More photos of the beautiful spring we experienced in Seoul. This is just pictures—so scroll through and enjoy!
More photos of the beautiful spring we experienced in Seoul. This is just pictures—so scroll through and enjoy!
Part 3 in the Daehangno District: Statues in Gardens of Arts Council of Korea
To one side of the park is The Arts Council of Korea (ARKO), housed in Arko Art Center (architecture by Kim Swoo-geun, 1977). Arko Art Center, which has become an important landmark in the Daehangno area, is one of the most representative works by Kim Swoo-geun, who wanted the building to be a “poem written with light and bricks”.
The building has exhibition spaces inside, where local artists of all kinds can have their works exhibited. There’s also a café, but I didn’t go into that.
An attractive garden surrounds two sides of the building and I found some fascinating outdoor sculptures in the garden, done by local artists. Here are two, as examples.
The first is called “Ecology Cycle”, 2005, by Lee Sangho (see below)
The second is “Outflowing Strength”, 1978, by Noh Jae Seung (see below)
Part 2 in Daehangno District, Seoul; Maronnier Park
Located on the former site of Seoul National University, Marronnier Park was opened in 1975 after the campus relocated to a new location in Gwanak and the area was redeveloped. I found a miniature replica of the university near the center of the park, which gives visitors an idea of what the area looked like before the university was moved.
Marronnier Park is named after many horse chestnut trees (marronniers) growing in the park (maronniers originated from the Mediterranean). The horse chestnut tree tradition began with three trees that were left when Seoul National University moved and most of the buildings were demolished.
This small park has become the center of Daehangno. It has pretty fountains, a large children’s playground and an open-air performance stage, used by street artists and young musicians or dancers. Every week, there are various different performances, both traditional and more modern. Many restaurants, galleries, museums and theaters cluster around the park and famous Daehangno Street starts from one corner of the park.
In the park is a coffee shop (where I stopped and it was very pleasant) and along the main street you’re very likely to see impromptu street stalls—the day I visited the park area, there was a large stall selling shoes, hundreds of shoes of all kinds, and many people were trying on shoes and buying.
You can also rent bicycles here (similar concept to the Vel’ibs in Paris), but I have to admit I would be way too afraid to try and ride in this traffic!
Daehangno District in Seoul
Get there on Metro Line 4, Hyehwa Station, exit 2.
Part 1: Introduction and Daehangno Street
Our Korean hosts at Seoul National University told us that the campus at Gwanak is relatively new and that it used to be located in Seoul city center. So, one day I decided to explore and find the original location. I did, and it turns out that this is a really interesting part of Seoul today—the center of performance culture, with a lovely park, and colorful murals.
Daehangno Street is the center of performance culture in Seoul, with over 150 small theaters. This area is called the “Play Mecca”, “Theater Mecca”, or “Young Street” as well. This is where you an enjoy theater and impromptu performances by young artists. Daehangno area bustles with people who come to enjoy plays or musicals or just to stroll along the streets and soak up the ambience, especially on car-free weekends. Not many performances are in English, but attending one can still be an enjoyable spectacle. There are also many restaurants, bars and movie theaters.
At first this district was popular with mainly the twenty-something crowd but now it attracts diverse age groups as well. Young people still dominate the scene, but more families with children and middle-aged couples are coming, due to the variety and abundance of attractions offered.
But the area was not originally planned as a theater district. Keijo Imperial University was located here, during the first half of the 20th century, when Korea was under Japanese occupation (Keijo, or Gyeongseong in Korean, was the colonial-era name of Seoul). When Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Seoul National University opened in its place. In 1975, the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and College of Law moved to its current Gwanak campus south of the Han River, and many of the school buildings were demolished.
But, the modern red brick building that had housed the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was spared, plus three horse chestnut trees (marronnier) that are still reminders of the former university site. A park was created at this site, which people began to call Marronnier Park.
More red brick buildings were built around the park, to complement the previous university building. These include Munye Theater (current Arko Arts Theater), which opened in 1981. In the 1980s, many theater groups started moving to Daehangno. At the same time, movie theaters, live-cafes, regular cafes and pubs sprung up and the area developed into a cultural and entertainment center.
