A Receptacle of the Past

Inside the empty space that history almost forgot

Story by: Dianne Pineda-Kim

Photos by: Seong Jin Kim

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Wide, empty spaces, the cold, gray walls, the blending of red, yellow, and deep brown colors of imposing structures, and the eerily foreboding sense of melancholy surrounding the white cement blocks geometrically placed on the ground paint a post-apocalyptic image of the Mapo Oil Deposit. Its utilitarian buildings have stood the test of time and its hallowed halls have witnessed the rapid changing of South Korea, a young nation that was then still getting back on its feet after the effects of war.

 In 1978, the Korean government, in a bid to quell public anxiety about the country’s first oil crisis, which had begun five years prior, set out to build an oil reservoir near the lush Maebongsan Mountain. It was an unlikely location. Five towering oil tanks that held 69.07 million liters of oil flanked the little known yet vast and promising lands down the hill where residential compounds were beginning to sprout. Still, the industrial project was of significant use to the citizens of Seoul as it provided them with their monthly supply of oil. 

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A series of renewals

In 2000, South Korea was preparing for the Korea-Japan World Cup and began the construction of the Seoul World Cup Stadium in 2002. The Oil Depot beside it had to be closed down and oil transferred for the safety of the spectators during the festivities. After its demise, the facility was officially closed for about a decade, denying public access as it was deemed hazardous. 

 After the tanks served their purpose for 41 years, Seoul is ready to fill its empty receptacles once again with new life. In 2013, the Seoul Metropolitan Government hosted a contest encouraging citizens and experts to suggest how to revive the defunct industrial facility. 

This concept isn’t entirely new; the government has actively been seeking to restore old, inoperative places into spaces for families to enjoy. One prime example is Sewoon Sanga, considered the first modern residential commercial complex in Seoul that saw its boom in the 1960s. It was the go-to place for anyone looking to buy tools, metal, lights, electronics, and construction materials, and perhaps have their broken TV and radio transistors fixed. The worn down, obsolete place found it hard to keep up with the economic modernization of its sleeker, more posh, and urbanized counterparts like the business districts of Gangnam and Apgujeong. To remedy this, the government started a restoration project that transformed the old complex and sought young entrepreneurs with little to no capital, providing funds for their businesses to be located in Sewoon. Now, it is aptly called Maker City, a place for innovators and visitors to converge with the views of the Jongmyo Shrine and Namsan Tower.

The World Cup Park, now a collection of five eco-friendly parks, was also a product of a development plan that revamped a massive landfill that used to store Seoul’s immeasurable amounts of waste. Today, it has become a popular landmark with millions of visitors, with Haneul (Sky Park) the most photographed location for the Instagram-savvy youth.

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 From industrial facility to a culture park

 The reintroduction of the Mapo Oil District was made possible through the joint efforts of a government-approved design committee and a citizen planning group dubbed the “Exploration Team.” Now known as Oil Tank Culture Park, the existing five tanks were cleared of health hazards and reformed into an expansive community yard where regular outdoor market fairs, performances, and events are conducted. The tank that was once used to store petroleum was dismantled and magnificent glass walls and transparent roofs subsequently installed to transform it into a glass pavilion where visitors can look at the views from the inside out. The diesel tank became the venue for an indoor multi-use stage. The steel plates from the other tanks were preserved and used to construct a new building that houses a creative lab, lecture halls, conference rooms, a library, and a chic cafe. Then there’s the Story Hall, which holds exhibitions, digital information presentations, and remnants from the oil tank’s incredibly stunning makeover. The original appearance of the old pipes that used to be filled with oil, steel walls, and cold concrete still remain intact. 

The new face of the oil depot is proof that art can be designed from what seems like a void and that there is indeed beauty in abandoned places. It’s all thanks to the people who used their imagination to create something valuable in this once utilitarian space without carelessly erasing its narrative and the time it represented. The rusting steel became a harmonious alchemy of colors that fit perfectly within the green backdrop of the surrounding mountains. From its gray, echoing walls, rays of sunlight and a flurry of activity now emerge. 

Storied architecture, beautifully designed parks, and functional spaces have this uncanny ability to shape a community and make the people more engaged, feel secure, and excited to find another destination that enables them to escape the daily hustle of city life.

Location: 87, Jeungsan-ro Mapo-gu, Seoul Korea )661, Seongsan-dong)

Website: parks.seoul.go.kr/culturetank

Instagram: @culturetank

Sean Choi