When I first heard of Paju Bookcity, I imagined a wondrous bibliophilic paradise of human-scaled buildings with legible facades nestled side-by-side like volumes on a shelf. I pictured folks strolling down the sidewalk with their faces buried in thick novels, soft sunlight for reading, a light breeze that flutters pages and carries the smell of freshly brewed coffee.
When I traveled to the real Paju Bookcity, I found something else: it’s an industrial estate created for and by companies related to all aspects of book manufacturing — publishers, printers, distributors — sited a half-hour drive north of Seoul, in the marshes next to a highway near the Korean Demilitarized Zone. But if Bookcity is not the fairy tale I envisioned, it is a kind of Cinderella story: this is the industrial park remade. Rejecting the typical planning formula — a generic grid of nondescript buildings — Bookcity follows an “urban wetlands” master plan and features serious architecture by internationally prominent designers. How many industrial parks have served as backdrops for television commercials or fashion shoots, as happened at Paju during my visit this summer? “It is not hyperbole to claim that this is one of the most extraordinary and most unsung cultural and architectural developments in the world,” design critic Edwin Heathcote observed in 2009.  “The idea that a city, right now, [could] be dedicated solely to print and that an industrial estate could be a place of architectural pilgrimage could not be more heartening, more encouraging to anyone who delights in those very old information technologies — books and buildings.”