14 May 2008

cityplan #4: gwanghwamun plaza

an ambitious project to restore a 600-year-old landmark and build a plaza to connect old and new seoul.

the other day i had a sad moment as i stood outside exit #7 of the city hall subway station. to my faaar left i could see where seoul's "great south gate" should be, and to my faaaaarther right was where the grand gwangwha gate marks the entrance to seoul's largest royal palace, gyeongbukgung.

in a city this massive, seeing the ancient capital's center and southern entrance gave me my bearings. but thanks to an arsonist and a shoddy reconstruction, both gates were hidden inside huge boxes of scaffolding. to my left and right were two of seoul's greatest treasures concealed from sight. of course it's nice they'll be back soon, but there's something sad about 600-year-old structures being rebuilt from scratch. anyhow, i guess that's what happens when wood meets... the japanese, crazy old men, korean dictators, etc.

dictator park chung-hee did a shitty job rebuilding gwanghwamun in 1963.

the gwangwhamun (gwangwha gate) was built in 1395, three years after king taejo moved korea's capital to seoul, thus founding the joseon dynasty. the gate marked the entrance to his royal palace (gyeongbukgung). in the ensuing six centuries plus 13 years, gwangwhamun has been through a lot:

gwangwhamun timeline:

1395: gwangwhamun is built by king taejo.

1592: 2 centuries after it's built, japan's hideyoshi destroys the gate, the palace and nearly every significant structure on the korean peninsula during his 7-year-long invasion.

although gyeongbuk palace and the gwangwha gate were yet to be rebuilt at the time of this map (1750), it shows the street that will become gwangwhamun plaza (click for larger).

1867: 275 years later king gojong rebuilds the gate and gyeongbuk palace.

the massive governor general's building was built to dwarf the administrative buildings of european colonial outposts in asia. where's the gate? (click for larger)

1926: while under japanese occupation, 85% of gyeongbuk palace's 330 buildings are destroyed. a huge administrative building for the japanese governor general is built behind the gate in a deliberate attempt to conceal what remains of the royal palace. gwangwhamun is moved, but ultimately spared, thanks in large part to the japanese art critic, yanagi muneyoshi.

an errant bomb scores a direct hit (click for larger).

1950: korea is liberated in 1945 but five years later the gate is almost totally destroyed during the korean war.

1963: the gate is rebuilt by dictator park chung-hee, but inferior materials are used.

1996: following considerable public debate, the governor general building is demolished. seen by many as a painful reminder of japanese imperialism, its removal coincides with plans to move the gate 14.5 m south, 10.9 m west and turned 5.6 degrees clockwise to its original location.

a colorful box encases the gate during its reconstruction. gyeongbuk palace and bugak mountain are in the background (click for larger).

2006: renovations on the gate begin and designs are accepted for the development of a large public plaza.

the city solicited design ideas from the public and these were the top 5 (click for larger).

april 2008: construction on the plaza begins.

two images of the plaza's final design. apparently there's a party (click for larger).

june 2009 the gate and a new plaza is scheduled for completion.
in its future iteration, gwangwhamun will meet a 3/4-kilometer long (740 meters) and 34-meter wide public plaza. by eliminating 6 of 16 lanes on one of seoul's busiest thoroughfares, city officials' plan is to connect seoul's grandest joseon-era palace to the recently restored cheonggye stream. the plaza will include water features (of course) and better views of the palace and bugak mountain. the goal is to improve seoul's livability and help it get onto the UNESCO historic city list.

two korean studs.

per usual, there's been some controversy. an impressive statue of admiral yi, korea's greatest naval hero, stands in a landscaped island in the middle of the street where the plaza will be built. a seated statue of korea's #1 monarch, king sejong, however, was removed and currently rests in deoksu palace. since the restored gate and the palace it protects are reminders of the joseon dynasty days and because the street leading up to gwangwhamun is named sejong-no (after the king), some say the statues should be swapped. current plans, however, are to leave yi be and move the king beside the plaza in front of the performing arts center that also bears his name.

in any event, in the next couple of years, the giant boxes that surround both gwangwhamun and sungnyemun will be removed and two of the grand bookends of central seoul will once again be revealed.


o said...

I don't have the books readily available, but I know from past research that Kwanghwa-mun was also once destroyed by Koreans themselves who were pissed off with the king for wasting money on making the gate more elaborate during the middle of a famine.

We were taught about this as a kind of counterpoint to the nationalism of the present day, where the identity of state, government, and nation are often conflated such that the Korean yuhaksaeng in class couldn't even contemplate that the peasants ("fellow Koreans" no doubt) felt no identification with the symbol of the state. It was an interesting lesson to say the least.

matt said...

this is fascinating and i'd love to learn more about it. thanks!

Jonith said...

are there plans for a state-of-the-art fire safety system and 24 hr security on the new gate?

bulgasari said...

Samuel Hawley's The Imjin War also points out that the palaces destroyed during the 1592 invasion were burned, not by the Japanese, but by the people of Seoul, who were pissed off that their king was fleeing and leaving them to fend for themselves.

matt said...

you don't say? i've had my eye on hawley's book for a while. time to pick it up. btw i often enjoy your historical blog posts.