Life in Seoul is so relentlessly busy that it’s easy to forget that only 30 miles away lies one of the world’s most dangerous places, the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. But take the Freedom Highway north, and the high-rises give way to more of what you’d expect: razor wire, lookout posts and Ray-Banned South Korean soldiers.
Still, a surprise awaits off the highway about five kilometers from the DMZ, where the hilly, verdant landscape opens up on a village of architect-designed homes and studios for artists. This is Heyri Art Valley, whose denizens include several dozen of the nation’s most prominent photographers, artists, composers and intellectuals. The US equivalent would be as if Cy Twombly, Jeff Koons, Annie Leibovitz, John Williams and a Malcolm Gladwell or two had all bought property in a village in northern Montana and hired Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne to design their spaces.
Among the first to locate here was Bae Bien-u, one of Asia’s most noted photographers for his lush black & white images of gnarled pines in Gyeongju, Korea’s ancient capital. Bae first set eyes on Heyri in 2000, when most of the village still was in the planning stages. “As a landscape photographer, I fell in love with it,” he says. Now he splits his time between Seoul and here.
Other artists’ spaces include galleries of Park Yuna’s pottery and works of refurbished clothing, and the Pink House, where Ma Sook Hyun shows off his medium, Korean wildflowers in elemental settings of stones, vases and architecture.
A number of important Korean galleries, such as Seoul’s Keumsan Gallery, have set up shop in Heyri. Hwang Inyoung, perhaps the nation’s most beloved broadcaster, owns Camerata, where visitors can enjoy soft drinks and a rare indulgence in this busy country: time to relax listening to live or recorded music on a state-of-the-art sound system.
There are also a cinema cafés and the Book House, a book shop, concert hall, exhibition space and organic French restaurant, built of Indonesian merbau wood and cast-in-place concrete. It all makes for a delightful day out from the capital.
But what of that tiny problem of south-pointing missiles and that funny-haired dictator to the north? “Of course, everyone feels some insecurity over the distance from the border,” says Lee Sang, Heyri’s secretary general, “but from a security standpoint there’s no real difference between living in Seoul and living here.”
Perhaps the biggest perspective on cross-border tensions comes in the form of the Gyeonggi English Village, next door to Heyri, where students from all over South Korea come to learn English and the culture of English-speaking countries. No sane nation we know deliberately sends its children into a danger zone.