A landmark’s latest incarnationWhen Koreans decide to put the past behind them and move on, they can be grand about it.
The new Seoul Station, which formally opened this week with the launch of the high-speed KTX train, is a reminder of that fact. A modern, sprawling glass-and-steel structure, it seems to suggest indefatigable dedication to the future, and marks a new stage in the evolution of a Korean landmark.
Seoul Station is redolent with history. In 1900, when the first station on the site was built, it was a humble wooden structure known as Namdaemun Station. There, King Gojong, the last emperor of the Joseon Dynasty, watched Korea’s first steam-engine train depart for the port city of Incheon.
As the capital’s population and the number of railway stations increased, the station was expanded in 1906. In 1915, the Japanese colonial government renamed it Gyeongseong Station, and soon began to reconstruct the building. The name Gyeong-seong, or Keijyo in Japanese, meant “colonized capital.”
Reconstructed by the colonial authorities, Gyeongseong Station was one of three major architectural symbols of Japanese rule in the city, along with the headquarters of the Japanese governor-general (demolished in 1995) and Gyeongseongbucheong, the colonial administrative building, now City Hall.
All three reflected European architectural influence, a gesture by which the Japanese meant both to intimidate the colony and to symbolically challenge Western powers.
At more than 7,000 pyeong (5.7 acres), three-story Gyeongseong Station was the second-largest railroad station in Asia (after Tokyo Station). Made with red bricks and gray granite, it featured ― and still features ― a large dome in the center, supported by pillars arranged in a square. The style evokes 16th-century Byzantine architecture, which was popular in the 19th century.
The original designs were the work of George de Lalande, a German; Yasusi Tsukamoto, a Tokyo University architect, took them to completion. The station was meant to resemble Tokyo Station, which was built by the godfather of Japanese architecture, Tatsuno Kingo, who in turn had been inspired by Amsterdam Station.
By the completion of its reconstruction in 1925, Gyeongseong Station was the center of Korean rail transit, connecting Seoul to Incheon, Busan, Sineuiju and Wonsan, in what is now North Korea.
The clock on the station’s central tower, affectionately nicknamed “Pabalma” or “messenger horse” by Koreans, became an important landmark, partly because few people could afford wristwatches in those days. Except for a brief period during the Korean War, the clock has been ticking for more than seven decades.
In 1947, two years after Korea was liberated from Japan, the station was renamed Seoul Station. Reclaiming the capital’s ancient name, it would become a symbol of modern Korea ― a gateway to fortune and the future.
It has meant many different things to many people. During and after the Korean War, it was a meeting place for separated families, friends and lovers. For droves of rural Koreans who emigrated to Seoul, it was their first experience of the city.
Like any major transit station in a fast-developing country, it attracted its share of petty criminals and prostitutes. In the tumultuous 1960s, the plaza in front of the station was the site of rallies held by students and military cadets. It has a place in the hearts of millions for whom it has been a stop on their way home for the holidays.
In 1981, the government designated it Historic Site No. 284. As of this week, the old Seoul Station houses a railroad museum; a discount shopping mall will open there in June.
Alongside the old station, the new one makes for a stark contrast.
In 1998, the architect Kim Woo-sung won a national competition to design the new station. Kim’s works in Korea include commercial buildings at Incheon International Airport and the Haeundae Beach area in Busan, but the milestone of his career to date has been Mokdong town in eastern Seoul, where he introduced the “urban design” concept to Korea in the early 1980s.
The station boasts a sleek, high-tech appearance both inside and out. The vast, sunlit lobby on the second level (the first level is where the tracks are) has a floor of pale, gray marble, above which steel ceilings arch like a gigantic bow. It brings the Incheon airport to mind. Signs in Korean and English are visible everywhere, as are timetables that flash between Korean, Chinese and English.
The multi-functional complex is the result of two years of planning and three years of construction steered by Archiplan, Mr. Kim’s firm. He says the project cost 85 trillion won ($71 million), and is meant to harmonize the old and the new.
The complex covers more than 28,000 pyeong, from a plaza connecting it to the old Seoul Station to the modern-looking train platforms below the bulk of the complex, where ticketing booths and other facilities can be found. A drugstore, lost-and-found, information center (whose staff speaks English) and ATMs are located on the second level.
On the third level is a food court, open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Other facilities, such as convenience stores, coffee shops, fast food restaurants (open from 6:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. daily) and restrooms, can be found on both levels. A parking structure accommodates more than 1,000 cars. Escalators descend to the subway platforms.
Catering to both transit passengers and office workers nearby, the complex also includes a Concos department store, a shopping arcade and a restaurant row on the top floor of the department store, which includes elegant but reasonably priced Chinese, Japanese and Korean restaurants. The Mugunghwa trains will depart from the second floor of the new station; the KTX, or high-speed trains, and the Samaeul trains will depart from the third floor.
A balance of old and new
The JoongAng Daily spoke with Kim Woo-sung, the new Seoul Station’s architect, in his office in southern Seoul about the project and about urban design in Korea.
What were your criteria in designing the station?
To maintain a harmonious balance of image between the existing station and the new one. The new station had to be modern and advanced in its functions, as it will be a meeting place for various kinds of people who will embrace the new generation of high-speed rail in Korea.
Where is your favorite spot in the complex?
The plaza between the old and new stations. It’s the most multifunctional place, and it has contrasts in architectural forms. In the beginning, some people were opposed to building a modern building next to the old station. They wanted me to build the same kind of building, with red bricks.
What was Korea like when you returned from the United States?
When I returned home [from studying], it was 1978. The most pertinent issue then was the housing problem in the city. It was the during the Park Chung Hee regime.
In the early ’80s, the government was trying out a new concept of urban design in Mokdong in eastern Seoul, and I worked on it. This new kind of complex was to have a balance of commercial, residential and public facilities, as well as regional heating and recycling systems. Along the complex was a park along the riverside, which was the first of its kind in Korea then.
What is the future of Korean homes?
Apartments have been enormously popular in Korea because of their conveniences, such as parking space, security and nearby shopping. Another popular form of residence has been what Koreans call villas. It’s actually “townhouse” in English. Townhouses have benefits of apartments and private homes, but are considered inconvenient, lacking commercial facilities. There will be a new type of townhouse with commercial and public facilities; they are being built in Eunpyeong-gu in northern Seoul, and Pangyo just outside Seoul. But to accommodate changing lifestyles, diversity in homes is needed.
What are the characteristics of your spaces, in your own words?
They are friendly, cozy, yet open. The interior is bright, and it is well-organized for people to move around in.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on Cheongnyangni Station, which is also one of the oldest railway stations in Korea. When completed, the complex will be five times bigger than Seoul Station. It’s due in 2008, and will be a major commercial center in the city.
by Ines Cho