At night, Seoul’s buildings come to lifeGeorge Gilmore, one of the first Protestant missionaries in Korea, described the night scenery of Seoul as “a city without a flame of light” in a book published in 1880.
Seoul has come a long way since Mr. Gilmore’s time.
Like music or art, light creates mood, and city lights have brought historical changes not to just Seoul’s nightlife, but the world’s.
Such lighting has stimulated people’s interest in music and arts. It has led to the advent of photography, the art of fireworks and illumination. It has expanded people’s social and working hours. For example, during the Industrial Revolution, lights were used to boost the productivity of workers by allowing factory owners to extend work hours.
Night lighting was first introduced by Louis XIV, who illuminated Paris’ side roads to aid security guard patrols.
In Korea, the Joseon Dynasty emperor imported the country’s first electric generators in September 1884 from the American Edison Lamp Company to install them at Gyeongbok Palace. The following year, John McCay, an American engineer, was assigned to Korea for a special electric lighting project and installed light bulbs in every room at Gyeongbok.
By 1900, Korea had set up its first lighting company, Hanseong, and installed three electric streetlights at the Jongno intersection in downtown Seoul.
Architectural lighting is beginning to be understood as a part of environmental design in Korea. Seoul recently undertook major redesigns of the city’s lighting to accommodate international events such as the World Cup and Asia-Europe Meeting. The city’s lighting project was roughly divided into three areas: bridges over the Han River, historic relics north of the river and corporate buildings in southern Seoul.
In 1997, the Seoul government set up a special department that manages lighting facilities in the city, forming a new set of guidelines for private buildings and acting as a watchdog for the city’s lightscape.
By June 2002, the city had funded redesigns of architectural lighting for more than 140 state-run facilities across Seoul, including bridges, stadiums, museums and palaces.
As nightlife and shopping in Seoul became an important part of the city’s tourism industry, which also gave rise to businesses providing 24-hour services, the city provided subsidies to encourage private buildings to enhance their lighting. The government also put stricter limits on commercial signs.
One example of how a building’s lighting can reflect its surroundings is at the entrance of COEX Mall in southern Seoul, which uses the building’s transparent glass to combine the hard lights from the building’s outdoor canopy with the elaborate colored lights inside. The fusion of lights captures southern Seoul’s cosmopolitan image.
Along the Rainbow Bridge in Seonyudo Park, an arch footbridge that commands a view of World Cup Park and the Han River, the city installed a rainbow illumination, which at night creates a soft rainbow reflection on the river and the nearby fountain.
Each of Seoul’s six bridges that connect the northern and southern parts of the city have undergone new designs. And the city is continually tinkering with its lights. The government recently said it will hold a competition for the best lighting design plan for the Gangbyeon Expressway.
Since 2000, Seoul has taken a special interest in redesigning cultural relics. Lighting in palaces has been focused mostly on the balance between the brightness of illumination and preserving the original colors of the building at night. Lighting for cultural relics depends entirely on the finishing materials of the building and how much they can absorb the reflection.
The season must be taken into account when it comes to public facilities. Warm lighting is often preferred during the winter while the same effect could be unpleasant in summer. However, the colors of the lights can change from time to time regardless of the season to set a certain mood.
Some of the towers and palaces in Seoul have extra lighting on special occasions. During the official reception of the FIFA committee in 2002, the city set lotus lanterns on the pond at Gyeongbok Palace. To celebrate “Korea 2000,” artist Jeon Jong-cheol installed a neon ladder about 150 meters high at Namsan Tower.
According to Park Jin-hwa, an official at the Seoul government’s city improvement team, most public buildings in Seoul are encouraged to be illuminated between 12 a.m. to 2 a.m. But for most private buildings, their electric bills dictate when their outdoor lighting goes off.
The city is now trying to capitalize on its night lighting. “The city’s tourism team will also come up with a special night tour, with destinations that are popular for their night views,” Mr. Park says.
by Park Soo-mee