Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Donuimun Restoration and Sadaemun Resurrection

Today, Seoul announced the restoration of Donuimun in its original design and location by 2013, along with the prolongation of the fortress walls, and the intention of claiming a new UNESCO World Heritage label for resuscitating the initial frame of Hanyang, the city's original name.

The image I have of Donuimun (also known as Seodaemun - the Great Western Gate), is the desolation at Jeong-dong Sagori : an abrupt slope at the feet of a concrete monster (Samsung Gangbuk Hospital), a dangerous crossroads for pedestrians and bikers (probably meant to feed the above mentioned monster), and a sober glass / wood post-it decor signaling the place where one of Seoul's four main gates used to stand. Victim to Japanese forces in 1915 as part of a comprehensive destruction plan (city walls, palaces, gates, symbols of power and independence had to be removed), but also as part of a more constructive scheme (new tram lines), Donuimun had been shamelessly overlooked during more recent redevelopment projects.

Yet, I was confident this forsaken area would be revived in a very near future :
- If the gate is gone, Jeong-dong Sagori remains a focal point where Jongno-gu, Jung-gu, and Seodaemun-gu meet. Nowadays, the pleasant walk along Deoksugung-gil (a successful restoration if I ever saw one) comes to an abrupt end, ruining the connection with Gyeonghuigung.
- According to Donuimun New Town (a.k.a. Gyonam New Town) master plan, the triangle between the hospital and Gyeonghuigung's entrance will be transformed into a park (reminder: in the meanwhile, there's still time to enjoy the
good restaurants still standing !).
- At last, the overpass joining Saemunan-gil and Seosomun-ro will be removed. Good riddance.
- Seoul wants to restore the city's original fortress walls, and a significant portion has already been completed uphill along Songwol-gil (with a small park in Songwol-dong, above the Swiss Embassy).

Seoul decided to restore Donuimun in its exact location, regardless of the intense traffic, and it's almost a matter of pride : the prestigious gate was destroyed to widen the road and install railway tracks ? it will be reconstructed as it was originally designed, like it or not. The result should be quite impressive, and the area can really look gorgeous if Samsung has a soul (and a few billions to spare) and revamps its hospital more elegantly (burying it could be a solution). I guess cars and buses will probably have to pass under the gate one way or another, without bumping into Seodaemun Station. And I do hope pedestrians can cross seamlessly along the walls without waiting for traffic lights.

Let's recapitulate the score for Seoul's fabled "Sadaemun" (Four Great Gates) : by 2013, the city will have completed a grand slam in the major league (the gates meant for the VIPs, all completed during the first year of construction of the fortress wall, in 1396) :

  • Sungnyemun ("respect", Southern Great Gate or Namdaemun) is still under reconstruction following last year’s tragic arson (see "Namdaemonium"). Final touch : 2012.
  • Heunginjimun ("wisdom", Eastern Great Gate or Dongdaemun) has already finished its restoration and will soon recover part of its wings : on one side the Naksan section of the fortress (Ewha Woman's University Dongdaemun Hospital has just been destroyed to make space for a park), on the other the future microsection planned for Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Dongdaemun's time to shine should be next year, to celebrate Seoul Capital of Design (see "Buldozing Seoul again - Dongdaemun Design Plaza, New City Hall").
  • Sukjeongmun ("humility", Northern Great Gate or Bukdaemun) was closed not long after its completion because it was supposed to allow bad vibes into the city. Japanese occupants destroyed the edifice along with the wall and Donuimun, but under what was left of popular and royal pressure, they couldn't get rid of Namdaemun and Dongdaemun. Sukjeongmun's rebirth in 2006 didn't raise many eyebrows but marked the start of the whole project. The following year, the path to Bukhansan was reopened to the public for the first time since Park's assassination attempt by a North Korean commando in 1968 (see "Inwangsan's Great Wall and Seoul's Royal "T" Time").
  • Donuimun ("loyalty", Western Great Gate of Seodaemun) completes the diamond circuit in 2013.
The less notorious "Sasomun" (Four Lesser Gates), the minor league gates, remain in outfield :
  • Souimun ("justice" – Seosomun) used to lie between Seodaemun and Namdaemun, so it should theoretically be the South Western gate. But like the other two it belonged to the Western wall of the fortress, and the SW corner was actually Sungnyemun. Seosomun has a terrible reputation because this is the gate through which criminals were banned… or executed. That's also where the “sayuksin” were beheaded (see "King Danjong and Korea's Curse"), and early Christians martyred. And that's also the way to Seodaemun Prison.
  • Gwanghuimun ("bright light" – Sugumun) : at the SE corner of the walls, on the other side of Namsan along which the Southern section of the wall is running. I guess this is the "bright light" at the end of the tunnel : this rather cute gate, now part of a small park near Sindang, was the portal through which corpses left the city. Brrrr
  • Hyehwamun ("wisdom" – Dongseomun) : NE corner of the walls, on the other side of Naksan. An important entry point to Hanyang from the North.
  • Changuimun ("fairness" – known as Jahamun) : NW corner of the walls, between Bugaksan and Inwangsan. Still standing after all these years, even if it had to be reconstructed during the 18th century, following a Japanese invasion.

The city boasts many other gates ("mun"), but they mark the entrance to palaces or altars. The most famous of these gates remains Gwanghwamun, more than ever the star at the center of the show.
Seoul Village 2009

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