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These photos, while — IMHO — still quite usable, also serve as a cautionary tale: CHECK YOUR DAMN ISO! I was taking indoor night photos the night before and set my camera on ISO 1600. I forgot to reset it.

OK, I went out again today, this time adjusting my ISO appropriately. And visited historic Joong Ang High School and Changdeokgung Palace’s Sinseonwonjeon Hall, too!

This calls for a full-fledged photo essay!

Located between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces, Bukchon, or “North Village,” is famous for having Seoul’s largest concentration of Korean hanok homes (and my office!). Due to its politically prime location, scenic surroundings and excellent feng shui, it has long been prized as a residential neighborhood. In the Joseon era, it was home to just a few large estates, but with Seoul’s population skyrocketing in the early 20th century, the area was divided up into smaller properties, upon which were built Korean hanok homes modified for crowded, urban spaces. This gives the neighborhood its distinctive, “sea of tile” look when seen from above.

Bukchon is not a folk village. It’s a residential district, traditionally home to Seoul’s “old money.” President Lee Myung-bak lived here prior to his election. In recent years, however, Seoul has focused a good deal of energy trying to maximize Bukchon’s tourist potential. Hanok have been renovated as guesthouses (like the beautiful Rakkojae), galleries, teashops and other commercial uses, but not without controversy (for fuller discussions of this, see here and here). Others have pointed to the problematic way in which hanok are restored. None of this seemed to have bothered UNESCO, which gave Seoul’s Hanok Restoration Project in Bukchon an Award of Distinction in the 2009 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards.

Views in an ‘Oppressively Bland’ City

Snow, Gyeongbokgung and Mt. Inwangsan

National Folk Museum of Korea

Bathhouse Smokestack

Just more depressing views in an “oppressively bland” city. The pagoda-like building, modeled on the Palsangjeon Hall of Beopjusa Temple, is the National Folk Museum of Korea.

Sea of Tile: #31 Gahoe-dong

#31 Gahoe-dong, Bukchon

This is #31 Gahoe-dong, seen from above. This gives you a real appreciation for how tightly packed the hanok home are — where one hanok ends, the next begins. Unlike rural, “traditional” hanok, roof eaves have been shortened to make better use of space. Still, each hanok has its own internal courtyard, which in terms of architecture are just as important as the buildings themselves.

For a fuller discussion of hanok architecture, see here.

The Western-style home on the top of the hill, BTW, is the Lee Jun-gu House, a colonial-era home built in 1938. Constructed of Kaesong granite and French tile, it is a good reminder that Bukchon is, properly understood, a piece of “modern cultural heritage.” Most of the homes, hanok included, were built in the 1920s and 1930s.

#31 Gahoe-dong, Bukchon

#31 Gahoe-dong, Bukchon

#31 Gahoe-dong, Bukchon

Bukchon Alley

#31 Gahoe-dong, Bukchon

Ah… lovely #31 Gahoe-dong. This is the most famous of Bukchon’s alleyways and one of Seoul’s most scenic locations. It’s often used as a filming location for films and TV. For info on more scenic spots in Bukchon, see here.

Bukchon Alley

Bukchon Alley

Bukchon Chimney and Roofs

Bukchon Chimney and Roofs

Door, Bukchon

Berries and Hanok, Bukchon

Bukchon… everywhere you turn, more views open up! That’s the beauty of the place — every angle offers something new.

A Little Colonial History

Old Colonial Japanese House

Old Colonial (?) Home, Bukchon

It ain’t all hanok in Bukchon. The top picture is a very typical Japanese-style residence from the colonial era. As for the Western-style house in the bottom picture, I have no idea what it was, although judging from the style of architecture and the beautiful masonry around the entrance and windows, I’d guess it was the home of a wealthy Japanese or perhaps a wealthy Korean.

Choong Ang High School

Main Hall, Joong Ang High School

Main Hall, Joong Ang High School

Main Hall, Joong Ang High School

Founded in 1908, Choong Ang High School is a beautiful piece of modern cultural heritage in Bukchon. The school, an important early example of Korean-owned private education, is closely associated with educator, journalist, businessman and politician Kim Song-su, whose controversial past we discussed here.

The Main Hall, seen above, was completed in 1937 and designed by Korean architect Park Dong-jin, a favorite of Kim’s and one of the first Koreans trained in Western architecture. Like pretty much everything else Park designed, including his other masterpiece, Korea University, the Main Hall is built in Tudor Gothic style — not the Tudor arch entrance and bay window.

West Hall, Joong Ang High School

East Hall, Joong Ang High School

East Hall, Joong Ang High School

East Hall, Joong Ang High School

Behind the Main all are two even older red brick buildings, the West and East Halls, completed in 1921 and 1923, respectively. These two beauties were designed by Seoul-based Japanese “colonial” architect Nakamura Yoshihei (better Wiki entries in Korean here and Japanese here) who left behind a substantial body of work in Korea, Manchuria and the Japanese city of Shizuoka. The websites/books say the halls are Gothic, and the pointed arches and red brick certainly give them a Victorian Gothic feel, but I also sense (although I couldn’t tell you why) a bit of the Art Nouveau found in Nakamura’s Vienna Secession masterpiece, the Cheondogyo Central Temple near Insa-dong.

Nakamura also designed the school’s original Main Hall in the same Gothic red brick fashion. Sadly, it was destroyed in the 1930′s, but it was a lovely building that you can see in the video here.

Changdeokgung Palace’s Sinseonwonjeon Hall

Changdeokgung Sinseonwonjeon Hall

Changdeokgung Sinseonwonjeon Hall

OK, so I’m walking in back of Choong Ang High School, and I spot this fairly large complex of Korean traditional buildings in the valley below. What the hell was this place?

As it would turn out, it’s the Sinseonwonjeon Hall, located in the far northwest corner of the Changdeokgung Palace grounds. As far as I know, it’s off-limits to tourists, but you can get a great view of it from Choong Ang High School’s sports field.

The Sinseonwonjeon, built by Sunjong in 1921, used to hold the official portraits of the Joseon kings, which were previously kept in older halls at Deoksugung and Changdeokgung palaces. Unfortunately, the portraits were destroyed in a fire in Busan, where they were moved, ironically enough, for safe-keeping during the Korean War.

Interestingly, the Sinseonwonjeon was built (not coincidentally, by the way) on the site of the Daebodan Altar, where the Joseon kings used to perform a rite of thanks to Ming China, which helped Korea during the Imjin War. Of course, this was slightly problematic after the Qing overthrew the Ming and invaded Korea in 1636 to, ahem, help the Korean government better adjust to this new reality. King Sukjong, however, built an altar anyway, choosing a remote palace location where the Qing could not enter.