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Seoul Station and its Environs

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.

Seoul Station

Seoul Station

Seoul Station

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.

Seoul Station

Gotta love that Byzantine dome.

Seoul Station

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.

Interior, Seoul Station

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.

Interior, Seoul Station

Interior, Seoul Station

Interior, Seoul Station

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.

Interior, Seoul Station

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

Sohn Kee-chung Laurel Tree

After Seoul Station, we popped by Sohn Kee-chung Park (formerly Yangjeong High School), dedicated to Sohn Kee-chung, who won the gold medal in the marathon at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

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

Yakhyeon Catholic Church

Interior, Yakhyeon Catholic Church 1

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

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.

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  • http://www.cominganarchy.com Curzon

    Seoul Station does indeed look quite a lot like Tokyo station, built at around the same time, although your pictures suggest that the Korean counterpart is much smaller and much nicer.

  • http://rjkoehler.com Robert Koehler

    I haven’t been to Tokyo, but judging from photos, it appears Tokyo Station was considerably larger. As for being nicer, I really couldn’t say. Seoul Station is nice, though.

    On a related note, though, some dispute the relationship between Tokyo Station and Amsterdam Centraal:

    The Tokyo Station building is often rumored to be fashioned after it, although there is little evidence to support the theory. Terunobu Fujimori, a scholar of the Western architecture, denied the rumor after studying the styles of Tokio’s station architect Tatsuno Kingo, as well as the building itself.


    No evidence, other than the fact that the two stations look oddly similar. Who knows, though.

  • http://www.korealawblog.com Brendon Carr (Korea Law Blog)

    The Korea Economic Daily building is really a pretty impressive building (albeit poorly managed by the newspaper company, rather than a building-management specialist). I’ve been in a zillion meetings over there and it’s a nice building — very progressive for 1993, that’s for sure.

  • tomojiro54

    “No evidence, other than the fact that the two stations look oddly similar. Who knows, though.”

    Two years ago, I saw an excellent documentary on the NHK about building Tokyo in the Meiji era. There was a German architect who became the advisor of the Meiji government and basically the city plan was developed by him, in which he wanted to fulfill his dreams which he couldn’t accomplished in Germany (he had the whole city of Tokyo as a white canvas before him. A rare occasion and a dream stage for an architect I suppose).

    Anyway, his plan was never fully accomplished but if my memory serves me correct, Tokyo station was alongside with Ginza and other places like Kasumigaseki, part of his plans which actually became real.

    I don’t know whether this explains the resemblance with the Amsterdam station ( I searched for a german name in the linked wikipedia article, but couldn’t find it).

    The stupid thing is I forgot the German architect name, and I can’t find any related information on the Japanese net.

    I even forgot the name of the NHK series. Really stupid!

  • http://rjkoehler.com Robert Koehler

    I believe it was Wilhelm Bockmann:


    Perhaps there really is something to Terunobu Fujimori’s theory (not that I actually know what said theory is). Looking at some some of the other buildings from the period, including the old Ministry of Justice building:


    and in Korea, the German-designed Keijo Post Office:


    it would seem the Japanese of the Meiji period (or at least the gaijin working for them) had a taste for Renaissance/neo-Baroque red brick buildings with black sort-of mansard roofs for their public buildings. At least in Korea, when Western architecture was first introduced, it was common for public buildings to all follow a common style (government offices in style A, Catholic churches in style B, missionary schools in style C, etc.), so as to make it easier for the public (which was totally unused to Western architecture) to recognize what the buildings were. It wouldn’t surprise me if something similar was at work in Japan.

