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!
Our guide books on Seoul all mentioned the new City Hall in glowing words and especially mentioned the living wall. As one put it, “Seoul’s newest landmark is an eco-friendly building with the world’s largest indoor green wall.”
The Seoul Plaza in front of it is also touted as a special open space in the city, the symbolic center of the city, apparently able to handle gatherings of up to 100,000 people. One such gathering was during World Cup 2002, when thousands in Red Devil T-shirts gathered to cheer on the national team.
After reading that, how could we not go to see this new marvel?
So, one day we did, combining it with a visit to the Deoksugung Palace complex on the opposite side of the road.
The new City Hall is a very modern-looking building from the outside, a long rectangular shape with glass walls curved upwards and out. It rises like a wave suspended above the Seoul Plaza, in this distorted shape to accommodate the stocky historic old City Hall which is directly in front of it, now rather dwarfed by the sleek newcomer.
The old City Hall was built in 1926 under Japanese rule and was the administrative center from 1945 (after Korea was liberated from Japanese rule) until 2008. It has now been converted into the Seoul Metropolitan Library. The two city halls are connected by an elevated bridge, a symbol of the link between the city’s history and its future.
The Seoul Plaza is pretty with green lawns, flower beds and a fountain, but didn’t seem as large as we expected. Security in the new City Hall is tight and only people with security clearance can get beyond the front lobby, except on a very organized visiting loop. Visitors can enter the lobby and go up to the 8th floor for a view down and out, accessed via a special elevator. You can do this freely, and enjoy the art exhibition(s) up there too.
The Seoul City Hall is a government building in charge of the administrative affairs of the city. Yoo Keri of iArc won the design competition for the new building. Construction took 4 years and the new building opened in August 2012. The 13-story building is almost entirely covered with glazing and the sides are really interesting with angled “leaves” interspersed with curvaceous glass bubbles. Many say that the architects wanted to project an image of “future architecture”. In addition to office space, the multi-purpose building includes a number of cultural facilities, a rooftop garden terrace and a library.
The lush multi-story green wall acts as an enormous air filter and is a symbol of the city’s intention to adhere to sustainable development. The living wall is indeed huge and amazing, and we enjoyed the art exhibition on the 8th and 9th floors.
We thought the new city hall was really interesting, as a sleek modern contrast to some of the old buildings nearby. However, some of my Korean students, two of whom are urban planners, tell me that many Koreans do not like the design of the new building and that there has been a lot of controversy over it. I guess that’s the way of most new things.
Anyway, it’s still worth a look, and the Green Wall is impressive.
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.
A Happening Place: Gwanghwamun Square on a Saturday
***Please note: This has a lot of pictures—very nice ones, I think!
This 555-meter-long and 34-meter-wide square is in front of Gwanghwamun, the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace, and one of Seoul’s main landmarks. Behind the palace compound is the Bukhansan Mountain to the north. Statues of Admiral Yi Sun-shin (who repelled the Japanese invasions of the 1590s) and King Sejong (who created the Korean alphabet), the historical figures most respected by Koreans, are on the square.
Walking south, the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History is on your left, then the Embassy of the USA and embassies of Austria, Australia and Finland. On the right, the main feature is the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts.
This square is often a rallying point for different demonstrations and protests, so you’ll always see a large police presence—also because of the embassies along here. It’s a perfect place for shows and expos as well, as so many people pass by here.
We spent many hours wandering around here last Saturday and were fascinated to get a sample of the kinds of events that take place here. In spite of the poor air quality (the yellow dust was rated at an emergency level) there were still many activities happening on the square.
First, at the north end, we found an exhibition for World Book Day 2016. What a fun and important thing, to encourage reading. Kids were reading in an open tent; people could borrow books from a small library; various artists were decorating or illustrating large “books”; huge mock-ups of famous titles, a book ‘tower’ and a large blue elephant illustrated the theme. A young lady invited passers-by to write on a large board, so I added to the messages—some about books and reading, many about Seoul and experiences in Seoul.
Next we saw a lovely 3-storied pagoda with lions as corner pillars and fanciful creatures at the base. It’s not marked in our guidebooks, so we wondered if it was new. It looks real enough. But, turns out it’s a paper pagoda lantern, copied from Hwaeum-sa Temple’s stone pagoda (National Treasure no 35), made on a wire frame and filled in with Korean traditional papers. It took about 4 months to manufacture the lantern using traditional methods of Korean lantern-making. It emphasizes a traditional image and colors of an ancient relic, rather than splendid colors. The 4 lions playing the role of pillar symbolize the lion’s courage in protecting Buddhist doctrines. At each of the 4 edges of the lantern are fairies playing music as an offering to Buddha. It will be here and lit up from April 20-May 15, 2016, as part of the general festivities for Buddha’s Birthday this year—on May 14, and a pubic holiday in Korea. It’s an amazing structure and we never guessed at first that it wasn’t solid!
A little beyond that is the statue ofKing Sejong, and we discovered that below that is an underground Exhibition Hall, half devoted to King Sejong, his life and accomplishments, and the other half to Admiral Yi. We explored both of them and they are well worth an hour or so. There’s a small café down there too.
Next we came across a lot of white tent-stalls, and discovered they are part of an Integrative Medicine and Healthy Lifestyle Fair, which was on for the Friday and Saturday. It was fun to breeze through that, looking at some of the goods and ideas on offer (what we could understand anyway!).
The statue of Admiral Yi towers above the wide metro entrance ramp to Gwanghwamun Station, Line 5. That morning as we walked towards the statue we were very lucky to happen on some traditional Korean dancing near the metro entrance. A group of women dressed in white hanboks with either green or orange trimmings were performing a Ganggang Suwollae. This is a traditional round dance, performed at the time of a full moon, and is to bring hope for a good agricultural year. Three leaders sang as the only form of musical accompaniment and also guided some of the dancers. It was wonderful to watch the group circling, dividing into lines, flowing into an “S” shape, or forming a human arch.
At the southern tip, just beyond the statue of Admiral Yi on a tall pedestal with fountain jets at its base, is the tented Gwanghwamun Family Memorial Altar to commemorate the Sewol Ferry Disaster on April 16, 2014. Tragically, 304 people died, most of them school children on a field trip. Sadly, 9 have yet to be found. This Memorial has been here a while, and many people come to pay respects or add a yellow ribbon.
Who would have thought that in such a
relatively short distance we could experience so many different things and learn so much abut Korea!