses burnt down, my first reaction was to think : come on, this fire can't be accidental... that was the best spot available on Insadong-gil, and now they are free to build anything on it ! I braced myself for yet another art gallery quickly drawn by a bathroom designer.

When I first visited Ssamziegil in December 2004, I had a shock : hey, this is a modern style mini-Daehansan ! "Daehansan" was the knickname of a fictional landmark in a story I wrote (still now, yet to be completed) : in the new political capital of reunited Korea (on DMZ grounds), a central, cultural and monumental building-snape-shaped-street-hill covered with traditional style roofs hiding a vast indoor spherical space with a garden and village. Also knicknamed the Oriental Mont Saint Michel or The Giant Turd, Daehansan was the gift of a billionaire called Han to a city that lacked landmarks... a controversial and kistch utopia quickly adopted by the people as a central part of their lives.

A 4,000 square meter, 3 storey building covered with vegetation, Ssamziegil is basically a rectangular concrete street filled with shops, following a gentle slope up to Haneulmadang, a restaurant and terrace overlooking Insadong*, and with an underground gallery. This original boutique concept drew a clear and consistant editorial line : about 70 definitely "bobo" (bourgeois boheme) shops, restaurants or cafes, proposing Korean design, arts and crafts both traditional and modern (Anna Sui shop an exception, Ssamzie group being a partner of the brand).

Unlike Daehansan, which used to be criticized for circling around itself and lost memories, Ssamziegil is opened to its environment and its contemporaries, which makes it fun in any season. Brands come and go (ie SSBA opened an online store), and Ssamziegil established itself as a reference at the crossroads of Hongdae rebel spirit and Insadong tradition.

Ssamzie, the group behind the concept, acts a little bit like a galerist with promising talents, and also boasts Ssamzie Space more directly in the art field. They signed a MOU to open a similar Ssamziegil on Canal Walk, the original street-mall-canal concept in Songdo. A very smart choice to enliven that pivotal landmark : Canal Walk is meant to bring a very much needed disruption in that other (and much more famous) utopia.


* actually, this part of Insadong-gil is in Gwanhun-dong (38 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu). Insa-dong includes the Southern part of the area, definitely not the nicest.

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