On a cold but lovely Friday morning in Seoul, blessed with clear skies and bright winter sunshine, Diego sets off on a long stroll through the historic centre of the Korean capital.
The day began in front of Seoul’s former City Hall, now the home of the Metropolitan Library.
Built in 1926 on the orders of the Japanese colonial authorities, this austere stone-clad building served as the seat of the city government from the post-war period all the way up to the early 21st century. Threatened with demolition when work began on a new City Hall, the structure was ultimately spared and gained a new lease on life as a centre of learning, with a collection of over 200,000 books filling its vast interior spaces.
Every winter – or so I’ve read – a large section of the plaza in front of the building is transformed into a temporary ice rink. The 2014 iteration was still under construction when I passed by, but preparations were well advanced and I wouldn’t be surprised if it opened within a few days of my visit.
Behind the colonial-era structure stands the new Seoul City Hall, which opened in 2012 to much fanfare … and a touch of controversy. Whilst the sinuous curves and soaring glass façade of this latest addition to the Seoul skyline are probably enough, by themselves, to raise a few eyebrows, the trouble had more to do with how the new building looked in relation to its predecessor.
Simply put: in the eyes of some, the new City Hall (a product of the might and wealth of modern-day Korea) looked like a tsunami poised to crash upon and sweep away the old City Hall (a symbol of Japan in its role as the peninsula’s unwelcome colonial overlord).
Given Korea’s fractious relationship with its neighbour, the implications are difficult to ignore, and passing by the two buildings I was certainly struck by how much the scene looked like what some people thought it looked like. Having said that, I’m in no position – and can’t possibly claim to have enough knowledge – to pass judgement one way or another, so whether this composition is merely an unfortunate coincidence or a concrete manifestation of a resurgent patriotism (or something else entirely) is a debate I’d rather not take part in.
Right then, let’s set all of that aside and return to what we came here to do … sightseeing, that is.
Stepping through the entrance of the new City Hall, I gaped at a massive wall of lush greenery that towered over me like a rain forest cliff. This vertical garden – the largest of its kind at the time of its completion – rises 7 storeys above the lobby floor, and is composed of 65,000 individual plants from 14 different species.
In contrast to the modern building’s airy, futuristic lobby, where the leafy garden and transparent front wall seemed to blur the line between outdoors and indoors…
…the interiors of the old City Hall still retained many elements of their pre-war grandeur, carefully preserved and integrated into the renewed fabric of its present-day role as a library.
Across the street from City Hall stands a much older seat of power, one that long antedates either of the buildings that rose from the ground mere steps away.
Begun as a prince’s mansion in the 15th century, Deoksugung became a full-fledged palace when King Seonjo made it his seat after the royal residences of Seoul were destroyed by Japanese invaders in 1592. It then served as a secondary palace for nearly three centuries, rising once more to become the monarch’s principal residence – then named Gyeongungung – in 1897 when King Gojong (later the Gwangmu Emperor) decreed the Kingdom of Joseon‘s transformation into the Empire of Korea. Another reversal of fortunes came a decade later, when Gojong abdicated and the palace became his home as former sovereign, at which time it assumed its present name of Deoksugung. In the decades that followed, various parts of the sprawling palace grounds were sold off and many buildings demolished, leaving the whittled-down but still impressive compound that remains today.
From the richly painted main gate, Daehanmun…
…to the lavishly decorated Junghwajeon throne hall, where the Korean monarch presided over state ceremonies and diplomatic receptions…
…to the many other residential and official structures elsewhere on the palace grounds, Deoksugung seemed to present the appearance of a staunchly traditional Korean palace, featuring the finest local workmanship and showcasing purely indigenous architecture.
Appearances can, of course, be deceiving … or at least slightly misleading. Since the Deoksugung that we see today is mainly the product of the early 20th century, when Korea was making efforts at modernisation and eagerly absorbing all manner of foreign influence, this palace – the principal royal residence of that time – could not completely escape the tide of Western culture that was rapidly making inroads throughout the empire.
This influence left its mark on Deoksugung in various ways. Sometimes subtle, as in the European-style light fixtures and curtain brackets added to an otherwise traditional-looking hall…
…and sometimes not so subtle, as expressed in the rather overtly Neoclassical architecture of Seokjojeon. Used by King Gojong as his private quarters and to host royal audiences, the hall – along with its western wing which was expanded later – was eventually pressed into service as an art museum.
Fixed to a stone pedestal in front of Seokjojeon is a replica of Angbuilgu, a type of sundial invented in 1434 when King Sejong the Great sat upon the throne. I couldn’t quite tell the current time with this device – sundials aren’t exactly standard in my corner of the world – but I would imagine that a trained eye could pick out a fairly accurate reading from the mesh of lines engraved upon the inside of the bowl.
Standing in the northern part of the palace compound is Jeonggwanheon, a pavilion for banquets and (interestingly) coffee-drinking sessions, built in 1900 to the designs of a Russian architect. Although chiefly Western in style, distinctly Korean elements were also incorporated into the decorative scheme. For example, images of bats – an auspicious animal associated with good fortune and longevity – appear quite prominently in the gold-painted panels surrounding the veranda.
Later, I rushed back towards the main gate to watch the regular Changing of the Guard. I’ve also seen this detailed re-enactment performed in front of Gyeongbokgung, but the one at Deoksugung seemed a bit grander and appeared to involve more soldiers (though this could have been just an impression made by the somewhat smaller setting).
Although serving more as a tourist attraction than for any practical purpose – arrows and halberds aren’t likely to stop your typical modern-day terrorist – I’ve read that the ceremony is a faithful recreation based on detailed historical research. It certainly seemed impressive and looked quite authentic to me (not that I would know for certain of course), with even the guards’ uniforms featuring rich textile patterns that suggest just how much attention to detail was paid by the organisers.
From here, I continued my sightseeing walk in a southerly direction, heading for one of Korea’s National Treasures – the very first, in fact, to be so designated. But let’s save that for another post.