Raising the roof about tall buildings“Many foreigner-owned buildings in Seoul these days are likely to reach the clouds. As buildings are usually built to serve people’s own interests, it doesn’t concern us greatly.
“However, Jeong-dong, in central Seoul, is the place closely associated with national prestige, as it is near the Royal Palace held in great respect by the whole nation. We sincerely call upon Your Excellency to inform all the gentlemen and merchants of your country of the fact and prevent them from building a new two-story building inside or near the boundary of Jeong-dong.”
This is an announcement letter delivered on Nov. 27, 1901 to the respective consulate offices during the period of the Korean Empire (Daehanjeguk).
In those days, the street of Jeong-dong was lined with two-story buildings built by the Russian, British and French embassies, and the Sontag Hotel and Hotel du Palais.
The government may have sent out this official document because of the construction of Seokjojeon Hall in Deoksu Palace starting the year before. It was designed as a three-story building, the highest building at that time.
Ever since humans began to look for gods in the sky, the two terms “high” and “divine” have been used in similar ways. A few weeks ago, U.S. President Barack Obama controversially bowed to Emperor Akihito of Japan. Bending one’s back forward from the waist means holding one’s counterpart in high esteem.
The height or lowness of a building also represented relations between Korea and other countries. In the Joseon Dynasty, no building was allowed to tower above royal palaces.
In addition, constructing a building on a mountain or blocking a mountain with a building was also taboo. As shown in the word sanso, meaning tomb, a mountain is regarded as a divine place where the spirits of dead people can be found. No one, other than monks, thieves and slash-and-burn farmers, all of whom were considered socially unacceptable, built their homes on mountains.
However, Westerners in Seoul treated the Korean taboo about buildings with contempt. High buildings constructed by Westerners symbolized a new divinity, and Koreans followed the precedent inevitably or on purpose.
Korea’s national anthem begins with the phrase, “The East Sea’s waters and Mt. Paektu.” Nearly every school song includes the vigor or spirit of a mountain.
Korean people believed that people should watch the steep and rocky slope of the mountain together to share their hearts.
We are deeply concerned about the trend that people eager to construct a building higher than any other might distract other people from watching the mountain together.
What is more worrisome are the following questions: How high will the buildings being reconstructed in Seoul be, and how will the waste materials from the reconstruction be disposed of?
*The writer is a research professor at the Center for Hospital History and Culture at the Seoul National University Hospital.
By Jeon Woo-yong