Taking a stroll around change and tradition
The title of an essay she wrote recently, about the city’s architectural past, conveyed her approach to cultural preservation. It was called “Change is also a Tradition.” She now has a chance to put her ideas into practice.
From now until June, Ms. Cho, along with Robert Koehler and Brian Barry, two American expatriates, will lead guided monthly tours of the city, exploring the history behind the concrete towers and brick-built villas that now define Seoul’s urban landscape.
The tours have been organized by the Seoul Foundation of Culture and Arts. They are part of an ambitious program to rediscover the city’s hidden assets, aimed at showing people the changing face of Seoul over the past century.
For Seoul, the idea is an entirely new concept in city tourism. It allows locals to explore familiar terrain from an unconventional viewpoint, while tourists from outside the city get to explore the city’s underbelly as they stroll through narrow alleys and catch glimpses of mountains.
“The idea originally came to me after I took a course called ‘Architecture of New York’ when I was studying at Columbia University,” said Ms. Cho, who offered a similar tour for expatriate women in 1998. “Every week we met at the Bowling Green Park and walked around New York to talk about its urban landscape. In Korea we learn about Roman and Egyptian architecture, but it’s critical that we learn to see our own architecture in its historical context.”
Ms. Cho’s walking tour is an welcome addition to a city where the tourist infrastructure is considered inadequate, compared to neighbors like Japan or China.
For the past two or three decades, the urban architecture of Seoul has often been used as a textbook example of how not to handle a nation’s cultural heritage during the course of redevelopment.
The city is full of palaces, temples and fortresses that were torn down during the colonial regime, then hurriedly rebuilt, and demolished again and then rebuilt decades later to mimic the original as part of modern attempts to expand tourism. The majority of Seoul’s traditional houses were either bulldozed during one of several real estate booms, to be replaced with tall apartment buildings, or they have been extensively rebuilt to meet the standards of modern living. The situation outside of the city is even worse. One foreign travel journalist wrote, with acid sarcasm, that the urban landscape elsewhere on the peninsula is “an inferior version of Seoul.”
Tourism has suffered, and the local government is desperately trying to change this situation by spending a significant portion of its tax revenue on tourist facilities. In one way the program offers a rediscovery of Seoul.
“It’s an exploration of the living streets of the city,” says Ms. Cho. “I am a facilitator, encouraging people to see what they’ve been missing.”
During the first tour, which took place last Sunday, a mix of people met in front of Sungnyemun Gate, near the entrance to the Namdaemun market. The tour then took in the Bank of Korea and City Hall, ending at Gwanghwamun. The tour route was specifically designed by Ms. Cho with an old map of Seoul in mind. It travels along the path of the old fortress walls that once defined the city, before they were torn down to make way for streetcar rails at the turn of the last century.
Aside from designated landmarks, the group also stopped to hear mini lectures about the “zoning significance” of each vicinity, in terms of its urban planning, and the architectural influences that define the style of the buildings erected in the city center during the modern period. The tour was conducted in English and Korean and focused on architectural trends of the modern era, using a variety of examples on the way.
At one point the group stopped in front of an infamously ugly office building designed by Kim Su-geun, a pioneer of modern architecture in Korea. It had previously been a bathhouse. Kim’s plaque, marking the building as one constructed by his company, is now hidden behind a shabby barber pole.
Next month the tour is heading to Jeongdong, to get a glimpse of foreign intervention in Seoul. In May the team explores the meeting of conservation and development by touring traditional houses in the Bukchon area; the tour ends its first semester in June by exploring 19th century royal residences.
“I’ve been living in Korea for almost three years now, and I was familiar with the areas we walked through,” says Alee Kwon, a public affairs assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. “But I never really stopped to think about the history behind the structures and the neighborhoods. It provides foreigners with information they could never find in a Lonely Planet guidebook.”
Aside from architectural insights, the program is a smart travel alternative, because it does not solely rely on traditional assets of the city from 600 years ago.
“A lot pf the city’s cultural heritage is not well-known,” said Mr. Koehler, one of the tour organizers. “We hope to give people a better sense of the city’s transformation.”
That goal was realized last Sunday, with at least one of the participants.
“I left the tour with a much greater appreciation for the relationship between Korean history and the Seoul one experiences on a day to day basis,” says Ryan Park, a Fulbright english teaching assistant who attended the tour on Sunday. “When you’re caught amongst the crowds of people it’s easy to see Seoul as just another shiny metropolis. Especially coming from the States ― my hometown of Minneapolis was founded almost 500 years after Namdaemun was first built ― it was fascinating to gain a perspective on how the depth of Korean history is still reflected in its modern cities.”
Foreign Intervention in Seoul
(Seoul Museum of Art ― Baejae School ― chapel within Jeongdong Jeil Church ― Salvation Army Building ― Seoul Anglican Church ― Deoksu Palace ―Jeongmyeongjeon ― Russian Legation ―Naesudong)
Meeting Spot: Seoul Museum of Art
Retrospective of 19th Century Royal Residences
(Yeongyeongdang―Nakseonje ― Unhyeon palace)
Meeting Spot: Yongyeongdang
Junction: Conservation and Development
(Bukchon Cultural Center ― Wonseo-dong ― Gyedong ― Gahoedong ― Samcheong-donG ― Hwadong ― Sogyeokdong) Meeting Spot: Bukchon Cultural Center
1.Young Streets of Hongdae
(Sangsang Photo Studio ― Urimadang Series ― Picasso Street ― 365 Street ― Seoul Architecture)
Meeting Spot: Sangsang Photo Studio
2. Seonyudo Park
(Seonyudo Park ― Yanghwa Bridge)
Meeting Spot: Park entrance
(Gallery Hyundai ― ArtSonje Center ― Jeongdok Library ― Space)
Meeting Spot: Gallery Hyundai
(Soetdae Museum ― Dongsungdong Cultural Space ― Irojae)
Meeting Spot: Soetdae Museum
1. Cheongdam-dong Designer Boutique
(Cais Gallery ― Cheongdam-dong streets ― Wellz Headquarter)
Meeting Spot: Cais Gallery
2. Sinsa-dong Garosu-gil
(Paran Nemo ― Ye Gallery ― Won City Architecture)
Meeting Spot: Paran Nemo
House/studio of Chang Uk-jin, Korean artist
Meeting Spot: SK Oil, Hyehwa Station (line No. 4)
House of Jeon Hyeong-pil, the collector and founder of Gansong Museum
Meeting Spot: Main Gate of Hanseong University (line No. 4)
House of Choi Sun-woo, art historian
Meeting Spot: Main Gate of Hanseong University (line No. 4)
By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer [email@example.com]