Paju Bookcity: The Next Chapter

The Korean special economic zone dedicated to books — and high-style architecture — is being remade for the digital era.

Paju Bookcity. [Photo by Yeong Ran Kim]

When I first heard of Paju Bookcity, I imagined a wondrous bibliophilic paradise of human-scaled buildings with legible facades nestled side-by-side like volumes on a shelf. I pictured folks strolling down the sidewalk with their faces buried in thick novels, soft sunlight for reading, a light breeze that flutters pages and carries the smell of freshly brewed coffee.

When I traveled to the real Paju Bookcity, I found something else: it’s an industrial estate created for and by companies related to all aspects of book manufacturing — publishers, printers, distributors — sited a half-hour drive north of Seoul, in the marshes next to a highway near the Korean Demilitarized Zone. But if Bookcity is not the fairy tale I envisioned, it is a kind of Cinderella story: this is the industrial park remade. Rejecting the typical planning formula — a generic grid of nondescript buildings — Bookcity follows an “urban wetlands” master plan and features serious architecture by internationally prominent designers. How many industrial parks have served as backdrops for television commercials or fashion shoots, as happened at Paju during my visit this summer? “It is not hyperbole to claim that this is one of the most extraordinary and most unsung cultural and architectural developments in the world,” design critic Edwin Heathcote observed in 2009. 1 “The idea that a city, right now, [could] be dedicated solely to print and that an industrial estate could be a place of architectural pilgrimage could not be more heartening, more encouraging to anyone who delights in those very old information technologies — books and buildings.”

Throughout history, in fact, there have been cities dedicated to books; Jianyang, Leipzig, Lyon and Boston, among others, have served as important publishing centers, and since the 1960s the International Organization of Book Towns has promoted secondhand and antiquarian bookselling as a means of boosting tourism and development. But Paju Bookcity, which was conceived in 1989, is something new: a publishers’ enclave imagined from the ground up as a “special economic zone.” Located on a 1.6-square-kilometer site in the former flood plain of the Han River, Bookcity has been seeking to reinvent Korean publishing, architecture and urban planning — fields that have changed dramatically in the nation’s tumultuous modern history, and particularly in the decades since the venture was conceived. What I want to explore here is the place of this unique development within what CNET has called South Korea’s “Digital Dynasty.” Why build a “city of print” in the land of Samsung, a nation so focused on the digital future that it has proposed replacing all textbooks with e-readers by 2015? 2 And why here, amidst the rice paddies of Paju, instead of in the financial and industrial powerhouse of Seoul, recently designated a World Design Capital? As the two-decade-old Bookcity enters its next phase of development, how will it negotiate the rapidly shifting technological and urban terrains?

Metropolitan Seoul. [Photo by Francisco Anzola]

Backstory: Buildings and Books

To understand Bookcity — its founding goals and future prospects — it will help to sketch a brief history of contemporary Seoul. Indeed, in the two-millennia history of the Korean capital, few periods have been as volatile as the 20th century. Japanese colonial rule, from 1910 through 1945, brought new planning models, new urban institutions, new architectural styles. 3 From a population of 300,000, at the turn of the 19th century, the city grew to more than one million by 1942 and continued to swell after the city’s liberation during World War II. The civil war of the early 1950s, which would divide the nation, devastated the city, which changed hands five times between North and South. In the aftermath, the redevelopment of the capital of South Korea would be guided by Western models; but as journalist Tim Abrahams has argued, because the city was “quickly rebuilt in a dramatic economic resurgence, its sense of architectural identity was badly damaged, if not lost. … Seoul is a city without idiom.” 4

General Park Jung-Hee, who seized power in a coup and ruled from 1961 to 1979, introduced the policies of export-oriented industrialization that would propel South Korea’s economic expansion and rapid urbanization. By the early 1970s Seoul’s population had surpassed 5.5 million, and officials were attempting to regulate growth and control sprawl — particularly north of the city, near the DMZ, where Bookcity sits today — by instituting a greenbelt. But within the city extensive construction continued, and in the following decade Seoul celebrated its postwar recovery by hosting the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics. The 1990s brought more civic projects but also more warnings that the intensive growth of the previous half-century was unsustainable. Won-Yong Kwon and Kwang-Joong Kim, of the Seoul Development Institute, describe a pattern in the decade’s events: “The tragic disasters of the fall of a major bridge, a massive underground gas explosion, and the collapse of an upscale department store, which claimed more than 1,400 lives” — as well as the 1997 Asian financial crisis and International Monetary Fund bailout — forced Koreans to reconsider the “growth-driven ambition of the late 20th century.” 5 By the turn of the millennium, South Korea, following trends in other developed nations, was refocusing away from export manufacturing and toward high technology; in the early years of the new century, the information technology sector grew to 13 percent of the economy. 6

Moveable Type Workshop, Paju Bookcity. [Photo by Jenn Pascoe]

