Saturday was a particularly beautiful autumn day — so beautiful, in fact, that I could not in good conscience stay at home or the office.
So, off to the Changdeokgung Palace — the most beautiful of Seoul’s old royal palaces and a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage site — to snap photos for your viewing pleasure.
This 80-shot photo essay will cover Cheondogyo Central Temple, Unhyeongung Palace and Unhyeongung Yanggwan, SPACE Headquarters and Changdeokgung Palace. If you’d prefer to see the Flickr photo set, click here. Or if slideshows are your thing, click here.
Cheondogyo Central Temple
Cheondogyo Central Temple, the central place of worship of the Korean indigenous religion of Cheondogyo, is one of Korea’s most impressive pieces of early modern architecture. When it was completed in 1921, it was one of Seoul’s three greatest buildings. The temple, built in Vienna Secession-style (a branch of Art Nouveau originally led by painter Gustav Klimt), was designed by Japanese colonial architect Nakamura Yoshihei and built by Chinese masons.
For a more complete write-up on the temple, see this post from May.
Anyway, this time around, I was able to go inside and snap away. The main hall is quite impressive and worth entering — it’s a massive open space, with no pillars to hold up the ornate roof. The engravings and stained glass represent Korean traditional motifs such as birch blossoms and Mugunghwa flowers. You can also pick up — for free, and in English — booklets explaining the tenets of the Cheondogyo faith.
Minga Daheon (Min’s Club)
Designed by Park Gil-ryong and constructed in 1930s as the home of Min Ik-du, Minga Daheon — now a very good fusion restaurant — shows well the transformation of the hanok as Western and Japanese architectural concepts made their way into Korean traditional architecture.
Again, for a more complete write-up, see this post from May.
The neo-Baroque Unhyeongun Yanggwan (Western-style Hall of the Unhyeongung Palace) was built in 1912 as the home of Yi Jun-yong, the grandson of Heungseon Daewongun. When he died, the home was given to Prince Yi Wu, who had the distinct misfortune of having been a lieutenant general in the Imperial Japanese Army stationed in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped on Aug 6, 1945. The building is now owned by Duksung Women’s University.
The garden area around the Yanggwan, which is actually separate from the Unhyeongung Palace itself and approached via a gate just past the palace complex, is a pleasant place to stroll about. There’s a small Western/Japanese style pavilion left over from the colonial period as well.
The Unhyeongung Palace was not really a “palace,” per se, although King Gojong did live there until the age of 12 (1863), when he ascended the throne and moved to Changdeokgung Palace. The residence is more notable as the home of Heungseon Daewongun, the conservative prince regent who was the effective ruler of Korea during Gojong’s minority and for a good time afterwards.
The palace, built between 1863 and 1873, was a typical upper-class Korean home until Gojong took the throne and the residence was greatly expanded. During Heungseon Daewongun’s decade-long regency, Unhyeongung Palace was Korea’s real seat of power and the center of much drama and intrigue as Joseon Korea attempted to modernize and reform in the face of imperial threats from overseas.
Unlike the real palaces, don’t expect to see colorfully painted buildings and imposing throne rooms. Here, you’re treated to classic residential architecture of the late Joseon era, characterized by the rustic Confucian modesty so typical of the period. Particularly beautiful, IMHO, are the intricate designs on the “flower wall” (kkot dam) in the front courtyard.
SPACE Headquarters and SPACE Theater
Head up the street from Unhyeongung Palace towards Taepyeong-no and swing a right. Between the Hyundai Building and Changdeokgung Palace is the office of SPACE Group, the architectural firm founded by master architect Kim Swoo-geun (about whom you can read here, here and here). Kim designed the old headquarters, the brick building to the left (completed in 1971), while Chang Sea-young — the second SPACE Group president who, like Kim, died early at the age of 49 in 1996 — designed the new headquarters, the glass building to the right. The new headquarters was completed in 1997.
In addition to being a great architect, Kim Swoo-geun was a patron of the arts — in the basement of the SPACE Group headquarters is SPACE Theater, a small theater that Samulnori fans will probably recognize as the place where Kim Duk-soo got his start in 1978.
Seoul’s Bukchon neighborhood — which lies between the Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces, is home to Seoul’s largest collection of hanok homes. To really appreciate this area, you really should set aside an entire morning or afternoon — see this post for the whole write-up. I include it here because it was on the way and there’s a cool shot of Changdeokgung Palace to be taken from the entrance to Bukchon.
Changdeokgung Palace and the ‘Secret Garden’
The Changdeokgung Palace is the most beautiful of Seoul’s royal palaces, and the crown jewel of Joseon architecture and garden design. So lovely the place is, in fact, that it was registered in 1997 on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
The Changdeokgung Palace consists of the palace complex itself and a large garden — the Biwon (or Huwon), which was the exclusive pleasure garden of the Joseon royal family. Unless you’re willing to spend 15,000 won on the palace’s once-a-week “free tour” allowing you to walk around the complex at your own leisure, you need to join a tour group (in Korean, English, Japanese or Chinese) to see the place, and even then, some areas like the Nakseonjae Hall (where Crown Princess Bangja nee Princess Masako of Nashimoto died in 1989) are closed off unless you’ve joined a special tour for which you need to book a spot.
