If these walls could talkA Russian man named Afanasij Ivanovich Seredin Sabatin received a favorable offer in early 1883 from King Gojong’s adviser to build custom buildings in Korea. The adviser said, “The Emperor of the Great Joseon Dynasty intends to appoint the right person. If you are willing to work, you will be responsible for measuring the site of foreign concessions and building palaces.”
The 23-year-old aspiring architect came to this land in September 1883.
However, he was not a trained expert with an education in the field of architecture.
In September 1895, the Russian Legation declined his request to teach at the Russian language school due to his meager academic background, saying, “We find it difficult to recommend you for this post. All candidates must satisfy the academic standards of more than middle school graduation.”
Sabatin argued that while in the military he worked in the construction and engineering division, which was the equivalent of a school education in architecture.
But his son described him as a self-trained man who started at the bottom of the ladder.
As he was an unlicensed architect, he could build his own unique creations introducing Korean characteristics into the traditional European styles.
The Independence Gate is a prime example. The memorial gate incorporates Korea’s traditional aesthetic beauty in a simplified way with no special decorations, although it was built in a neoclassical style based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Sabatin’s works in Korea included the Russian Legation, Sontag Hotel and the Jemulpo Club, among others.
In Deoksu Palace alone, Sabatin designed Jungmyeongjeon and Jeonggwanheon.
Calling himself the “architect for the Emperor of the Joseon Dynasty,” Sabatin spent two decades designing buildings in Korea until he returned home after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. His creations at the Open Port of Incheon and in Seoul bear testimony to the end of the Joseon Dynasty and its declining national power.
Sabatin recorded: “The courtyard was filled with 20 or 25 Japanese men dressed in peculiar gowns. They grabbed one of the court ladies, pulled her out of the house, and ran down the stairs dragging her along behind them.”
The architect saw the assassination of Empress Myeongseong carried out by Japanese right-wing extremists in Gyeongbok Palace and became a “noble witness” who fearlessly gave testimony to the horrible crime.
At that time, we failed to defend ourselves from the attack of the world’s dominant colonial power and to fulfill the key task of building a modern nation-state.
The decline and fall of our nation was a dark period for us, despite our sincere efforts to survive by resorting to others’ forces.
The modern buildings built with Sabatin’s hands serve as a “memento mori” - a Latin phrase meaning “Remember you must die” - to remind us of the painful past.
The writer is the dean of the school of liberal arts at Kyung Hee University.
By Huh Dong-hyun