Gyeongbokgung was nice, very nice indeed – in a straight-laced, straight-lined, right-angled sort of way. The neatly planned succession of gateways and courtyards strung along rigidly laid axes makes for an impressive statement of power and order, consistent with the sort of ground plan one might encounter in other East Asian palace complexes (the Forbidden City in Beijing, for example).
Nonetheless, a strong case can be made for the rustic charm of a rambling layout, which was what I encountered in another of Seoul’s sprawling royal residences.
Another trip on Seoul’s metro system brought me to the doors of Changdeokgung, said to be the best preserved amongst Seoul’s Five Grand Palaces. Begun in 1405, this palace complex shows less of the rigidity of its predecessor Gyeongbokgung, with fewer grand axes and a more fluid layout that better fits into the natural setting of its hilly site.
For all that, one mustn’t forget that this is still a royal palace, so I wasn’t surprised to encounter the usual series of gates and courtyards.
Like Gyeongbokgung, the first courtyard had a stone-walled stream running through it, although this one was allowed to retain hints of its natural bends and kinks.
The stream is crossed by Geumcheongyo, which dates from 1411 and is said to be the oldest extant stone bridge in Seoul.
This was followed by a rather oddly shaped, trapezoidal courtyard with three gates leading into (and out of) it. I entered by way of the first, Jinseonmun.
At the far end was another gate, Sukjangmun.
To the left of the path that cuts through this courtyard (rather than at the far end of it as one might expect from a more formally oriented palace) was a gate named Injeongmun, which brought me into a rectangular plaza.
Standing proudly above the paving stones . . .
. . . the stately throne hall of Injeongjeon presided over the Changdeokgung complex.
Note the interesting Western decorative features in the next image of the throne hall’s interior.
Electric lamps, parquet floors, curtained windows – a legacy, perhaps, of the Joseon kingdom’s brief attempt to Westernise as a newly minted empire (before Japan annexed the nation in 1910). It’s strikingly reminiscent of some photographs I’ve seen of the lost pre-war, Meiji-era Imperial Palace in Tōkyō, itself an East-West architectural blend (some might say hodgepodge) produced during Japan’s rush to modernise in the late 19th century.
Another look at the area surrounding the throne hall.
That distinctive blue roof in the previous photograph (the only roof with this colour in the palace) belongs to Seonjeongjeon, a smaller hall where the king met with members of his court to discuss matters of state. The Joseon equivalent, one might say, of the Oval Office.
To the east of Seonjeongjeon stands Huijeongdang, which originally served as the king’s private quarters but eventually became his principal office (Seonjeongjeon apparently being too small for this purpose).
At first glance, the building appears to be perfectly traditional in style . . .
But on closer inspection, one notices more than a touch of Western influence on its design.
The porte-cochère, for example: not something one often sees in front of purely traditional structures, but a common feature of 19th century Western mansions. I’ve seen this in Japan before, either on the ground or in old photographs, as part of palace buildings that were erected during the Meiji and Taishō period – not needed in earlier times but increasingly common with the advent of horse-drawn carriages and (later) automobiles.
A quick glance at the free (but very well made) palace guidebook provided the answer. Huijeongdang was, in fact, built to a purely traditional design, but this incarnation burned down in 1917 and was rebuilt in an entirely different style using materials pillaged from Gyeongbokgung. Considering the time when it was reconstructed – during which the colonial master, Japan, was itself rapidly modernising – it should come as no surprise that Western features would be incorporated into the building’s architecture.
Heading further east, I entered the area that once served as the residence of the crown prince. The building in the next shot was apparently used as a library.
Next, we’ll continue our tour of Changdeokgung by exploring its renowned “secret garden”.
To be continued.