Seoul Station’s Second Act

After eight decades as Seoul’s central train station, a majestic landmark is reborn as Culture Station Seoul 284, a dynamic cultural complex for the future.

“It darts like thunder and lightning and leaps like wind and rain,” wrote Kim Ki-su in 1877, recounting his experience on a Japanese train. The Korean envoy marveled, “Inside the car it doesn’t move a bit, but outside scenes of mountains, houses and people flashed fast.”


Train service came to Korea in 1899, linking the port of Incheon to Seoul’s Noryangjin Station via the Gyeongin rail line. By 1905, tracks stretched from Pyeongyang to Busan and in 1925, the South Manchuria Railway Company completed a mixed Renaissance and Baroque-inspired building that featured a Byzantine-style central dome. Records suggest that the architect, Tsukamoto Yasushi, was influenced by the station’s Swiss and Dutch contemporaries.


For nearly eight decades, Seoul Station served the city until 2004, when a new facility was built to accommodate Korea’s KTX bullet train. In the ensuing years, locals complained that the once proud and bustling station had been abandoned and felt like a neighborhood ghost. Despite its protected status as one of Seoul’s best examples of colonial architecture, its future was unclear.


In 2009, the Minsitry of Culture, Sports and Tourism partnered with the state-run Korea Craft and Design Foundation to create Culture Station Seoul 284. The two-year, 21.3 billion won (US$ 20 million) project has restored the building in order to recast it as a cultural space. In the six months leading up to the grand reopening in March 2012, a multi-disciplinary project “Countdown” features the work of dozens of Korean contemporary artists.


Among them is Joohyun Kim, whose Warping-Web installation harkens back to the station’s derelict years. From the ceiling of a narrow, second floor corridor hangs four illuminated, metal cobwebs. A more optimistic note is struck in the Central Hall, where Gim Hong-sok’s Fountain No 7 rises precipitously from the floor, reflecting a relentless striving toward the future. “Countdown” also features biweekly rock concerts and design-focused lectures.


The temporary art exhibition is fitting for a venue accustomed to fleeting moments. Over the decades, Seoul Station witnessed countless emotional moments, be it the forced departure of Crown Prince Euimin and Princess Deokhye by Japanese officials or the millions of people who came to Seoul from the countryside during Korea’s boom years. In the words of station spokesman Oh Sae-won, the building has borne ‘silent witness’ to Korea’s modern history of colonialization, war, democratization and economic growth.


While the building’s green Terrazzo staircase and ornate wood paneling were restored, some damage was left intact as reminders of Korea’s past. For example, parts of the wall above the ticket windows bear stains from old train schedules. More menacing are the bullet holes from the Korean War (1950-1953) that pockmark the wall behind the main desk.


What’s more, the restoration effort added new elements to the station campus. The Central Hall’s stained glass ceiling was replaced with a colorful motif by Father Jo Gwan-ho inspired by a 5,000-year-old Korean folk dance, ganggangsullae. Outside is an unconventional statue of a grenade-wielding Kang U-gyu, who was hanged after a failed attempt to assassinate the Japanese Governor-General of Korea at a train station in 1919.


Seoul Station’s restoration seems to fit with “Countdown” artistic director Kim Sung-won’s vision to “offer unpredictable encounters and unique journeys through the past, present and future”. Glowing reviews of the station during its mini reopening have officials optimistic about the grand event next March.


Despite the fact that the station’s second act has yet to formally begin, city leaders are already considering a third. Seoul Station’s restoration left its original functions intact, in the event that a thaw in South-North Korean tensions could connect Seoul with the rest of Asia and Europe, this time by rail.


Source: KOREA People & Culture Magazine, November 2011




One thought on “Seoul Station’s Second Act

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