Field Report: Heungbokjeon Hall at Gyeongbokgung, Seoul, South Korea (27 January 2020)

The architecture may be traditional and the atmosphere timeless, but the age of most buildings within the walls of Gyeongbokgung can be accounted for in years or decades – not centuries. Excepting a few original structures, this sprawling royal palace in the heart of Seoul is essentially a collection of 20th- and 21st-century replicas. That said, these aren’t just theme-park façades but meticulously assembled recreations, as close to the originals as modern craftsmanship can make them.

Today, we’ll take a look at the latest addition to the palace grounds: the newly rebuilt Heungbokjeon.

Monday, 27 January 2020. Cloudy. High of 8°C, low of 4°C.

Quite warm for this time of year – by Seoul standards anyway.

After flying back to Seoul from Jeollanam-do – click here to learn more about what I saw and did there – I walked north from my hotel towards the Gwanghwamun area, where I’d agreed to meet a couple of local friends for lunch.

En route, I paused to say hello to another friend of mine.

A sign next to the gate gave me pause. Yes, the translation’s accurate in a strictly literal sense, but one might characterise it as a little, hmm…

awkward.

No way? Rubbish.

YES way. 🙂

Next stop: an old-fashioned Seoul restaurant for some freshly grilled samgyeopsal.

Now I don’t usually eat like this when I’m on holiday. As an extremely introverted solo traveller, convenience stores and fast-food takeaways are my default options – mainly because I can bring any purchases back to my hotel room and dine in complete privacy. That said, I don’t often get the chance to meet up with these acquaintances of mine (different country and all that), and I’m not one to casually turn down a free meal when it’s offered. 🙂

After some postprandial conversation in a nearby café, I took my leave and headed north to one of my favourite landmarks in the Korean capital.

In another post, I explained why I keep coming back to this particular place:

I’ve been to Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung so many times, I can’t even say off-hand how many times I’ve gone there. And one of the things that keep drawing me back to this vast Joseon-era complex is the ongoing, almost mind-bogglingly colossal effort to rebuild the many palace structures destroyed in the early 20th century – a project that, year after year, yields something new for the dedicated repeat visitor.

I won’t burden the readership with a lengthy discourse about the palace’s history and architecture and all the rest of it, since that information is readily available on the official website and in my other Field Reports. Told briefly, the tale of Gyeongbokgung’s existence is one of repeated destruction and rebirth, which might be summarised as follows:

Construction begins in the 1390s -> More construction or reconstruction throughout the 1400s -> Large parts burn down in the mid-1500s -> All the rest of it burns down in 1592 during the Imjin Waeran -> The site sits empty and neglected for nearly 3 centuries -> A new, very different palace is built from 1865 to 1867 -> More building, burning down and rebuilding in the late 19th century -> Most surviving structures are torn down during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945) -> Reconstruction work begins in the 1990s and continues to this day.

I entered through Gwanghwamun, the palace’s main gate…

…and began making my way across the sprawling royal compound.

This is, of course, a very beautiful place with many beautiful buildings. Here’s a small selection of images from my previous visits, just to give you an idea of what lies within the palace walls. (You can see more pictures in the other posts I’ve written about Gyeongbokgung.)

Incidentally, the URL “withinstrikingdistance.wordpress.com” stamped on these pictures – as well as other older images reused in newer posts – is simply the former default address of this very blog (which now employs the custom domain “ittekuru.com”). In other words, they’re all mine – I haven’t stolen them from somewhere else. 🙂

For this latest visit, I had a specific target in mind and didn’t spend much time looking at the places shown above.

During a 2016 visit to Gyeongbokgung, I noticed that a large area had been fenced off just north of the Amisan garden, behind Gyotaejeon (the queen-consort’s residence). A peek through transparent windows in the fence showed a great deal of digging in progress, which I suspected was preparatory work for the reconstruction of another long-lost palace building – the one you now see at the centre of the satellite view below.