When the Seoul Metropolitan Government officially adopted the name Daehangno in 1985, it hoped to create a global cultural destination like Montmartre in Paris, once the world’s mecca of modern art; or Tokyo’s fashion hotspot Harajuku; or London’s Piccadilly Circus. Daehangno has become a theater district widely known among performing artists around the world, so maybe the city’s ambitions did come true!
This small walled park of about 5 acres, on the edge of Insadong (probably Seoul’s most popular tourist district), is a useful place to sit and relax if you’re in the area for shopping, or visiting Jogyesa Temple or Unhyeongung Palalce. It’s also very popular with retired folk, especially men, who seem to gather there to chat and perhaps play a board game while listening to music on their radios. We’ve been into this park numerous times and it’s fun to sit and people watch. In spring, the leafy greenness is made even more beautiful with beds of bright flowering azaleas.
Besides being a tranquil pretty green oasis in the midst of busy Seoul, Tapgol also has a fair bit of history attached to it, some very old and some relatively recent and certainly not peaceful.
Opened in 1897, Tapgol Park was Seoul’s first western-style park, designed by King Gojong’s financial advisor, an Irishman called John McLeavy Brown.
At first it was known as Pagoda Park or Tapdong Park, named after a 15th-century relic—a 1467 stone pagoda from the Wongaksa Buddhist Temple once located here. Tap in Korean means pagoda. The Temple was destroyed in 1504 on the orders of a Confucian king. The 10-tier, 12-meter-high pagoda is a treasure of Buddhist art, but it’s a little hard to see the wonderful carvings through the glass cage around it (but definitely better to preserve it).
Another monument in the park is the tortoise stele Monument of Wongaksa (see above) built in 1471 to commemorate the founding of Wongaksa Temple in 1465. On the front and back are calligraphy and inscriptions recording the story. The turtle-shaped base is granite and the body is marble. Two intricately carved intertwined dragons, rising toward the sky holding a Buddhist gem, top the monument.
The park is also a symbol of Korean resistance to Japanese colonial rule. Historical note: Korea became a Japanese Protectorate in 1905 and a colony in 1910. Korea was liberated in 1945 after the surrender of the Japanese forces to the Allies. Korea never took well to Japanese colonial rule and by all accounts Japan tried hard to suppress all that was typically Korean. Hence the resistance.
On March 1, 1919, Euiam Son Byeong-hui (leader of Donghak church, and educator) and 32 others signed and read aloud a Declaration of Independence under the 8-sided Palgakjeong Pavilion (see above). This was the first public display of resistance to the Japanese and sparked the March 1st Movement. They were all arrested and sent to the infamous Seodaemum Prison (which we visited on our last trip. More on that later). Many people throughout Korea protested against this, but the samil (March 1) movement was ruthlessly suppressed and hundreds of independence fighters were killed and thousands arrested in the park. Ten bronze bas-relief murals in stone frames around one edge of the park depict the heroic, but unsuccessful, struggle. They are well done and very evocative of what happened then. I took photos of most of the panels, so you can tell they made a big impression.
Every March 1st, a memorial service is held here. You can read an English copy of the Declaration on the Memorial Plaque near the entrance to the park. Just inside the entrance is a large paved plaza, with the Memorial on the right. It has the Declaration and statues of two of the heroes. Just to the side is a bronze statue of Son Byeong-hui.
Park is open daily 6am-8pm and is free. Vendors outside sell souvenirs, flags, and snacks. There are clean public restrooms in the park.
Subway: Lines 1,3, or 5 to Jongno 3-ga Station and take exit 1.
All around Korea, we saw rocks, both large and small, obviously strategically placed in public gardens, small garden borders, and at entranceways. We asked about these, and it turns out that stones are a big part of Korean culture and history.
The Korean name for these shaped rocks is Suseok, also called viewing stones. Such stones are similar to Chinese scholars’ rocks and Japanese suiseki.