Yet some key sectors of the older economy have continued to flourish as a result of domestic demand: one of these is book publishing. Print is indeed an old technology in Korea. Woodblock printing on paper dates to the seventh or eighth century, and metal moveable-type printing to the early 13th century — 200 years before Gutenberg. In the 20th century, the publishing industry benefitted from the liberalization of higher education after the civil war and from an explosion in small-press publishing after the end of repressive military rule in 1987. 7 As the millennium drew to a close, most of the nation’s printing and publishing facilities were clustered in Seoul (with printers in the Mapo district and publishers in Gangnam). At the same time the industry was beginning to realize — along with publishers worldwide — that it would need to negotiate the varying effects of global economics and technological shifts; on the one hand, a propitious influx of international capital from NAFTA and EU markets, and on the other, the uncertainties of new digital publishing platforms. Some local economists worried that the publishing sector, despite impressive gains, was “unprepared to face the global competition.” 8

This was the complicated urban-cultural and socio-economic context that inspired Korean publisher Yi Ki-ung to found Paju Bookcity, and which shaped his decade-long battle to bring it to fruition: a publishing industry with a deep cultural history facing dramatic changes; a capital city bloated by years of top-down development that had proven unsustainable; and a national psyche recovering from what Yi described as “intense psychological confusion and disorder” brought about by decades of war, colonialism and dictatorship. As Heathcote says, Yi envisioned an alternative future; Bookcity was “a reaction to the rapacious redevelopment of Seoul, the loss of the city’s historic fabric and its rapid embrace of the culture of bigness and congestion.” 9 Bookcity’s self-styled exceptionalism is rooted in this origin story: it was conceived as not just another industrial estate, but as a city that would, in Yi’s words, “recover the lost humanity” of the country, a cultural project sustaining time-honored values and a commitment to the print tradition.

Moveable Type Workshop, Paju Bookcity. [Photo by Yeong Ran Kim]

Designing (and Editing and Branding) the City

In the summer of 1988, the year the Olympics came to town, Yi Ki-ung and a small group of fellow publishers met to discuss the challenges facing the book industry, especially its inefficient distribution system. They conceived the idea of a specialized industrial city and convinced 200 publishers to support the effort. Within three years, 360 companies had joined a cooperative that lobbied the Korean government to create a “Publishing Culture and Information Industrial Complex.” Eventually the vision expanded to include software consulting, development and distribution, as well as film and television broadcasting. 10 If the estate were restricted to book publishers, argued Seung H-Sang, a prominent architect and one of Bookcity’s lead designers, “it would be no different [from] other shut-out set-ups of the gated community.” 11

From its inception, the project was wrapped in lofty utopian rhetoric. The Asia Publication and Culture Information Center — one of the signature buildings in Paju and the only one whose designer, Kim Byung-yoon, was chosen by competition — embodied the project’s central values: “preserving the spiritual culture of Korea … bequeathing the value and importance of the Book to the next generation.” In the foyer of the Culture Center today stands a bust of Ahn Jung-geun, the independence leader who in 1909 assassinated the Japanese prime minister shortly before the Japanese annexation of Korea. “Rarely,” observes designer-theorist Hyungmin Pai, “has a city been infused with such ideology and meaning.” 12 For Yi, who felt “suffocated in Seoul,” Paju was intended to be a breath of fresh air; by bringing together urban designers and bookmakers outside the pressures of the capital city, he hoped to encourage a more reflective practice and richer culture. 13

Poster of Bookcity at the Asia Publication and Culture Information Center. [Photo by Yeong Ran Kim]

To some of the project’s backers, of course, Bookcity was primarily a business venture, an investment with a state-of-the-art integrated distribution center that was key to framing Bookcity as a “national industrialization development” and ultimately to winning government support. The central government provided state-owned land at a discount, built much of the infrastructure, offered low-cost financing to tenants, granted a five-year tax exemption, and funded construction of the Culture Center. 14 But if the “industrial” label was strategically necessary, Yi and other leaders found it unpalatable; as they put it: “We have attempted to overcome the uninspiring characteristics of an ‘industrial development’ by incorporating the dynamic characteristics of a ‘city.’” 15 But what could city mean in this context? Over time, in fact, the project has assumed a variety of urban identities: Paju is variously a World-Famous City of Books and Publishing dedicated to modernizing the industry; a Permanent Architectural Exhibition, showcasing innovative designs by leading architects; an Eco-Friendly Industrial City, modeling the integration of technology with nature; an Educational City, an experimental prototype for community-focused urban developments. 16 In this sense “city” has functioned as a brand, a spatial packaging of the special economic zone, a version of what Keller Easterling has called, in an article in this journal, “extrastatecraft.”