The first thing you’ll come across at Changdeokgung Palace is the imposing Donhwamun Gate, the oldest of Seoul’s palace gates, dating from a 1607 reconstruction. The gate is usually accompanied by throngs of tourists waiting for the start of one of the palace’s guided tours.
The Geumcheongyo Bridge is one of the oldest existent stone bridges in Seoul, built in 1411. The bridge is adorned with ornate carving of mythical animals who ward off evil and misfortune.
The Jinseonmun Gate, just past the Geumcheongyo Bridge, is the middle gate of the palace.
The massive Injeongjeon, an 1804 reconstruction, was the main throne hall of Changdeokgung Palace. Although it might appear to be a two-story structure, the interior is in fact a single space. Unlike the main throne hall of the Gyeongbokgung Palace, the Injeongjeon Hall sports a nifty parquet floor, along with electric lights and Western-style curtains, added to the palace in 1908.
The Huijeongdang Hall, the king’s bedchamber, eventually came to be used as the king’s office. The current structure, a 1920 reconstruction, uses materials brought to the palace when the Gangnyeongjeon Hall of Gyeongbokgung Palace was torn down. The interior is a mixture of Korean and Western elements, indicative of Joseon’s belated efforts at modernization. Just across from the hall, coincidentally, is the royal garage, which holds, among other things, King Sunjong’s Ford and Cadillac and King Gojong’s French-built carriage.
The Daejojeon Hall was the queen’s bedchamber and royal living quarters. The building dates from a 1920 reconstruction, and as a result merges Korean and Western elements, at least in the interior.
You can tell it’s the queen’s bedchamber because it lacks the ridge along the roof — the ridge, called a yongmaru, means “dragon’s spine,” and the dragon was the symbol of the king. You can see this in the queen’s bedchamber buildings of the other palaces as well.
Like the “Amisan” behind the queen’s bedchamber at Gyeongbokgung Palace, behind the Daejojeon of Changdeokgung Palace is a hwagye, a terraced flower garden, decorated with rocks and brick chimneys decorated with ornate flower designs.
The walking path between the palace complex and the Biwon garden.
The Biwon, or Secret Garden, is more properly referred to as the Huwon (Rear Garden), Geumwon (Forbidden Garden) or Bukwon (North Garden). The landscaping on the garden dates back to the 15th century, and it usually considered the epitome of Korean traditional garden design. From the Cultural Properties of Seoul website:
The most outstanding landscaping achievement in the rear garden of Changdeokgung is seen in the area around Buyongji Pond. All of the buildings in the area of Buyongi Pond, which is square-shaped, merge naturally with the garden as its intimate and homogenous elements, and the garden itself is one with nature, forming a harmonious and organic whole. West of Buyongji Pond stands Sajeongbigak Pavilion, and in the south, Buyongjeong Pavilion is raised above the water. At the summit of the mountain beyond Buyongjeong Pavilion Tower, Juhamnu, a two-story pavilion, looms facing south. Several tiers of flowerbeds are arrayed in front of it. On the first tier of the terraced garden stands Eosumun Gate, the front gate to Juhamnu. Past this gate, as one climbs onto the second-floor deck of the pavilion tower, the entire landscape forms a panoramic view, including the pond and the pavilion below.
Buyongji Pond hosts a small islet with well-shaped pine trees, in the middle of it. The choice of the square form is in accordance with ancient cosmology, picturing the heavens as a circle, while the earth is symbolized by a square. Buyongji Pavilion is erected in the southern section of the pond, on two stone columns rising out of the water. On the wooden pillars of the pavilion hang vertical frames containing Buddhist teachings.
Biwon Garden puts on a different face for each season, and all are equally beautiful.
Just past the Buyongji Pond is another pond, the Aeryeonji Pond, which you enter by passing through a small stone gate — the Bullomun Gate — whose name promises eternal youth. On Saturday, the leaves of the maple trees here were quite striking.
Just past the pond is a residential complex modeled on the typical home of a Joseon-era country gentry. This complex, the Yeongyeongdang, was built by King Sunjo, who reigned from 1800 to 1834, as an office for his son, the Crown Prince Hyomyeong, who was entrusted with running state affairs in Sunjo’s stead at the age of 18. The idea behind the complex was to give the young prince a taste of rural gentry life. Unfortunately, the prince died three years later in 1830, and Sunjo would have to run the show until his death in 1834. The Yeongyeongdang is a beautiful piece of Joseon-era residential architecture, but unfortunately, it’s open only two days a week, and Saturday wasn’t one of them.
Just some more fall foliage at Changdeokgung Palace.
BONUS ROUND: Mt. Inwangsan
Since there was still plenty of light left after Changdeokgung, my walking companion and I took a taxi to the Inwang Skyway to snap photos of downtown Seoul. Enjoy.