    This place looks cool, BTW:


    A rare occasion and a dream stage for an architect I suppose

    Rare, but not as rare as you might think, especially in the colonial world. My favorite example, as mentioned on this blog, is the Eritrean capital of Asmara, which was built almost entirely in the 1930s by Mussolini. If you were a forward-minded architect, Asmara was the place to experiment. Hence, the downtown is one of the best collections of modernist architecture on the planet, including a ton of Art Deco:


    One of the things that’s kind of sad in the case of Korea is that the Japanese — or at least Japanese colonial administrators — never really got into the whole modernism thing. Korea ended up missing out on a lot of the architectural trends of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, so as a result, Korean architecture seems to go from neo-classical and neo-baroque straight to the ugly shit of the post-War period. No modernism, no futurism, no Art Deco, although this building in Daegu (built in 1939) seems quite adventurous:


  • http://www.wmga.net captbbq

    The problem with Seoul station is that it is surrounded by homeless and mentally ill, driving away tourists. I’ve seen lines of them huddled up next to each other, one of them having shit all over himself, and the others next to him. That had a smell all its own let me tell you.

    With all the church missions going overseas you’d think they would try to help these guys. They belong in a home.

  • http://populargusts.blogspot.com/ bulgasari

    Nice photos…

    Any idea where the train museum has gone? A student mentioned he’d gone there on the weekend, but assuming it was still at Seoul station I didn’t ask him where it was.

    When i went there in 2002 i saw a ticket from circa 1900 with hanja and english written on it, and was amused that i knew a number of the stations (still on line one) like sosa (which has moved) and bupyeong – though they had rather different romanization…

    I can’t help but think of this story from the war that features the station:

  • http://21cseonbi.blogspot.com sewing

    The old station’s interior appointments are fitting, considering that prior to WWII, it was possible to travel by train from Seoul all the way to Europe.


    Apparently it’s in Uiwang: see here or here.

  • http://21cseonbi.blogspot.com sewing

    Robert: I hear ya on the early modernist stuff, but how about the Midopa department store, or the building that serves as that City Hall annex across Taepyeongno from City Hall (you know, the one with the tower)?

  • http://21cseonbi.blogspot.com sewing

    …Or the City Hall itself, for that matter?

  • SomeguyinKorea

    God forbid that Kim Young-sam would have have inconvenienced by the demolition of Chongwadae instead of the Japanese General-Government Building in his symbolic attack on Colonial Japan.

  • http://rjkoehler.com Robert Koehler

    The “City Hall Annex” (actually, Seoul Metropolitan Council, and before that the National Assembly, and before that the National Theater) is a very modern design. Or at least it was when it was built.

    God forbid that Kim Young-sam would have have inconvenienced by the demolition of Chongwadae instead of the Japanese General-Government Building in his symbolic attack on Colonial Japan.

    OK, the rationale behind demolishing the Government-General building was probably dumb, and had the matter been handled today, it would have been done with much more prudence (the building probably would have been relocated elsewhere). That being said, as much as I love early modern architecture, something like the restoration of the Gyeongbokgung has to take precedence. I seriously doubt all the restoration work being done (or that will be done) in the Gwanghwamun area would be possible with the old Government-General building standing in the way.

  • dogbertt

    I haven’t been to Tokyo

    That’s taking the whole “gone native” thing a bit too far, doncha think?

  • http://rjkoehler.com Robert Koehler

    Well, I’ve been to Kyoto and Nara. Loved Kyoto, in fact.

  • dogbertt

    Just teasing….I recall your excellent travelogue postings on both.

    I’d love to see your pictures of Tokyo if you do go.

  • SomeguyinKorea

    “OK, the rationale behind demolishing the Government-General building was probably dumb…”

    Only if it is the truth. I’d be willing to bet that the decision was motivated by politics. Remember, Kim Young-sam got elected because he merged his Peaceful Democracy Party with Roh Tae-woo’s Democratic Justice Party. I’d say he needed to do something dramatic to ensure that people would continue trusting him.

  • R Peter

    The entire central part of Old Seoul Station, especially the dome’s shape, is a 90% copy of the Lucerne, Switzerland, train station from 1896. Unfortunately it burned down in February 1971, and all that was left standing is the “Diocletian window”, now having been moved forward on the station forecourt, it forms a kind of triumph arch.

  • R Peter

    Here is the link to a contemporary video of the Lucerne fire, also showing old views of what the station building originally looked like.