Yi explains these various identities, and the design intentions of Paju Bookcity, in the terms of his profession: “This is no different [than] if we were editing a huge and beautiful book called ‘Bookcity’ on a wide expanse of land.” 17 Similarly, landscape and urban designers Florian Beigel and Philip Christou, of the London-based firm Architecture Research Unit, claim to have “written the city into the river landscape like a text,” creating a “landscape script” that references historical Korean maps as well as Paul Klee’s painting A Leaf from the Book of Cities. 18

Asia Publication and Culture Information Center. [Photos by Yeong Ran Kim]

To be sure, the beautiful new book of Bookcity did require some creative design editing. Beigel and Christou’s ambitious landscape script had to work around the conventional narrative of an uninspiring master plan — by the Korea Land Corporation and Seoul National University’s Environmental Planning Institute — that preceded their involvement, and which “laid out the infrastructure, land use, roads, and individual plots,” and also presumed that anything in the way would be razed. 19 As Seung told me: “The original plan was to erase the existing landscape.” And although the Bookcity design team — Beigel and Seung, along with architects Kim Young-joon, Min Hyun-sik and Kim Jong-kyu — wanted to retain the site’s natural wetlands, they were limited in scope because the master plan was a legal document. The designers’ solution was to focus on the architectural opportunities of the new city; which is why, as Kim Young-joon explained to me, “Bookcity is actually not an urban design project. It’s a project in which the urban design is altered by the architecture,” or architectural intervention. The five core designers selected a roster of architects whom the resident publishing companies could hire to design individual buildings. Because the cooperative couldn’t afford exorbitant fees, Seung tapped colleagues and friends, including Korean designers (many educated in the West, at places like Columbia University and the Architectural Association, and trained with prominent firms like OMA) as well as global practitioners like Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Alvaro Siza. 20

The publishing companies of Bookcity and their chosen architects signed a “great contract” agreeing to a design process informed by the values of communality and collaboration. Bookcity was to be an “environmentally friendly eco-city,” “a diverse and complex three-dimensional city,” “a self-sufficient city,” “a visibly slower-speed city,” “a city of beautiful landscapes” and “a city that adapts to changes.” 21 Pai regards the contract as an “informal document without legal obligation” and as “pure ideology” — an ideology that puts community before capital. Yet as he concedes, “The actual force that binds the publishers of Paju Bookcity is as palpable as, and perhaps stronger than, any zoning regulation.” 22 Here a code of ethics would attempt to have as much power as a code of laws.

The design team offered a flexible program consisting of several building types — or what Beigel and Christou, reluctant to assign any specific use to a particular architectural form, call “city structures.” 23 These city structures were described in such poetic terms as Highway Shadows, Bookshelf Units, Spine Units, Canal Lofts, Stepping Stones and Urban Islands, each defined by site conditions. Designers were also encouraged to make space for emptiness, indeterminacy, or madang, which Seung told me is central to Korean architecture: “Design first the vacant void space, then set buildings to limit the void.” At Bookcity the voids would create room for public space, natural views and personal reflection. The buildings themselves would function on two strata: the bottom two stories relating to the streets, the wetlands, the public space; and the third and fourth stories oriented to the horizon, with views of the Han River and nearby Mt. Simhak. 24

Top left: Florian Beigel and Kim Jong-kyu, YoulHwaDang Publishing House. [Photo by ARU London] Top right: Kim In-cheurl, Woongjin Think Big headquarters. [Photo by Kim In-cheurl] Bottom left: Kim Byung-yoon, Asia Publication and Culture Information Center. [Photo by Yeong Ran Kim] Bottom right: Alvaro Siza, Carlos Castanheira and Jun Sung-kim, Mimesis Museum. [Photo by FG+SG – Fernando Guerra, Sergio Guerra]

Chapter One

Paju Bookcity’s first phase of development, with over 100 buildings, was completed in 2007. And no doubt as a result of the designers’ efforts — as described by Kim Young-joon — to counteract the rigid master plan by means of creative architecture, Bookcity boasts a string of individual architectural gems that line the town’s speed-bumped streets, and that captivated the international design press. Among the highlights are Byung-yoon’s Asia Publication and Culture Information Center (2004); Beigel and Kim Jong-kyu’s YoulHwaDang Publishing House (2003) and YoulHwaDang Book Hall (2009), designed for Yi’s art publishing company; Kim In-cheurl’s building for educational publisher Woongjin Think Big (2007); and the gorgeous Mimesis Museum (2009), designed by Alvaro Siza, Carlos Castanheira and Jun Sung-kim, intended to evoke an open book, its walls curving like bending pages.

Still, nearly everyone I spoke with saw much that could be improved. As Kim Young-joon acknowledges, since most of the architects weren’t involved in the conceptualization of Bookcity, “they just accepted the [city structures] as formal solutions” and ignored the “spirit” behind the script; and in interviews, Seung lamented that “less than half of the structures truly represent what we originally envisioned.” During my visit it became clear that while many of the architectural gems shine on their own, their radiance is due in large part to the way they’re situated on the streets, with sufficient distance from their neighbors. While this atomization might be appropriate for the “city as architectural exhibition,” it compromises the urban coherence of Bookcity. “We failed to have something happen in between the buildings,” is how Kim Young-joon explains it; and in fact, the four-lane road that cuts through the middle of Bookcity, connecting to both a local shopping center and to an American-style outlet mall, is out of scale and out of pace with the rest of the development. Meanwhile, secondary roads, usually lined with parked cars, are narrow and inhospitable to pedestrians, and they lack continuous sidewalks.