Suseok began as votive art over 3000 years ago, and began to be seen as worthy of scholars around a thousand years ago. Early on, important sites in the landscape were marked with shaped stones, similar to distance markers on post roads. Burial sites were also permanently marked by a large tumulus or mound, often surrounded by anthropomorphic-shaped stones, similar to those of Inuit memory markers.
This art form is usually on three scales: large installations of monumental shaped stones as ornamental gates or traditional entranceways; medium-sized shaped stones for landscape decoration within Korean gardens; and the smaller shaped stones for scholar’s tables, which was very important.
Suseok can be any color and a wide variety of sizes and shapes. In prehistoric times, Koreans worshipped nature, the sun, stars, water, rocks, stones, and trees. They especially believed that rocks had more power than water and other things in nature. So, the arrangement of rocks is considered one of the “essential” elements in designing a traditional Korean garden. Korean gardens are natural, informal, simple and unforced, aiming to blend with the natural world. Korean garden culture can be traced back more than 2,000 years. In recent years, 300 documents have been found, written during the Koryo (918-1392) and Choson (1392-1910) dynasties, that contain detailed records about traditional Korean gardens, many of which survive and can be visited today.
Koreans have recently rediscovered their stone garden tradition and there’s been a
revival of interest in rock arrangements in gardens.
We can also find smaller ceramic versions of scholar’s rocks cast in celadon, used as brush-holders; and water droppers for scholar’s calligraphy, especially in the shape of small mountains.
Enjoy these photos of examples we found on our last trip to Seoul.
Baekje Museum, Seoul
This is well worth a half-day’s visit, combined with a visit to the Monchontoseong Fortress and Olympic Park. The park has cafes and coffee shops, and the museum has a café and restaurant on the top floor (we had lunch up there).
Seoul Baekje Museum, which is dedicated to the ancient history and culture of the old capital city of the Baekje Kingdom, is a fairly new museum in Seoul. It is located inside Olympic Park, overlooking Monchontoseong Fortress, and has pretty lawns and gardens in front of it.
As I wrote about earlier, in the area of Songpa, south of the Han River in Seoul, are remains of the Baekje Kingdom and many relics from excavations there. These discoveries led researchers to believe that this area was a base for Baekje culture for a long period.
Seoul, the capital and heart of Korea today, was also for hundreds of years the capital of this ancient kingdom of Baekje. The Baekje Kingdom survived 678 years (18BC-660AD), and the capital was here for 493 years (18BC-475AD). Baekje moved its capital south to Gongju City in 475.
Many large settlements were already established in the Neolithic Age and their traces still can be found in the numerous areas including Poongnap Fortress, Mongchon Fortress and Seokchon-dong tomb complex. Since ancient times the Han River, running through Seoul City, has been an essential transport route and helped to create fertile farmlands along its banks. This allowed Seoul to become the industrial hub that was the stage for several wars during the Three Kingdom period (Baekje, Shilla and Goguryeo). In recent years, tens of thousands of Baekje-era relics were excavated from the Poongnap Fortress telling the hidden historic stories beneath them.
To systemically preserve those relics, to review the 2000-year history of Seoul, to lead research on further excavations and to act as an educational resource, the city established the Seoul Baekje Museum on a site overlooking the Mongchon Fortress in the Olympic Park. Construction started in 2004 and was completed in Oct 2010, but the museum only opened officially in April 2012. It’s an impressive museum, not only for what it showcases but also for the building itself, now a landmark in the park that has won numerous architecture awards.
The exterior of Seoul Baekje Museum resembles the outline of Mongchon earthen fortress, partly designed in the shape of a vessel to evoke the importance of the Baekje kingdom as a maritime powerhouse. They were skilled ship builders, crafting boats with a flat bottom and one sail (although some say there may have been two sails). The slanting feature of the building on one side represents a vessel in the ocean. Baekje developed its national power mainly by trading with China and Japan through the Hangang River and Yellow Sea. It is also designed to harmonize with the surroundings, thus the brown color and the grassed slope leading up to the roof garden.
