Long a domain of excessive concrete and drab apartment blocks, Seoul is embarking on perhaps the most ambitious facelift in its 600-year-history, aimed at catapulting it into the top ranks of global cities in terms of architecture and image.

The International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) has praised Seoul's ongoing transformation, naming the city its Global Design Capital for 2010.

But critics wonder at the cost of the change and how much of what distinguishes Seoul will be destined for the wrecking ball.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, a telegenic politician up for re-election in June and seen as a possible contender in the 2012 presidential race, has staked his fortunes on the design plans he hopes will bring more business and tourism to the city.

Cities worldwide are entering an era of competition, Oh told Reuters. We need to have not only the technological and cost competitive edge, but more than anything, the competitive edge in attractiveness.

Under Oh's watch $100 million of the city's budget has been dedicated annually to initiatives such as the Han River Renaissance, which has spruced up the river bisecting the capital with dazzling evening light shows and fountain-spouting bridges.

The project will culminate in the construction of an arts facility on a river islet with a massive symphony hall and opera house, capped with an undulating, photovoltaic-ready roof.

Three artificial islands with conference centers are under construction as likely venues for the G20 summit of world leaders, which Seoul is slated to host in November.

North of the river, the city has broken ground on the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park, a cobalt-hued, wavelike edifice conceived by celebrated Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid that the city hopes to groom into a design industry center.

Elsewhere, renowned architect Daniel Libeskind is designing the Dreamhub, a mix of commercial and residential space in a cluster of towers that is supposed to evoke an ancient Korean crown, while a separate 640 meter (2,100 ft) skyscraper is in the works not far away that will overlook the Digital Media City, a zone dedicated to technology and digital content companies.

Oh says the initiatives will require investments running into the billions of dollars, but will give the city iconic structures that will define it in the way the Eiffel Tower symbolizes Paris.

The image of Seoul that we're making will have a tremendous value that can't be completely expressed in numbers, he said.


Critics of the changes point to a plaza in front of an ancient palace not far from Oh's offices in the city center as an example of how easily plans can go awry.

Gwanghwamun Square, a pedestrian plaza that opened last year in the middle of one of Seoul's busiest thoroughfares, has drawn fire from some quarters for being overly landscaped and its incongruous location in the middle of 12 lanes of traffic.

Nearby Pimatgol, a winding back alley of pubs that was a longtime refuge for dissidents and working-class drinkers, has been almost completely razed to make way for office blocks, leading the biggest newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, to accuse the government of pulling down living legacies too quickly.

Jo Hyun-shin, a professor at the Graduate School of Techno Design at Seoul's Kookmin University, says much of the controversy surrounding the government's design ideas stem from a lack of consultation, rooted in South Korea's authoritarian past.

The design policy here always takes place top-down from the government, without any reasonable process, so everything gets swept away without giving anyone time to think about their lives and how they might change, she said.

Conservationists also believe even the limited regulations governing development in the city are loosely followed.

All too often the city ignores the basic human rights of residents who may be affected by new planning and turns a blind eye to even significant breaches of construction laws, said David Kilburn, founder of Seoul heritage protection organization Kahoidong.com.

As the mayor gears up for a second four-year term in June, his design drive has been seized upon by his political opponents, who have accused him of ignoring more pressing issues like high property prices. But Oh insists this is vital to Seoul's future.

I believe a city is an organic creature; sometimes you need to change a certain area because you need to improve the living environment, Oh said.