Bookcity is also programmatically limited: neither the project budget nor the zoning code allowed for affordable housing for the 10,000 people who work there. The only housing in Bookcity, Kim Young-joon said, was designed by a developer, and the units are much larger and more expensive than the design team would have preferred. As a result, most workers endure a long commute from Seoul, and the city is pretty much dead at night. Paju’s location can be an inconvenience for authors and creative freelancers as well, most of whom live in the capital, where they find their professional networks and derive inspiration for their work. For some, the trade-offs of the remote location are simply too great. Baek Won Keun, chief researcher of the Korean Publishing Research Institute, pointed out that one of the biggest translation agencies recently left Paju, and that some companies own buildings in Bookcity without actually operating there.

Architectural gems on Paju Bookcity’s main street. [Photo by Yeong Ran Kim]

“If there is a problem at Paju,” wrote Edwin Heathcote in his 2009 critique, “it is that, as in all new cities, there is a kind of stillness, a lack of real density.” During my visit I felt that same stillness. Bookcity is still young — 80 percent of the first-phase buildings were completed in 2005 and 2006 — and Kim argues that it needs time to mature. Public bus transit is more frequent now, he said, and other municipal services — including perhaps a subway line — “are coming.” Yet some people I spoke with regard Paju as more real-estate investment than viable work environment, and whether the concentration of publishers in Bookcity will create the vibrant new culture envisioned by Yi Ki-ung remains an open question. “Synergy is expected,” Baek said, “but it doesn’t just happen.” To put it another way: it is not enough to build it; the physical environment can guarantee neither creative collaboration nor business efficiencies.

Limits of the Zone

Some of the challenges Paju Bookcity faces in transforming itself into a “real” city, a vibrant center of literary life, can be traced in part to its urban design; but some are clearly due to its classification as a mono-functional industrial estate. There is, I would argue, a paradox in its founding premises: Paju exemplifies the effort to acknowledge book publishing as an industrial sector in need of special attention; yet it has also resulted in its physical segregation from the dynamic urban life and culture that has historically nurtured its content and reception, its authors and readers. Paju is a cultural, and perhaps more palatable, version of the special economic zone. Like the Media Cities in Dubai and in Salford, UK, it represents what Easterling calls an “upgraded” form of the zone, dedicated to information technology and cultural production rather than old-school manufacturing and heavy industry. As such it shares many of the elements described by the political theorist Jonathan Bach in his definition of the contemporary zone: “an odd assemblage of 19th-century Owenite utopian legacies and their contemporary traces in Soviet ‘total planning’ cities, garden cities, company towns, gated communities, and even aspects of new urbanism.” Bach regards the reliance in many zones upon “cutting edge architecture” — which often means “Giorgio de Chirico-like vast vistas of glass and smooth stone” — as an effort to “establish legitimacy through expressing the representations of transnational elites.” 25

Hyungmin Pai points out that from the late 1980s, when Bookcity was conceived, through today, the central government and large conglomerates have “dominated” urban development in Korea, each sector in its own way, with often confounding results. “Cities, on the one hand, have suffered from too much planning, and on the other, they have been abandoned to the forces of the real estate market,” he writes. “The city building process is highly regulated yet the public sector has very little control over its specific forms.” 26 In recent years, those “specific forms” have included such high-profile projects as the Incheon Airport, designed by Fentress Architects; the highly fraught cultural venue known as the Floating Islands; and iArc’s blob-like addition to Seoul City Hall. And of course, throughout Asia, the defining urban form of the last few decades is the so-called “new town,” a high-density exurban development of generic high-rises that has lately been widely criticized. 27 There are dozens of these surrounding Paju.

Paju Bookcity. [Photo by Shannon Mattern]

Both special economic zones and new towns are versions of the enclave mode of urban development; and as such each displays what Bach describes as a “fundamentally and aggressively ahistorical self-understanding of the city”; each also reflects ignorance about how cities function sustainably. “The zone, with its emphasis on the enclave,” Easterling writes, is a “relatively dumb form of urban software.” It’s typically missing all the stuff that makes a city a city. Zone developers need to ask themselves, as Easterling puts it, “What types of incentivized urbanism will actually benefit from physically segregated infrastructure — from being separate and even distant from the dense and dynamic central spaces of existing cities?” 28 Book printing and distribution might benefit from consolidating resources on inexpensive land outside the city, but the more social aspects of publishing — interactions between authors, editors, translators, agents and readers; and the way these various interactions draw from and give to the city — will likely be sacrificed by a move to the wetlands near the DMZ.

