A strange new kind of beautyCouples have scratched messages all over some of the signs at Seonyudo park. “Eunyoung loves Seungyoung” is scrawled on a picture of Gayang bridge, “Seon-hee loves Jae-jin” over a picture of Mount Bukhan. Technically, it’s defacing property, but the underlying aroma of romance seems part of the scenery on Seonyu island in western Seoul.
Seonyudo is a surprise. Located in the Han River, within sight of the Olympic and North Gangbyeon expressways, this island park and its attractions ― the Garden of Green Columns, the Aquatic Botanical Garden, the Garden of Transition ― evoke the magic of an ancient sunken garden amid the stark wreckage of an abandoned industrial site.
There’s a hushed sense of mystery here ― perhaps even a touch of madness. It seems a perfect setting for a perfume advertisement, with a beautifully dressed couple running against a backdrop of exposed concrete, soaring white birch trees, brilliant purple flowers, rusting sculptures, a tiered water garden and a traditional Korean pavilion.
This 11-hectare (27-acre) island was once known for more traditional beauty. Taoist monks used to come here to meditate. During the Goryeo Dynasty, Chinese envoys wrote about its beauty. But the island was scarred under Japanese rule, and later during Korea’s rapid postwar development.
In 1925, the Japanese army blasted a 40-meter cliff off the island’s north side. Rocks were collected from the island to construct banks along the river. As the years passed, the island lost its appeal, particularly after 1965, when it became a support point for the Yanghwa bridge. The construction of the Seonyu Water Purification Plant in 1978 didn’t help. By the end of the 20th century, the island whose name meant “island where the gods play” was an aesthetic wasteland.
But in 2001, the purification plant was shut down, and Seonyu island was free to be redeveloped. The Seoul Metropolitan Government held a national landscape design competition, won by Seoahn Total Landscape. City planners then called in French designer Rudy Ricciotti, who envisioned the Footbridge of Peace, a walkway connecting the island to the southern bank of the Han.
The idea wasn’t to restore the island to its original beauty, but to create a new park using the water purification plant as a skeleton. Hence, although the park only opened in April 2002, it feels as though nature has overtaken old ruins.
I start my tour by the Yanghwa bridge entrance. The Glasshouse, housing plants like aloe and cacti, is not particularly spectacular. But the magic of the park is present in the tiered water gardens, crossed with wooden planks for people to walk on. Sandy pathways cross each side of the park. I choose the northern path, passing a Korean pavilion with views of the bridge. Classical music and the sounds of birds and monkeys are piped in, perhaps in an attempt to conceal the muffled noise from the expressways. I walk along to Naru cafeteria, the first floor of which has impressive views of the river, with floor-to-ceiling windows.
The real beauty of the island is the sunken gardens. Encased by walls and open to the sky, they evoke a feeling of mystery. Metal sculptures and water sculptures are scattered throughout like hidden gems. Staircases cross the gardens, and the views from above are completely different. Nearby are a museum, studios, a small amphitheater and the soaring Footbridge of Peace. I wander back along the pathways, stopping at the gardens. I don’t meditate, but I leave feeling renewed.
Getting there: Use Dangsan Station, line No. 2, exit 4. The walk to the island is about 10 minutes.
Phone: (02) 3780-0590.
Web site: hangang.go.kr
Festival: This weekend is the first Gangbyeon Cafe Festival, an outdoor music festival at the park’s ampitheater from 1:30 to 9 p.m. Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Latin musicians, Korean trot musicians and hip-hop artists are slated. There will also be an art exhibition at the park’s museum.
by Joe Yong-hee