Ever-evolving Gwanghwamun to be altered anew
For some 500 years, kings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) administered politics in the Gwanghwamun area.
The 19th century explorer and writer Isabella Bird Bishop (1831-1904) vividly described Gwanghwamun, the gate leading to the Gyeongbok Palace, in her 1898 book “Korea and Her Neighbors.”
“Cutting the city across by running from the east to the west gate is one broad street, another striking off from this runs to the south gate and a third 60 yards wide runs from the great central artery to the palace. This is the only one which is kept clear of encumbrance at all times, the others being occupied by double rows of booths, leaving only a narrow space for traffic on either side.”
“Sejong-no is a traditional ‘place of power’ within Seoul’s spatial structure,” said Kang Hong-bin, director of the Seoul Museum of History. “Without a long-term plan and depending on the demands of the current power, it has time and time again erased traces of its past and also been painted over with new achievements.”
During Japanese colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945, it became a space associated with imperialism. Gyeongbok Palace and its gate were mostly destroyed.
In 1926, the Japanese built their general government building north of Gwanghwamun, a sign of Tokyo’s power, and the gate was moved eastward. The space became a place where expos were held to herald the progress of colonial rule.
After the liberation of Korea, the road leading to Gwanghwamun was renamed Sejong-no, after King Sejong the Great (1397-1450) of the Joseon Dynasty, and the square in front of the gate has since transformed greatly.
Sejong-no took its current shape under President Park Chung Hee. In 1966, Park expanded the width of Sejong-no from 64 meters (210 feet) to 68 meters and ordered then-Seoul Mayor Kim Hyun-ok to restore the gate.
The construction, which took two years, marked the beginning of Sejong-no leading to Gwanghwamun and resulted in a concrete-and-steel structure that was 88.6 meters long, 15.4 meters high and weighed 7,000 tons.
“Gwanghwamun and the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin were built using the main materials of industrialization, concrete and iron,” said Ha Sang-bok, professor at Mokpo National University’s Department of Politics and Media, “and was a political act that made tangible the administration’s ideology.”
After Korea went from dictatorship to democracy, the urban landscape changed again.
On the 50th anniversary of liberation on Aug. 15, 1995, President Kim Young-sam ordered the former Japanese General Government Building to be demolished. It was being used as the National Museum of Korea.
There were some protests because of the costs, a massive 36.1 billion won ($30.6 million), but the Kim administration emphasized this was a part of its “setting history straight” ideology.
“The colonial era is a history that is embarrassing and painful to the bones,” said Lee Sang-gu, professor of architecture at Kyonggi University, “but it is a problem to intentionally erase it. There is an aspect that is regrettable [that the building was torn down] because there would have been a lot to learn from the reminder of the wretchedness [of Japanese colonial rule].”
Following the first restoration under President Park in 1968, President Roh Moo-hyun in 2005 launched a second restoration project. Roh suggested Gwanghwamun be restored to its original location 14.5 meters back and to replace Park Chung Hee’s handwritten Korean-language signboard with the original Chinese calligraphy.
Nonetheless, the gate was restored to more closely resemble the original, built out of wood like before, and put in its original position.
In 2006, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon ordered a pedestrian square be built in the center of Sejong-no to elevate the brand image of the city.
The 16-lane road shrank to 10 lanes. A statue of King Sejong was built to match the statue of Admiral Yi.
Construction was completed in August 2009, revealing the Gwanghwamun Square as we know it today. In 2010, Sejong-no was formally upgraded to Sejong-daero, the street becoming a boulevard. That is the appellation used on Google Maps.
After six years, the Gwanghwamun and Sejong-no area is looking to undergo another change.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon is pushing to expand Gwanghwamun Square to include the southbound lanes of traffic in front of the Sejong Center for Performing Arts.
The biggest issue with Gwanghwamun Square is accessibility to a strip in the middle of the major road.
Currently, Gwanghwamun Square has a length of 557 meters and a width of 34 meters.
“Gwanghwamun Square is a space that can be accessed only when the traffic light changes and you cross the road,” said Jeong Seok, an engineering professor at the University of Seoul. “In its current state, it does not play the role of European plazas that link to many other roads.
“Gwanghwamun Square has become an island that people don’t have much reason to seek out.”
“A good square is one that is easy to access and charming and vibrant,” said Je Hae-seong, president of the Architecture and Urban Research Institute. “The difficulty of access is a great limitation.”
“Gwanghwamun Square is not able to form a relationship with other buildings in the area, such as the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History and the Kyobo Building,” said Lee Eun-kyung, head of EMA Architects and Associates. “The plaza will be able to play its proper role when people can rest there and then go to the [Kyobo] Bookstore or go to the museum, and then come out again and sit on the benches.”
But under the current plan, there will still be traffic separating the square from buildings to the east, such as the Kyobo Bookstore.
“Rather than deciding to place the square simply on one side,” Je said, “we need to ponder how to make it easier for people to get to it.”
“The era has passed where the government attaches some symbolism to Sejong-no,” said Kim Jeong-hoo, professor at Hanyang University’s Graduate School of Urban and Real Estate Studies. “Rather than a political approach, the focus should be on what the public needs.”
BY PARK MIN-JE, JANG HYUK-JIN AND KIM NA-HAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]