Preserving Korean historyRecently, German architect Ulf Meyer gave a lecture titled “100 Years of Architecture in Seoul” at the Seoul Museum of History. Having studied at the Technical University of Berlin and the Illinois Institute of Technology, Meyer is known as an architectural and art-historical critic of modern and contemporary architecture in major cities around the world. He has also expressed special affection for Korean architecture.
He named a number of prominent architectural structures across Seoul, reminding us of the presence of great buildings around us. However, he mentioned structures built during the colonial era, and showed a picture of the former Japanese colonial government building. He said that the great architectural structure was pulled down as it was a legacy of the colonial period. It made me very uncomfortable as he seemed to imply Koreans failed to transcend ideology and destroyed a historically meaningful building due to a historical inferiority complex.
Let’s assume that Nazi Germany had built a grand Nazi-style structure right in front of the Palace of Versailles during the Nazi occupation of France. After the war, would the French people oppose the demolition of the building because tearing down the legacy left by the occupying force would erase history? Considering the French pride in their culture, it would never be tolerated.
Currently in Germany, the Palace of the Republic, the seat of Communist East German parliament, has been pulled down to reconstruct the Berliner Stadtschloss, the Berlin City Palace that East Germany had intentionally destroyed. I wonder how Meyer would explain the situation in his country and why he cannot understand Korea’s circumstances and relations with Japan.
Germany suffered an ordeal upon defeat in World War II, but its struggle was the outcome of Germany’s war efforts. Germany is not a victim of the war, and it did not suffer from imperialism. Perhaps, it is only natural that the German architect does not understand the pain and suffering of Korean history.
Over the demolition of the former colonial government building, Korean public opinion had been severely divided. Some politicians and scholars argued that the shameful part of the past is also a part of our history and should be preserved for future generations. There was criticism that there were political intentions behind the demolition. A prominent couple almost got divorced over this issue. The husband was offered a position to lead the demolition project, and the wife threatened she would seek divorce if he accepted it. The story illustrated how fiercely Korean society has been divided and pitted against one other.
Regarding the colonial government building, I was once again reminded of how horrible imperial Japan was. Upon forcibly taking over Korea, Japan built the colonial government right in front of Gyeongbok Palace. The location was chosen not because there was no other site. Japan intentionally built it there to suppress and annihilate the spirit of Koreans.
It is simply barbaric and extremely cruel as Gyeongbok Palace was built in 1395, 25 years before the Forbidden City in China and centuries earlier than the 17th century Palace of Versailles.
Moreover, imperial Japan built a road right through Changgyeong Palace and Jongmyo Shrine under the justification of urbanization and modernization. Korean cultural heritage sites were torn apart as the wide new road was laid right in front of Donghwa Gate. Changgyeong Palace was made into a zoo to further lower the dignity of the palace.
The demolition of the colonial government building meant the restoration of Gyeongbok Palace, one of the most valuable cultural properties of Korea, and it is more meaningful that art historical significance. It was a historical scar left by the aggressor.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, May 17, Page 28
*The author is the chairman of the Membership Society of the National Museum of Contemporary Art.