Yet some Bookcity companies are finding new audiences and new uses for their spacious buildings. I wandered into Gimm-Young Publishers’ hazelnut-coffee-scented showroom one afternoon and found the staff setting up for a children’s piano recital in the newly renovated café — part of an impressive program of activities, including academic workshops, that one of Gimm-Young’s editors, Hyun-ju Kim, organizes for local kids. Another children’s publisher offers a petting zoo, with geese and rabbits, on the side lawn. Bookcity features a variety of interactive spaces, too, ranging from the Moveable Type Workshop, a functioning print shop, classroom and museum of printing history, to the Makeshop, which encompasses a ground-floor gallery and upper-level artists’ studios and an adjacent mediatheque. Many publishers offer public programming, although it can be difficult for outsiders to determine from the street which buildings are accessible. I had no idea where visitors were welcome until a proprietor offered a special map identifying book cafés. Bookcity tenants are encouraged to incorporate public spaces at street-level, and many buildings are designed for ground-floor display — but in some cases all that’s “displayed” behind the plate-glass windows are pallets stacked with reams of paper and on occasion the presses and binderies involved in book production and distribution.

Gimm-Young Publishers shop and cafe. [Photos by Yeong Ran Kim]

Next Chapters: Bookcity’s Future

The creation of the Moveable Type Workshop, which opened in 2007, surely reflects a desire to sustain an old printing technology with deep roots in Korea; nonetheless, the next phases of Bookcity’s development will allow publishers and designers to explore new media technologies and reconsider the relationship between publishing and urban culture. Perhaps there’s no longer much use romanticizing the centrality of books, periodicals, newspapers, pamphlets and posters to city life and urban form — a relationship explored and celebrated over the decades by writers as diverse as Peter Fritzsche, David Henkin, Lewis Mumford, Rose Marie San Juan and Bronwen Wilson. 29 Today we no longer live in a world of Habermasian public spheres animated by the circulation of printed matter. The purposes and platforms of reading are changing so dramatically that publishing and literature are bound to occupy a very different physical place in our cities.

In Korea one can detect some of the future outlines of publishing. Baek Won Keun explained to me that the country has a huge market in private education, including courses to prepare students for college entrance exams — and the study guides used by private tutors comprise an astonishing 60 percent of the publishing market. This is hardly the classic republic of letters, where a broad readership hungers for great literature and philosophy and political debate; here the book industry is sustained by children cramming for standardized tests. But while the content of course books has been updated regularly over the past few decades, their form, for now at least, has remained static. Most of the guides are still printed, and as Baek noted, e-books aren’t widespread because “there is no major digital company like Amazon in Korea.” (Kyobo Book Centre, with 10 stores located throughout the country, is the largest bookseller in Korea and in that sense the rough equivalent of Amazon; but to date its digital offerings are modest.) But that will likely change soon.

Top: Model of Phase 1. [Photo by Yeong Ran Kim] Phase 1 Bookcity Architectural Design Guideline, 1999. [Image by IROJE]

South Korea is a global technological hub with extraordinarily ambitious plans for digital infrastructural development. 30 Thanks to government support and a competitive telecommunications industry, broadband networks boast extensive reach and speeds among the fastest in the world. 31 The nation’s commitment to digital growth is even written on — or rather “coded in” — the physical landscape: Seoul’s 135-acre Digital Media City, under development since 2000, brings together digital media, information technology and entertainment businesses with the goal of breeding technological innovation, and a national initiative focused on Ubiquitous Computing aims to create so-called U-Cities “fully equipped with networks through which city authorities in central/local government can monitor almost everything that is happening.” 32 Among the most high-profile U-City projects is New Songdo IBD — the initials stand for International Business District — a testing ground for Cisco’s “smart city” technology now being constructed on the Incheon waterfront as part of the city’s economic free zone.

The phase 2 development at Paju Bookcity, now underway, will incorporate new media companies. While some critics see this as an attempt to compensate for lower-than-expected demand from traditional book publishers, Bookcity was (as noted) always intended to be an “integrated multimedia city” that would promote synergies between sectors, encouraging the translation of novels into films and video games and vice versa. As of the summer of 2012, 57 publishers, 19 printers, 34 film producers and two game manufacturers had been selected for the new phase. According to Bookcity’s managing director, Lee Hwan-gu, recruiting hasn’t been a problem because the companies are given financial incentives for relocating in Paju. The real challenge, he said, is “recruiting good companies” with solid business plans and a clear vision for how they will use the space. Some argue that Bookcity’s continued focus on the “right” companies has led to the exclusion of smaller, independent businesses; nevertheless, with diverse industries in the mix, Bookcity’s planners see expanded possibilities for interaction among companies, and for a richer and more complex urbanism.

