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On a chilly, grey afternoon in Seoul, I took a wrong turn and found myself in a hotel that wasn’t a hotel.

I’d spent the morning wandering about the South Korean capital’s hyperactive Gangnam-gu ward, a business and entertainment district south of the Han River. My entry point was the curiously named Teheran-ro or “Teheran Boulevard", christened so after the mayor of the Iranian capital visited the city in 1977.

The giant spider sculptures at the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art. Photo: David F Domagalski/500px.com/Davefranciszek

The high-tech doesn’t ease up above ground. Teheran-ro is one of Seoul’s many business hubs, and here, the tallest buildings don’t belong to banks or financial institutions but to video-game companies such as NCsoft (which occupies a massive chequerboard building right in the heart of the street).

I must have taken a meandering route, and in the grand tradition of a peripatetic wanderer, somehow sauntered from the high-rise businesses of Samseong-dong (no relation to the company) to the boutiques and shopping streets of Seoul’s “Beverly Hills": Apgujeong.

Also See | Trip planner/Seoul (PDF)

It was there, in one of Apgujeong’s side streets, that I found The Second Hotel.

The Cheonggyecheon strea. Photo: LWY/Wikimedia Commons

But the Second Hotel isn’t just a quirky store. It’s also an answer to a question that’s been bothering me since I landed in South Korea. When this city of 10 million people was declared the “World Design capital" and Unesco “City of Design" within the space of a few months in 2010, what exactly did that mean?

The title of “World Design Capital" (currently held by Helsinki) is bestowed biennially by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, an international NGO that promotes the industrial design profession. The award is more like being appointed brand ambassador than winning a rigorous competition—the choices are as political as they are analytical.

The ‘virtual’ supermarket below Teheran-ro. Photo: Krish Raghav

Part of that may be true, but there’s something deeper here. A trawl through Seoul is a walk through the world of modern design in all its eclectic glory. Seoul, in a way, is full of Second Hotels—unexpected, fiercely creative interventions in the fabric of everyday life. Design is becoming a lifestyle here, an innate characteristic of the city’s persona.

Like any interesting persona, this one has wildly opposite extremes. Less than a kilometre south of the Second Hotel is a building that looks like it’s carved into a tree. Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester’s Seoul store is covered in foliage, and sprinkled with moss. The building is almost... organic, with its fluid circular shapes, bamboo borders and green facade.

An example of Korean design—a bathroom slipper in Insadong

It’s there that you learn that Seoul always had a penchant for design.

In the 1390s, King Taejo, a former general who led a revolution and established the long-running Joseon dynasty, sent a group of advisers to scour the Korean countryside for a suitable spot to build a new capital city. The new capital would be a carefully designed one: both a statement of power by a fledgling new ruler and an experiment in structured urban layout.

Surrounded by mountains on three sides, and fed by the Han River on the south, Seoul was perfect in every way: The Geomancers who advised Taejo were convinced the site was “divinely blessed".

If you wander further eastward, you’ll find the latest embodiment of this new Seoul: a riotously multicoloured 105ft tower outside the Olympic Stadium, which was “constructed" in five days by 4,000 children. It’s the world’s tallest Lego tower, cobbled together with over half a million Lego bricks to commemorate the 80th birthday of the Danish company. As a landmark, it’s both an engineering marvel and a faintly ridiculous tribute. It may be a bit dubious as a permanent tourist attraction, but the Lego tower is a manifesto in plastic.

Seoul, a city founded on design, is now dreaming in it.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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