A Casual Digest of Seoul’s Colonial Architecture: Part 2
A Tale of Two Cities
August 31, 2021 ㅡ There is no question that both a strong sense of repudiation and apathy exists when it comes to colonial-era structures and it also runs through the public psyche of the Korean people. Putting aside the elderly gentleman who dismissed the Mikuni Apartment in Namsan-dong as nothing more than a place to meet up a friend, I encountered while photographing different colonial-era structures a young fellow speaking on the phone who wondered out loud why anybody would have interest in a dilapidated building that wasn’t even photogenic to his eyes. In his mind, the building was simply too old to be relevant anymore.
Built in 1906, Junghwajeon Hall, the main hall of Deoksugung Palace, was the hall in which major state affairs were conducted, official meetings held, and foreign envoys received.
When we consider the early modern architecture is what came to replace Korea’s beautiful, well-ordered Joseon-era city centers, hostility toward colonial artifacts is quite understandable. The Japanese occupation did in fact serve as a destructive force which dismantled more than just a handful of Joseon fortresses and dozens of royal structures in the three decades during which Korea’s traditional landscape was erased. Some scholars estimate that more than 90% of Joseon-era architecture was destroyed during the Japanese occupation. It then becomes rather poetic that South Korea’s industrialization has since obliterated the colonial buildings that were once so ubiquitous.
Post-Colonial Korea: A Look Back from the Future
However, there is a strong argument for preserving colonial-era buildings considering that much of Korea’s architectural heritage is reconstructed. Some Joseon Dynasty buildings are outright new, having been “reenacted” in the last decade or two, and these reconstructions — such as the Dongnae Eupseong Fortress in Busan, the restored roofs of Deoksugung Palace and the planned stone walkway nearby — are sometimes untrue to their original form let alone partially augmented or fabricated to fill the gaps of history. As such, they lack authenticity and run the risk of falling into revisionist historiography, or at least enabling a false representation of what the originals looked like.