The Seoul Baekje Museum showcases the long history of the region since the Paleolithic period, focusing on the Hanseong period of Baekje (18BC-475AD) in particular because this was the time when the area of present-day Seoul became the Baekje capital city. With its capital established along the Hangang (river) the Baekje flourished in this area, a fact that had powerful influences on neighboring countries.
There is lots of information in English alongside an engaging display of maps, models, artifacts and replicas, making the era come alive. The main point that emerges is that the Baekje culture was very advanced culturally.
The vast Lobby has a cross-section of the Pungnap Earthen Fortress, which is three-
floors high. A thin layer was taken from the 43-meter wide and 9-11-meter high fortress wall for this wall exhibit, and it’s displayed with a full-scale model of workers constructing an earth rampart.
Exhibition Hall 1 focuses on Prehistoric Civilization in the Seoul area and the Dawn of Baekje. This tells the story of Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and early Iron Age civilization in Seoul area, especially in the riparian area of the Hangang (river).
Exhibition Hall 2: Here the history of Baekje is displayed from its founding in this area and its growth over 495 years. Besides showing the life of the people at that time, it also describes how Baekje became a bigger power and interacted with China and Japan. One interesting exhibit is on how their tombs changed, from stone mound tombs to stone chamber tombs.
Exhibition Hall 3 shows the confrontation between the Three Kingdoms—Baekje, Goguryeo and Silla—and the history of the Baekje after the fall of its capital in Hanseoung and move to Gongju.
The museum is free and open daily 9am-7pm except Mondays and January 1st. The mayor of Seoul may also decide to close it periodically for special days.
You can get a self-guided audio tour for smart phones.
Mongchontoseong Fortress, in Olympic Park in Seoul
In the area of Songpa, south of the Han River in Seoul, are remains of the Baekje Kingdom, notably two earth-wall fortresses and many relics from excavations there.
Mongchontoseong Fortress is inside the Olympic Park, a very large green park with wilderness areas, lakes and other interesting features, the main one being the Fortress.
Take the subway to the station of the same name on Line 8 and follow signs to World Peace Gate. Once inside the park there are big boards with maps and information to guide you round.
The Korean people have lived through a history of division and then unity, followed by more division and then unity. In the past, the peninsula was divided into smaller states and then was re-united by whoever was in power.
As a very brief summary, the major kingdoms of the past were the Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla, which were then united into the United Silla Kingdom. This was later followed by the Goryeo Dynasty, and then the Joseon Dynasty. The Joseon Dynasty lasted around 500 years and was the last unified kingdom before the Japanese invasion in the early 1900s.
We wandered around the park and along the fortress walls, reading the information boards, and later went into the new Seoul Baekje Museum. As we did this we began to get an idea, a picture in our minds, of what this ancient place was.
In the Three Kingdom Period on the Korean peninsula, the Baekje Kingdom was centered around this area of the peninsula, along the Hanggang River, as it was called then. Its main city/town was known as Hangseong. Archaeological excavations and research from Samguksagi (the Historical Record of the Three Kingdoms) are proving that Baekje had two capital earthen fortresses (sometimes called castles). The first, Pungnaptoseoung to the north, was built in the early Baekje Kingdom before the 3rd century, and was an important center of marine transportation. The second, Mongchontoseong a little south of the first one, is thought to have been built under the reign of King Geunchogo after the 4th century and served as a high fortress overlooking the entire area in case of a war. It was built at the end of a natural slope extending from Namhansan Mountain, and the natural landscape of the Hanggang River was used as part of the wall. So, it was here that Baekje was able to lay its foundation as a powerful kingdom.
We didn’t actually go to the Pungnaptpseong Fortress, but learned that this was where 30,000 troops of Goguryeo (one of the other Kingdoms) under King Jangsu attacked Hanseong, Baekje in 475. It is said that the castle surrendered after the 7-day attack and that Baekje King Gaero (reigned 455-475), who was in the southern section of the castle, tried to escape to the west, but was killed.
