On the last of the 2007 Seoul Cultural Foundation walking tours of Seoul, we took a look at the area around Seoul Station.
I was really looking forward to take a look at the French Embassy, the Le Corbusier-esque masterpiece of Korean architect Kim Chung-up. Unfortunately, the embassy apparently wouldn’t open on a Sunday, so I’ll have to wait.
Old Seoul Station
What we did get, however, was a chance to wander inside old Seoul Station, which was a real treat.
Old Seoul Station was one of the two jewels of Japanese colonial architecture in Seoul, the other being the now departed Government-General Building.
Rail service came to Korea in 1899 with the opening of the Noryangjin-Incheon line. With the opening of the Hangang Railway Bridge in 1900, Seoul proper was linked up to Incheon, with Seoul’s first station being built in Seodaemun. In 1904, the Seoul-Busan line opened, and a new main terminal was built in Namdaemun. At this point, rapid rail development — and the growing war in China — necessitated a larger train station, so in June 1922, work began on the grand Keijo (Seoul) Station. Construction was completed in 1925.
Seoul Station was designed in Palladian fashion by Tokyo Imperial University professor Tsukamoto Yasushi, a student of Tatsuno Kingo, the man who designed Tokyo Station (and in Korea, the former headquarters of the Bank of Korea in Myeongdong). Seoul Station is supposedly modeled on Tokyo Station, which in turn is “rumored” to be modeled on Amsterdam Centraal Station, which would make Seoul Station a copy of a copy. Regardless, it’s a beautiful piece of Renaissance-style architecture, with its ornate decorations, Byzantine dome, Diocletian windows and rusticated lower floor.
Gotta love that Byzantine dome.
The front Diocletian window. The Diocletian window — a semicircular window divided into three parts by two vertical mullions — takes its name from the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, and are a common feature in Palladian architecture.
The main waiting hall of Seoul Station. Normally, you can’t enter Seoul Station, which is currently undergoing restoration for some yet to be decided future use. The main waiting hall is a very impressive basilica-like space. The stone for the pillars, coincidentally, were quarried in Seoul.
The tour group got to check out Seoul Station’s many offices and waiting rooms. Much of the interior is undergoing restoration, but it’s still clear that a lot of love got put into its construction. Intended as a symbol of Imperial Japan’s modernity and sophistication, the station was luxuriously appointed, down to the door handles and masonry on the stairwells. It’s all very evocative of the romance of the railroad of the 1920s. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than the old station restaurant on the 2nd floor (seen above), complete with chandeliers, a fireplace and Korea’s first wall radiators.
Another view of the Diocletian window.
If you’re into Lego — and really, who isn’t — somebody constructed a pretty cool model of Seoul Station using Lego blocks. Check it out.
The biggest problem facing old Seoul Station is that nobody quite knows what to do with it. Originally, the old station was supposed to be incorporated into the new Seoul Station, but in the end, that didn’t happen. Now, the station stands off to the side — “ostracized,” if you will — serving no apparent purpose whatsoever. As a protected historic building, it’s in no danger of being torn down, and work is being done to restore the interior, but no specific plans have been decided for its future use. On Nov 9, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Performing Arts Academy will be hosting a workshop to gather ideas on turning the station into a cultural space for exhibitions and performances.
Sohn Kee-chung Laurel Tree
The tree seen above, the Sohn Kee-chung laurel tree, has an interest story. As legend would have it, the tree was a gift to Sohn from German Chancellor Adolf Hitler — the laurel worn by Sohn during the medal ceremony was said to have been made from its leaves. Two trees were given — one was planted in Japan, and the other here. The one planted in Japan, however, supposedly dried up and died, while the one planted in Korea still thrives.
I have no idea if the story is true. And even if it is, I’ll let you read into it whatever meaning you like.
Yakhyeon Catholic Church
Yakhyeon Catholic Church was Korea’s first Western-style Catholic Church, completed in 1892.
A much more complete write-up on Yakhyeon Catholic Church can be found in this post from April. The church, built of red and black brick, was designed by French missionary Father Eugene-Jean Georges Coste in Gothic and Romanesque styles. This style would, in turn, become the model for many of Korea’s early churches.
Unfortunately, most of the church was destroyed when a drunken homeless man set it ablaze in 1998, and what you see is a reconstruction that was completed in 2000. Much care, however, went into ensuring the reconstruction remained as faithful to the original design as possible.
Korea Economic Daily Headquarters
The headquarters of the Korea Economic Daily, designed in 1993, is important because it was designed entirely by Korean architects at a time when most major projects like this were being awarded to Western architects (or, at the most, joint ventures).
It’s a pretty building — if you like the steel and glass sort of thing — and the newspaper editorial room is very efficiently designed. The group also got to check out the paper printing process… a smell that lasts with you the entire day.
The tour concluded at the Korea Foundation Cultural Center, located in the JoongAng Ilbo Building. No pictures, unfortunately — too much rain.