Subway stations are hardly the most glamorous places one can think of—musty air, bare lightbulbs, and busy commuters who never stay long. This rather dry image is set to vanish with time, and some stations in Seoul’s subway system have already done so. In stations such as Sangwolgok, Seongsu, Ssangmun, and more, an increasing number of people are beginning to linger as new attractions have been placed there for all to see and enjoy. Subway stations are undergoing a recent renovation boom to become underground culture centers; their transformations are set to continue.
Seoul’s subway system has over 300 stations and exactly 21 lines, most of which cross and most of which are not particularly interesting in the eyes of people who use them. The government has had other ideas regarding subway stations, however. Seoul has been planning a large-scale renovation on 11 of its stations, designating them as “theme stations” and providing appropriate activities there for citizens to participate in, whenever they wish.
▲ A mural in the Science Station. Photographed by Sohn Sumin.
These theme stations exist to utilize little-noticed spaces in everyday life and provide an educational and enjoyable respite for today’s busy citizens. Seven million commuters on average make use of Seoul’s subway stations each given day; Lee Young Hee of Seoul’s Transportation Policy Division explained that, “It seemed a waste to leave such spaces nondescript and purely functional.” She added that Seoul is looking to employ content srelated to the history of the stations’ surrounding communities to facilitate cultural activity and the local economy.
Theme stations include Ssangmun, Seongsu, and Noksapyeong, each from line four, two, and six, where the most commuters gather and thus, the most theme stations are clustered. The project is progressing smoothly; according to Lee, plans for Hyehwa station have already been set. Renovations are to begin within May and end within the year, and there is also a committee working on Anguk station on line three. Of the 11 stations, Sangwolgok and Seongsu are those closest to Korea University (KU) and both are open to any who wish to explore.
A Stroll Down Two Theme Stations
Sangwolg ok, a science-oriented number, was unveiled in March and is the newest theme station built. Stepping onto the platform, columns wrapped with high-resolution posters immediately alert the viewer to the presence of the newly constructed Science Station. The platform is actually a part of it, named the Story Zone. A quiz machine welcomes passersby to test their knowledge in science. Walking a few paces brings the viewer to the Bio Livinglab and Lecture Zone, where most of the heavy hitters, such as the Virtual Reality (VR) machine, are on display. Clearly meant to open the eyes of children to the wonders of science, the station is nevertheless seeking to expand its audience; presentations on careers in science are offered there, albeit less frequently.
Shoespot Seongsu is the name of Seongsu’s theme station, revealed to the public in November 2015; it makes good use of its notoriously long hallways as a shoe museum, one of whose sections are even named Guduseum. Displays of different shoe designs, each a unique one contributed by Seongsu’s best artisans, and the tasteful images of the information boards easily draw in the eye. The displays also provide an informative, as well as welcome, deviation from the daydreams or web surfing that often dominates the average citizens’ pilgrimage to work and back.
Both stations have been constructed considering what lies near them aboveground, or in Seongsu’s case, below the train tracks. Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) is only a five-minute walk away from Sangwolgok station, and Seongsu-dong has long been known for its shoemakers. Seongsu station has in particular made good use of the dominant trade in the area; a map in the station points to a series of shops set up below, collectively called from SS. A master shoemaker works in each shop, which sports plenty of windows to show off their craftsmanship, as well as to offer passersby a view into the world of shoemaking. The various tools actually used by shoemakers in the area can be seen Shoespot Seongsu’s exhibitions.
▲ Shoespot Seongsu. Photographed by Sohn Sumin.
A Work in Progress
It should be noted that, although Sangwolgok station is near Dongduk Woman’s University, there are not many exhibitions that appeal particularly strongly towards young adults. Yun Jungsu, a visitor of the Science Station, expressed only a brief interest in the exhibitions. “I can see the station was made with kids primarily in mind. Still, if it wants to keep older students— especially those who are not particularly interested in science—coming back, it might be difficult to do that with just the things they have now,” she said. The lack of a wider range of users may also have to do with location in the case of the Science Station. Viewers need to get past the turnstile in order to access the more interesting displays; to attract casual observers, using the wide and underused space around the central stairway may have worked better.
In the end, subway stations are meant to be passed through, and if travelers have learned something about the culture and specialties of the local area, then the theme station project has certainly achieved its goal. In this regard, they seem to be doing their jobs well overall. There are plenty of future plans to keep the stations reaping both cultural and economic benefits. Seoul will collaborate with corporations, organizations and individuals to make sure that the stations will be provided with new content; the Science Station aims to become a hub of technology, where innovations from the nearby Hongneung Biocluster area can be experienced. The problem of approachability still stands here, so advertisement may be key.
Being a relatively new project, theme stations may have some problems to eventually hammer out. Still, the benefits theme stations could bring are great, if subtle. In an increasingly busier world, it can simply be too tiring to make an effort and visit someplace far from one’s daily routine just to learn something new. It is an innovative move Seoul has made, building little pockets of culture and knowledge one is bound to come across in their daily routines—and hopefully one that will prove fulfilling in the end.