But, we spent quite a while rambling around what’s left of the Mongchontoseong Earthen Fortress. The place attracts many visitors, as it is a significant historical site and is pretty with fields of canola flowers, barley and grass. There are many walking paths, and we saw numerous working Koreans taking advantage of this space to walk during their lunch break.
As you walk along the top of the now-grass-covered earth walls you get a good view out over the park and to modern Seoul and huge groups of apartment buildings. In this park, too, we saw a number of squirrels and pheasants, and heard many other birds.
The fortress/castle is a 2.3 km-long earth fortress wall (about 1.4 miles), in a roughly circular shape, the walls ranging between 6-40 m (about 20-131 feet) high. The area inside the castle walls is 216,000 square meters (about 54 acres). Songnaecheon Stream flows along the walls and serves as a moat. A pretty bridge crosses at one point. This is the Gommal Bridge (Gommal-Dari). “Gommal” means a bridge found in a dream village. “Gommal”, derived from the archaic “Ggummaul”, is an old Korean word for “Mongchon”. The information board explains that “this classical and beautiful Korean word was given to this bridge in March 1986.”
Laid outside the castle wall are wooden barricades. Houses and other buildings have been
found here, along with storage pits and a pond. Thousands of pieces of earthenware, Chinese-made porcelain, bone, armor, and such, have all been unearthed here.
At one spot in the center of the fortress enclosure you find an ancient site of dug-out huts and some old tombs remaining, with stone chambers and soil mounds typical of the early Baekje period (200-475 AD). They are closed off, so you cannot actually get into them, but you can see where and how they were situated. Also found in the area was a hearth proving pre-historic habitation, as well as stone tables, fragments of stone swords and Baekje earthenware. These discoveries led researchers to believe that this area was a base for Baekje culture for a long period.
The small Mongchon Museum of History on the north side has historical relics discovered during the excavation of Mongchontoseong Fortress and Pungnaptoseong Fortress. Notable are some precious golden relics of the Baekje kings, a seven-pronged sword called Chiljido (that testifies to the outstanding iron-smelting skills of the time), and many pots. The history of human settlement here goes way back. The museum is free and open daily, except Monday.
There is much more to see in the Seoul Baekje Museum, also in the Olympic Park. More on that later.
I explained about the Seoul Olympic Park and the World Peace Gate in the previous post. Here I’ll focus on a few of the other sculptures dotted around.
As I said before, over 200 sculptures are scattered on the sprawling lawns in the south part of the park, close to the SOMA Museum and Baekje Museum. They were designed and made by sculptors from around the world, and are a great way of showcasing many different ideas. It’s fun to just stroll, looking at the sculptures, admiring some and being perplexed about others. Many people also like to have a picnic near the sculptures. This also became a popular location for movie and commercial TV filming.
Here are a few of the sculptures that we picked out—all 200 are interesting in some way but these seemed more memorable to us. For some, we have pictures but no description, as we couldn’t find the information plaque.
Dialogue, 1987 by Mohand Amara, Algeria. The sculpture shows the value of dialogue between people overcoming barriers such as geography, language, culture and politics. The Algerian artist believes that “art can be a great way of communication, such as how he can connect with Koreans through his work. The two people in the sculpture listen to each other. The sculpture shows the artist’s belief that people are able to not only realize the existence of each other, but also to achieve self-realization and transcend themselves.”
Family, 1987, by Augustin Cardenas, Cuba. The sculpture shows a family tied with love by simplifying a couple and their child into a singe organic entity. “It interacts with the surrounding landscape by keeping the balance between the bottom part, where somewhat geometric supports are and the top part where the human figures are compressed within several volumes.”
Garden Game, 1988, by Kenneth Armitage, United Kingdom. The artist made the sculpture considering the Olympic park as a single garden. The sculpture resembles a white wall, so that it could complement the sunlight in the park. The vertical configuration of the three people occupying a space in the simple square frame, and the movement of arms and legs, give it an overall rhythm and unification.
