In swampy countryside 30km north of Seoul, 4 sq. km has been turned over to the exclusive use of at least 400 publishers, printers, bookbinders, paper makers, designers, copyright negotiators and distributors.
Why, you may ask, would publishers want to be stuck together in a swamp outside Seoul? South Korea’s rapid economic growth (until recently, at least) is part of the reason. With the end of military rule in 1987, the once heavily controlled world of books suddenly produced dozens of small publishing houses.
Nurtured by nature: The Han River (top) and the highway to North Korea run alongside Paju Book City.
Paju Book City was the result of conversations in 1988 among eight leading publishers about the problems of distribution and storage, and the potential cost-saving benefits of sharing facilities.
An added incentive was the state’s participation. It provided the land and paid for infrastructure such as roads while the publishers financed the architecture. The governing mantra was decentralization. Korean architect Seung H-Sang persuaded the publishers that cutting-edge book publishing needed architecture worthy of it, and took them on an inspirational tour of Europe and the US. The publishers selected 30 Korean architecture firms and 10 others (including an American one, one Belgian, one Spanish, two Japanese and one Chinese firm) to execute the project.
Publishers of every kind of book in Korean, from computer manuals to fiction, poetry and coffee table tomes, work in these enviable surroundings. There are cafes, galleries, a few shops and rooms for writers-in-residence and staff who want to spend the night. State-of-the-art printing plants are lined along the highway. There is a communal distribution centre on an artificial hill. Publishing museums and a children’s book centre make Paju a worthwhile day trip from Seoul.
Set in what looks like randomness, the 200 buildings of wood, concrete, steel, stone and glass stand out against the blue slopes and peaks of Simhak Mountain. The Han River and the highway to nearby North Korea run alongside.
Knowing that he lacked urban planning experience, Seung contacted London-based Florian Beigel of the Architecture Research Unit (ARU) to develop the site’s master plan, with sustainable development as its driving theme.
To build the motorway, a stream was cut through the wetland fed by the rivers from Simhak Mountain, and this served to drain the water underground to the river. To further control flooding, ARU raised some of the land and cut corridors through it to drain more water. “The idea was to retain as much of the wetland as possible,” says Philip Christou, an ARU architect involved in the project.
The image that inspired Beigel and his team—apart from pictograms representing the Korean language—was a painting by Paul Klee: A Leaf From the Book of Cities (1928). “It looks like a page of pictograms with the sun and the horizon above it,” Christou says. They felt that was the best way to accommodate very different architectural styles.
Significantly, the Korean language uses the same word for “space” and “emptiness”. Paju Book City makes much of this philosophical notion, Christou says. “The Korean architects’ eyes would light up and they’d get excited when we talked about this concept that went back to Confucianism,” he says. “These are ancient ideas that had been neglected in the modern world—the Confucian belief that a cup is made up of the space within and not the object itself.”
It’s an outlook forcefully exploited in Paju Book City, where the large gaps between buildings offer breathtaking views of the river and the mountain. For Koreans, the natural world, like the printed word, is a language too.
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