But as the nature of the community changes, Pai wonders, “How will Paju Bookcity change and will the present architecture be sustainable? How much will this architecture, built in a time span of less than a decade, survive the development of technology and the vagaries of fashion?” 33 As the director of phase 2 design, Kim Young-joon recognizes the need for a fresh approach. Whereas the first phase was characterized by the collection of independent buildings, the second adheres to what he calls “field architecture.” Seventeen experienced “field block” architects, each responsible for six to seven buildings, are in turn assigned to supervise a minimum of three architects, preferably young designers with international practices. This phase is less about the “building typologies” that define a “landscape script” and more about “collective form.” The blocks are meant to have consistency and intensity. “If you think about two or three buildings together,” Kim said, “you can think about edges differently.” He hopes the plan will encourage clients — grouped together through a lottery system — to share facilities and activate the spaces between buildings.

Left: Publishing company loading dock. [Photo by Shannon Mattern] Right: Booxen Book Distribution Center. [Photo by Yeong Ran Kim]

New industries and functions will require new programs and building forms. While publishing companies need offices, film companies require more dynamic, open and collaborative studio space. To accommodate the varying programs, Kim said, there will be separate publication, film and printing zones, with film companies and publishers in close proximity, and the printing facilities, which tend to generate noise and pollution, somewhat removed. The plans also leave space for larger cultural buildings — including a film library, a printing museum and a “Library of the Spirit,” which will house autobiographies — between the field blocks; these buildings would be offered to select architects who would be granted considerable design freedom. Meanwhile Kim’s team is focusing on making Bookcity a more livable city by enhancing public space, even as they run up against programmatic restrictions imposed by its industrial designation. They aim to push more of the parking underground to encourage more vibrant streets, and they hope to connect the development to surrounding areas. Seung is working on a nearby project, Eunjung New Town, that will include housing for 100,000 people. Because Eunjung — like most new towns — lacks character and variety, Seung hopes to create a “cultural corridor” linking it to Bookcity through hard and soft infrastructure.

The government agencies that are underwriting phase 2 have stipulated that construction be completed by June 2014, and Lee Hwan-Gu estimates that 80 percent of the buildings will meet the deadline. And beyond that, planners are looking ahead to phase 3. In keeping with his founding ideals, Yi Ki-ung envisions a city where both books and people are cultivated, or “farmed”; and so he has proposed in phase 3 to develop “Book Farm City,” which would merge publishing, newspapers, film, broadcasting, software and other media companies with public facilities like libraries and educational resources like research institutes. And “farming” is more than a metaphor; Yi and Kim Young-joon want to integrate actual farmland in the next phase of development. The area around Bookcity, Yi noted, is restricted by zoning to agricultural uses; meanwhile property prices have tripled, landowners dream of making big profits by selling their acreage to urban developers, and the provincial government stands to profit from real-estate transfer taxes. In response, Yi hopes to cultivate the region into what he calls “an absolute farmland” — a strategy that he argues will raise “land value,” if not prices. He imagines Book Farm City as part of a “cultural belt” outside Seoul, representing a space of exception, an inversion of the economic zone, where ethical values have more worth than financial value. His dream for the third phase will require government support and significant investment. For now, it’s simply a conceptual seed.

Wetlands, Paju Bookcity. [Photos by Yeong Ran Kim]

I must admit: when I first heard about Book Farm City, it all sounded very precious and twee — something straight out of Brooklyn or Portland — but ultimately I realized that they’re serious. What’s more, when you think about it, there is a case to made that there’s a natural harmony between the rhythms and ethos and public value of farming and media-making — between the cultivation of the earth and the cultivation of the intellect — and that the integration of these practices could potentially encourage a powerful model of sustainable development.

The Rigor of Print

As it plans for the future and nears the quarter-century mark, what are we to make of Paju Bookcity? How to understand its evolution from the late ’80s, the twilight years of the print era, to the splashy opening receptions, two decades later, in the digital-dominant new millennium? Frankly, the going has often been rough: as the founders and designers have acknowledged, Bookcity has had to negotiate between old and new media, old and new urban models, and old and new cultural values; it’s had to strike a balance between culture and commerce, word and image, public and private, past and future. Hyungmin Pai states the case bluntly:

If we consider the fact that it clearly lacks the intellectual and social interaction so basic to publishing culture, Paju Bookcity cannot yet be called a success. It is clearly not an active city.… Paju Bookcity, in its retreat to the outskirts of the city proper, may itself be perceived as a failure of the Korean metropolis. It may be deemed a defeat in the battle against the rising tide of mass electronic media and the forces of the real estate market. 34

Or maybe, as Kim Young-joon argues, we simply need to give it more time — more time for the urban “software” to be installed amid the celebrated architectural “hardware.”

