Nodeul Island is a small artificial island located near Seoul’s financial hub, Yeouido. It’s surrounded by the Han River that flows through the city and is filled with lush trees and open spaces. It’s fairly new but fans of Korean pop culture are already all too familiar with it, as the utopian business incubator Sandbox in the hit K-drama Start-Up.
In the show, Nodeul Island transforms into South Korea’s fictional Silicon Valley, where main character Seo Dal-mi (Bae Suzy) tries to fulfill her dreams. In real life, it’s the same for 29-year-old Lee So-ae. She’s a founding member of the city-planning start-up Urban Transformer, which shaped the island into what it is today, and continues to operate and manage its facilities. In late November, Lee was busy overseeing plans for the island’s bookstore, which will feature titles curated according to a certain theme.
“The advantage of Nodeul Island is that it is located at the heart of Seoul but at the same time, is surrounded by a natural environment,” Lee told VICE, beaming with pride.
“The island is in a city but doesn’t look like it’s in a city because of its beautiful natural environment. You can enjoy Seoul from a fresh viewpoint.”
In view from the island are the bright lights of Yeouido and iconic landmarks like Lotte World Tower, Seoul Tower, and the 63 Square Building.
While Sandbox is a tech hub, Nodeul Island is a cultural space with cafes, a bookstore, galleries, and music stages. It’s owned by the city of Seoul but Urban Transformer has operated it since 2018, after winning a competition to design the place in 2015. It officially opened in September last year and people are now rediscovering the island, which used to be a farm and was an abandoned piece of land for several decades.
K-pop band BTS recently shot a video there and popular programs, like the variety show Running Man and reality show Hangout with Yoo, have used it as a location too. Now it’s known for its appearance on Start-Up. While some parts were CGI’d, the production mostly filmed on location, inside the island’s buildings and on its many open areas. A pivotal scene in one of the episodes was shot on the Hangang Bridge that crosses the Han River.
Like other public spaces, the island also had to close its doors to the public for close to half of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic. While this meant shutting down establishments, it also allowed shows, like Start-Up, to film there long-term.
In the show, Sandbox is described as a place “started by successful entrepreneurs to help fledgling entrepreneurs.” In many ways, Nodeul Island is the same.
“I think the services we provide play a role of Sandbox,” Lee said. The island has Nodeul Live House for 456, a medium-scale stage for up-and-coming musicians to reach new audiences. They also plan to give members privileged access to a rehearsal studio.
“In Seoul, there are plenty of small halls and large halls for more than 1,000 people. But it’s not easy to find medium-scale spaces. We would like to be a stepping stone for underground artists to be able to grow,” Lee said.
The island also holds exhibitions with artists in residence and has spaces for writers, which they can use in exchange for a few pieces the island features online and exhibits offline, à la Shakespeare and Co.’s Tumbleweeds program.
“One of the participants published a book. The author thanked us and said ‘I was motivated to write the book by coming to this space regularly,’” Lee said.
Lee herself is one of these young creatives. Like Dal-mi from the show, she too works in a start-up. But she’d be the first to admit that places like Sandbox — which promises to “protect entrepreneurs from getting hurt even if they fall,” — are not real. Life is much harder.
“I think, in reality, there’s no such thing as Sandbox that can guarantee your security and set up a favorable environment,” Lee said. “Start-ups have to prove their abilities and persuade people all the time because many people think start-ups are young and inexperienced.”
“But we believed in our passion, ideas, and skills to do the project, despite our lack of experience. We decided to give it a try and ended up as the operator [of the island], step by step.”
She loves that her job lets her meet people with similar values that she can work with in making ideas come to life. As a founding member of Urban Transformer, she has watched a team of six people grow to nearly 20 in just five years. Together, they won a competition that landed them the Nodeul Island project. Right now, her priority is for the island to keep serving the public, while keeping it trendy high-quality — something that’s hard to come by in a city with many old-fashioned facilities.
“We don’t want to give up the quality merely because the island is a public space,” she said. “I wish there would be more such spaces in Seoul besides Nodeul Island. That’s my hope.”
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