Butterfly, 1988 by Horea Flamandu, Rumania
In 1988, twenty eight years ago, Seoul hosted the summer Olympics, a first for South Korea. Right now, Rio de Janeiro is hosting the summer Olympics, a first for Brazil (and South America).
Every Olympic city-host constructs stadiums, parks and other buildings for the games, for all the competitors and all the visitors. Seoul was no exception, as they were really proud hosts.
The Seoul Olympic Park was created in preparation for the 1988 Games, although large parts of it existed already, and many sports and music festivals are still held in the 6 stadiums dotted around the edge of the park. Many Seoul residents come here to relax and unwind regularly, and on the day we were there we saw many groups of city workers walking during their lunch break.
The Olympic Park, in the area of Songpa, south of the Han River, is a very large, green park with wilderness areas, lakes, a musical fountain, trails, bridges, wild flower garden, rose garden, and museums (Mongchon, SOMA Museum of Art, Baekje Museum, Olympic Museum). A massive 1.6-mile Baekje-dynasty earth fortification, called Mongchontoseong, built in the 3rd century AD, runs through the north part of the park and the Mongchon Museum has artifacts from the Baekje kings (more on all those later). On the east and south east side are attractions built for the Olympics: a swimming pool, tennis courts, three gymnasiums, and the velodrome. Outside the park is the enormous Olympic apartment complex.
The main entrance to the park is across an expansive plaza, called Peace Square, which leads to the World Peace Gate, which definitely qualifies as one of the Olympic statues/sculptures/structures. Beyond the World Peace Gate is the Flag Plaza, still flying the flags of the nations that attended the 1988 Olympics (South Africa was not one of them due to sanctions in place because of Apartheid). The plaza is ringed with fast food outlets, coffee shops, a convenience store, kiosks to rent bikes etc.
Over 200 sculptures are scattered on the sprawling lawns in the south part of the park, close to the SOMA Museum and Baekje Museum. They were designed and made by sculptors from around the world, and are a great way of showcasing many different ideas. It’s fun to just stroll, looking at the sculptures, admiring some and being perplexed about others. Many people also like to have a picnic near the sculptures. This also became a popular location for movie and commercial TV filming.
To get there: Take subway Line 2 (green) to Jamsil, and change to Line 8 (pink) and go to Mongchontoseong. Follow the exit 1 to Mongchontoseong Fortress/Peace Gate. The park is open 6am-10pm daily.
About the sculptures and special structures:
Here I will talk about the World Peace Gate and the pillar masks.
First, the stunning colorful World Peace Gate, started on December 31, 1986 and completed on August 31, 1988. This is the work of architect Kim Chung-up, who designed it to celebrate the spirit of the Seoul Olympic Games—peace and harmony—and also to symbolize the ability of the Korean people. This was the last work of the famous Korean architect (1922-May 1988). The steel-reinforced concrete structure beckons as soon as you exit the subway station—the pillars stand with “wings” that look like bird wings or outstretched arms, welcoming.
On the edge of the plaza, leading to the Gate, are 30 line pillar masks made by sculptor Seung-Taek Lee, a famous Korean interdisciplinary artist, born 1932. The bronze masks are mounted on stone pillars 3m/9ft 10inches high, which are also lamp posts, and are also meant to welcome people to the Gate. Most of them are interesting double-faces, some looking almost like the totem poles I spoke of earlier (see here https://vivskoreanadventures.wordpress.com/2016/08/07/totem-poles-in-korea/ )
The mural on the underside of the roof wings of the World Peace Gate is called “A Painting of Four Spirits”. Blue and red are used to symbolize Um and Yang, which is an oriental symbol of the universe and creativity.
Four spirits guard the gate. A red phoenix guards the south, a black turtle guards the north, a white tiger guards the west, and a blue dragon guards the east. The spirits are depicted as ascending towards heaven and signify the strength of Koreans and their freedom.
An eternal flame is underneath the gate, as well as a declaration of peace calling for world
harmony and happiness for all citizens of the world, regardless of ideology, race, or religion. The Korean people are very proud of this gate. And quite rightly so.
In the following post I will showcase some of the other sculptures.