But this installation will need to happen fast; some publishing companies are already wondering if Paju Bookcity provides enough efficiencies and other advantages of zone centralization to justify the relatively remote location. Chang Ki-young, the director of the Korean Electronic Publishing Association, which is located in Bookcity, is focused on the future formats of publishing; the Association has a support center that offers consultation to “old media” companies that want to move into electronic publishing; an education center that coaches new e-publishers on business strategy and digital production; and a certificate center to help e-publishers claim tax exemptions now extended to print publishers. “Bookcity looks great, but it’s not doing a great job of adapting to changes,” says Chang. “Recruiting a few media companies doesn’t guarantee its success.” More specifically, Chang doubts that Paju is prepared for a future in which, as he puts it, “analog media will need to merge with digital information technology.” 35

Paju Bookcity. [Photo by Yeong Ran Kim]

Perhaps better equipped to deal with these technological changes is the neighboring satellite city of Ilsan, where Yi Ki-ung had once hoped to locate Bookcity. According to Chang, Ilsan, which is relatively affluent, actually has more book companies and printing facilities than Paju, including smaller companies that can’t afford Bookcity real estate. The television networks MBC and SBS are located there, and a Digital Media Support Center is under construction. The Electronic Publishing Association itself has been considering a move to Ilsan to take advantage of the stronger, more adaptable digital infrastructure. Given the rapidly expanding market for e-publishing, Chang foresees nothing less than a massive “hegemony battle” between old and new media companies.

Which raises the crucial question: Is Paju Bookcity built to weather this battle? Will its print-centric infrastructure adapt to accommodate the digital future? If Ilsan has not just newer technology but also more book companies, then what distinguishes its more famous neighbor? For some observers — and I would agree with them — it’s the high design and the social mission. For others, it’s the real-estate value of that design and the ideology it embodies. But will those advantages survive as Bookcity confronts shifting markets and volatile technologies?

In the next phases of development, Bookcity could, as Kim Young-joon envisions, offer an ideal space for horizontal integration among media companies, fostering collaboration among old and new media — it could become a cultural incubator where publishers create content for filmmakers and game designers, and where folks from diverse industries explore new relationships among evolving media and experiment with new forms of collaboration. Or it could evolve in an alternative and more reflective direction. Chang sees the potential for Bookcity to become a living museum for publishing as a craft or social practice — books as a “culture” rather than an “industry.” As the publishing market becomes increasingly digital, he says, publishers will need to consider when a book needs to be in print. Those print-worthy projects could be Bookcity’s specialty.

Moveable Type Workshop, Paju Bookcity. [Photo by Jenn Pascoe]

It’s an intriguing prospect. The American writer and designer Craig Mod argues that, in the age of the iPad, “the books we print … need rigor. They need to be books where the object is embraced as a canvas by designer, publisher and writer.” 36 They must “embrace their physicality,” must be “confident in form and usage of material,” must “exploit the advantages of print,” and must be “built to last.” These same qualities could be said to describe the hardware — the architecture and the overall plan — of Paju Bookcity. It embraces its physical site and celebrates the character of its architectural materials, it reflects careful thought about the relationship between form and urban program, and it upholds sustainable approaches to development. Equally significant is the fact that these qualities are precisely what has been missing in Korean metropolitan areas and markets for the past several decades.

Given that media companies the world over are rushing (and struggling) to predict how impending technological developments will transform their industries, and given that the Korean publishing industry is about to face one of the most dramatic shifts in its history, it’s all but impossible to predict what role Bookcity will play in that reorganized landscape. It could develop into a hub for media research and education, for cross-industry collaboration, for experimental production driven more by the spirit of innovation than the pursuit of profit. It could be a bastion for the book, for the “rigor” of print, reflecting a dedication to Korea’s publishing history and the continued value of printing, on paper, those books that demand material manifestation. It could turn out to be a model of sustainable urban development or an example of the wrongheadedness of the “enclave” model of industrial zone urbanization. What new chapters will Bookcity add to Korea’s publishing, architectural and planning histories? The future is an open book.

Author's Note

Thanks to the Korea Foundation for making possible my fieldwork in Paju Bookcity, and to the Provost’s Office at The New School, whose Faculty Development Fund supported my translator and research assistant, Yeong Ran Kim. Without Ran I never would have heard the myriad stories behind Bookcity, and wouldn’t be able to share them with you here.

