For Francophiles, a New Home, NameHigh in a Seoul skyscraper, amid the downtown hustle of Seoul Station and the never-sleeps, carrots-to-coats Namdaemun market, a French cultural oasis settled into fresh quarters in mid-June.
"It's an alliance between the modern and traditional world," Andre Jover said, referring to the home of the French Institute.
Francophiles may remember the old French Culture Center. The interior was nondescript, but nevertheless, it was a beacon of French life in Korea.
Located near Gyeongbok Palace in the heart of the museum and gallery strip, the Culture Center attracted many gallery-hoppers. After viewing the latest exhibition at the Kukje Gallery, Keumho Art Hall or Gallery Hyundai, visitors would often make a point of dropping by the Center. There, they could read the latest French novel, browse the classic video collection or simply take in the French ambience.
"The building in Sagang-dong was getting old and we wanted a culture center for the 21st century," said Mr. Jover, the director of the French Institute.
They were unable to make the drastic changes necessary to become a modern facility since the institute rented its old site.
The Institute bought the 18th floor of the Woori Building and with the help of the architect firm D-P. J. & Partners, has created a brighter, larger and more high-tech home. They changed their name from the French Culture Center to the sleeker French Institute.
To step off the elevator on the building's 18th floor is to be caught in a futuristic tunnel, decorated with large metal rings and blue lights.
The new home for the institute features a modern mixture of aluminum, glass and Korean pine. D-P. J. & Partners also drew from Korean mystic symbols to create a design that hints at both modern technology and ancient mythology.
That futuristic tunnel leads to the "Mediatheque," or multi-media library. Korean geomancy symbols weave across the glass walls. At the library, members can use any of the sleek computers for up to two hours. The librar, has a collection of classic and modern literature, magazines, journals, movies on DVD and VHS, and classic and contemporary music.
A screening room stands next door to the library. The room seats 50 people and can be used show movies or hold lectures.
If hunger pains strike after an engrossing session of books and movies, a cafe sits nearby the library. The cafe is due to open soon, and crepes and juices will top its menu.
The new center is no longer at the heart of the art and culture scene. But it still aims to be the hub of French culture.
According to Mr. Jover, in no way has the mission of the center changed. Shortly after moving, the center helped organize a French film festival, continuing its tradition of promoting French culture.
Mr. Jover pulled out a chair in the screening room and sat down to talk to the JoongAng Ilbo English edition about his vision for the center and his passion for movies, especially French films.
Korea is his first real taste of East Asia. Mr. Jover moved here in February after a stint as the director of the French culture center in Turkey. "I had heard that the city of Ankara is Asia in Turkey, but Ankara is nothing like East Asia," he said.
While plans for this new center were already well under way long before he arrived in Korea, Mr. Jover will be the force behind the French Institute for at least three years.
IHT-JAI: How has moving affected the institute?
Jover: The new center is ready for the future, but the feeling behind the center is still the same. We're still trying to reach the Korean heart and to make this place a meeting ground for the French-speaking community.
IHT-JAI: What are the top three items on your agenda as director of the French Institute?
Jover: To make sure the center is at the forefront of modern technology. Guests can surf the Internet, watch DVDs, listen to CDs. Soon, we'll start hosting seminars. I also want to restart the movie club, known as Cine Club.
People can come into this conference room and watch movies. This large-screen TV doesn't evoke the same nostalgia as watching a 16mm film, but you have to move with the times. If there was enough room, I would install a machine to show classic 16mm films.
IHT-JAI: Why the nostalgia behind watching 16mm films?
Jover: Movies were a new wonder. You start watching and it takes you to another world. Then when the reel needs to be changed, someone starts playing music and you can hear people rushing to change the reels. It's romantic. My favorite was Ariane Mnouchkine's "1789."
IHT-JAI: Any plans to return to France soon?
Jover: I'm taking a summer vacation in mid-August. The first thing I'm going to do is tend my garden in Perpignan. Then maybe I'll see what's playing in the local cinema.
For more information, call 02-317-8500.
by Joe Yong-hee