A year later, I swung by again and saw that new information boards had been posted on the fence. They were in Korean, but I knew enough hangeul to finally put a name to the building they were working on…

…which turned out to be Heungbokjeon (흥복전). This hall was built, or rather rebuilt, in the 1860s as part of the general reconstruction of Gyeongbokgung. Initially used as a residence for some of the palace women, Heungbokjeon later served as a royal office and as a venue for diplomatic receptions. It was disassembled in 1917 to provide materials for repair work at Changdeokgung, parts of which had been destroyed by fire. After detailed preparatory excavations were carried out in 2005-2006, and again from 2012, a traditional ceremony was held on the site in 2015 to mark the commencement of Heungbokjeon’s reconstruction.

To put things in the proper context, here’s an illustration of Gyeongbokgung as it once looked after its 19th century rebuilding. I’ve marked the location of Heungbokjeon with a red circle.

I took another peek in February 2018, by which time the building and its adjacent corridors were starting to take shape. Here are a couple of pictures showing the construction site as it looked back then; you’ll find more in the Field Report I wrote about that visit.

The projected completion date was December 2018, so I expected to see Heungbokjeon unveiled in all its glory when I paid another visit in February 2019. Alas, the compound was still fenced off and inaccessible, although it looked essentially complete with doors and tiled roofs installed.

I soon learned that between my 2018 and 2019 visits, officials were alerted to the fact that concrete had been used for some of the building work – a violation of guidelines stipulating that only materials historically used during the Joseon Era may be employed for the project. Here’s a January 2019 news clip with more details about what had taken place.

The faulty construction work had to be corrected of course, thus significantly delaying the building’s completion. Finally, in July 2019, the rebuilt Heungbokjeon compound was opened to visitors on a trial basis.

Fast-forward to January 2020. I was in Gyeongbokgung for the umpteenth time and eager to see the new addition for myself.

I began my approach from the southeast, walking northwards with the queen-consort’s residence on my left. In the following picture, you can see part of that compound’s wall – with its distinctive decorative brickwork – on the extreme left. The simpler, stone-cased wall that continues on from there is part of the Heungbokjeon enclosure.

I kept heading north, then turned west towards a grass-covered earthen platform. This marked the foundations of support buildings associated with Heungbokjeon that have not yet been reconstructed.

It was here that I finally got my first good look at Heungbokjeon – or at least its northern perimeter wall.

Before moving closer, I paused to study a nearby information panel and site diagram.

Right, enough reading.

More looking.

And there’s plenty to look at here, especially if you’re the sort of chap who takes delight in minute architectural details.

The doors in the northern wall were shut, so I walked around to the enclosure’s western side and entered the main courtyard from there.

Here we have Heungbokjeon proper: the large ceremonial hall at the heart of the compound.

Marvellous. A vision of beauty wrought in wood, tile, and stone.

But here’s a little secret: it’s not quite finished yet.

As we’ve seen in the gallery I posted earlier, most of Gyeongbokgung’s halls and pavilions are covered in rich, complex paintwork. Known as dancheong, this decorative colouring was applied to nearly everything within the palace walls, from the grand ceremonial structures to the gatehouses and watchtowers. The sole prominent exception (of which I’m aware) is the Geoncheonggung compound in the northern part of the grounds; this was the king and queen’s private residence and the buildings there were kept in a rather beautiful unpainted state.

The same lavish decorative work will eventually be applied to Heungbokjeon, although this has had to be put off for the moment (as explained in the following sign).

On one of my previous visits, I saw an image showing what’s expected to be Heungbokjeon’s final appearance, with its paintwork fully restored.

Interestingly, on purely aesthetic grounds, I think I’d rather keep the building just as it is. The hall looks breathtakingly beautiful with its exposed timbers coated in nothing more than honey-coloured varnish.

Still, the aim is to reconstruct Heungbokjeon exactly as it was, not as I or others would like it to be. And as one who favours historical accuracy in projects of this kind, I certainly support that worthy objective…

….though perhaps with just a hint of reluctance in this case!

Cheerio.

One response to “Field Report: Heungbokjeon Hall at Gyeongbokgung, Seoul, South Korea (27 January 2020)

  1. Pingback: Field Report: Reconstruction of Heungbokjeon at Gyeongbokgung, Seoul, South Korea (15 February 2018) | Within striking distance·

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