  1. Edwin Heathcote, “A City Dedicated to Books and Print,” Financial Times, August 21, 2009.
  2. Chico Harlan, “In South Korean Classrooms, Digital Textbook Revolution Meets Some Resistance,” Washington Post, March 24, 2012. See also Andrew Richard Albanese, “South Korea Takes on the E-Book,” Publishers’ Weekly 256:50 (2009): 21.
  3. Much of the material in this section is drawn from Won-Yong Kwon and Kwang-Joong Kim, “Introduction,” Urban Management in Seoul: Policy Issues & Responses (Seoul: Seoul Development Institute, 2001): 1-14.
  4. Tim Abrahams, “Paju Book City, South Korea,” Blueprint (December 2006): 57.
  5. Kwon and Kim, 6. See also Yi Ki-ung, “About Bookcity,”
  6. Ken Belson and Matt Richtel, “America’s Broadband Dream Is Alive in Korea,” New York Times, May 5, 2003.
  7. Planning Department of Bookcity Culture Foundation, The Story of Paju Bookcity: Through Wind and Rain: Past and Present of the Book Village (Paju, Gyonggi-do: Bookcity Culture Foundation, 2008): 29, 43.
  8. Chang-Ho Shin and Chang-Heum Byeon, “New Industrialization in Seoul: Industrial Restructuring and Strategic Responses.” In Urban Management in Seoul: Policy Issues & Responses: 129-30, 145. This section is also informed by a conversation with Baek Won Keun, July 19, 2012.
  9. Heathcote, op cit. Korean designer-theorist Hyungmin Pai presents an alternative view, arguing that Bookcity’s creation “stands between the authoritarian top-down process typical of Korean economic planning and the laissez-faire of private real estate development.” See Pai, “The Unfamiliar Boundaries of Paju Bookcity,” in Seung H-Sang, editor, Paju Bookcity Culturescape, trans. Ken I. Kim and Hyungmin Pai (Seoul: Kimoondang Publishing, 2010): 445.
  10. Paju Bookcity Architectural and Design Guidelines Team, 1999 – Florian Beigel, Min Hyun-sik, Seung H-sang, Kim Jong-kyu, Kim Young-joon. In Paju Bookcity Culturescape, 55.
  11. Seung H-sang, “Paju Bookcity and People Who Created Its Cultural Landscape.” In Paju Bookcity Culturescape, 31.
  12. Pai, 451.
  13. Conversation with Yi Ki-ung, July 24, 2012.
  14. Baek Won-keun, “Paju Book City: Korea’s Mecca of Publishing,” Koreana 17:3 (Autumn 2003): 33. Also, conversation with Bookcity Managing Director Lee Hwan-Gu, July 25, 2012.
  15. Yi Ki-ung, “About Bookcity.”
  16. See “Future Of Book City,” See also Planning Department of Bookcity Culture Foundation, 91
  17. Yi Ki-ung, “About Book City.”
  18. Florian Beigel and Philip Christou, “Paju Book and Media City, near Seoul, Korea,” Topos 57 (2006): 42. See also Beigel and Christou, “Paju Landscape Script,” In Paju Bookcity Culturescape, 43.
  19. Pai, 445.
  20. Conversations with Seung H-Sang, July 23, 2012, and Kim Young-joon, July 25, 2012. See also Andrew Yang, “Korea Boost,” Wallpaper 92 (October 2006): 360.
  21. Paju Bookcity Architectural and Design Guidelines Team, 1999, op cit., 57.
  22. Pai, 449.
  23. Beigel and Christou, “Paju Book and Media City, near Seoul, Korea,” 42.
  24. Florian Beigel and Philip Christou / Architecture Research Unit, “Designing the Rug and Not the Picnic: Paju Landscape Script, Paju Book City, Seoul, Korea, 1999 – Present,” in Mohsen Mostafavi and Ciro Najle, editors, Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape (Architectural Association, 2003): 80.
  25. Jonathan Bach, “Modernity and the Urban Imagination in Economic Zones,” Theory, Culture and Society 28:5 (2011): 109-10.
  26. Pai, 445.
  27. MVRDV’s “Vertical Village” exhibition, which I saw in Seoul, addresses the problem of “block attack” in Asian cities and proposes design alternatives.
  28. Keller Easterling, “Zone: The Spatial Softwares of Extrastatecraft,” Places, June 11, 2012.
  29. Peter Fritzsche, Reading Berlin 1900 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996); David Henkin, City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1938 [1966]); Rose Marie San Juan, Rome: A City Out of Print (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001); Bronwen Wilson, The World in Venice: Print, the City, and Early Modern Identity (Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2005).
  30. Mike Yamamoto and Desiree Everts, editors, “South Korea’s Digital Dynasty,” c|net, June 23 2004.
  31. Andrew Eungi Kim and Mi Kyeng Jeong, “Technological Diffusion, Internet Use and Digital Divide in South Korea,” Korea Observer 41:1 (Spring 2010): 31-52.
  32. Dong-Hee Shin, “Ubiquitous City: Urban Technologies, Urban Infrastructure and Urban Informatics,” Journal of Information Science 35:5 (2009): 516. See also Anthony M. Townsend, “Seoul: Birth of a Broadband Metropolis,” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 34 (2007): 396-413.
  33. Pai, 449.
  34. Pai, 451.
  35. Conversation with Chang Ki-young, July 25, 2012.
  36. Craig Mod, “Books in the Age of the iPad,” @craigmod, March 2010.
Shannon Mattern, “Paju Bookcity: The Next Chapter,” Places Journal, January 2013. Accessed 01 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 01.24.2013 at 16:24

    Great article. One typo:

    "General Park Jung-Hee, who seized power in a coup and ruled from 1961 to 1973"

    Correct year is 1979 - he was assassinated in Oct, 1979, leading to power vacuum until next year.

    [Thank you for the correction, which we've made. —Eds.]