the royal castles of seoul

Thursday 23 November 2016: The royal castles of Seoulconference by Francis Macouin, former Curator at the National Museum of Asian Arts - Guimet, Member of the CNRS China-Korea-Japan research team.

In 1392, General Yi Sônggye establishes a new dynasty on the Korean peninsula. More precisely, according to Far Eastern conceptions, he founded a new country, called Joseon.
According to custom, new kingdom, new capital, and the site of the current Seoul is chosen. It still preserves five royal castles, partially preserved and partly rebuilt.
While the kingdom of Goryô had made Buddhism the official religion, the kingdom of Joseon chose neo-Confucianism as its basic ideology. So, from the beginning of the kingdom, one relies intellectually on Chinese conceptions of which the culture, writing, written language and literature serve as the foundation for the culture of the new country. In this conception of the world everything is linked: the theory of the five elements establishes correlations between direction, season, color, flavors, musical notes, viscera, etc.
The construction of a building is not trivial: its presence, its shape, its height could have various consequences, good or bad. A vector of this action is the kind of fluid which traverses all the earth according to the conceptions of geomancy. The fluid IQ is scattered by the wind and held by the water hence the name of feng shui in Chinese or pungsu in Korean (wind and water). It flows along lines of force, kinds of channels called "dragon veins", roughly mountain ranges, and is concentrated in particular areas called "luminous rooms" at the foot of a mountain that protects the site. The buildings, in particular the residences of the humans, were installed in the myeongdangPer sewhere the accumulates IQ that will bring prosperity, health and long life to the people. It was therefore essential that a royal palace be installed in a particularly favorable site and the site of the Gyeongbok Palace is noticeable by the adjoining mountain at the back.

Old map of Seoul showing the different castles

Aerial view of Gyeongbokgung Palace

The site of the capital, Han'yang, is surrounded by hills and mountains over which run fortifications 17 km long. The palaces are built inside this first enclosure, themselves surrounded by a surrounding wall. The main palace, Gyeongbokgung (Great Happiness), is located north and at the foot of Mount Bugak; the buildings face south, which is normal in Korean architecture. The castle is accompanied by two essential cult installations: to the east, the temple of the royal ancestors (Jongmyo) and, to the west, the temple of the spirits of the earth and cereals (Sajikdan). This castle, built by King Taejo in 1395, is installed inside an approximately rectangular enclosure of 40 hectares and consists of buildings associated with secondary elements forming enclosed spaces, often walled, islets that overlap in the spaces already defined. This palace, destroyed for the first time during the Japanese invasion in 1592, then rebuilt in 1869, again almost completely destroyed in 1915 under Japanese occupation, has been restored since 1989.
A royal castle combines two main functions: on the one hand, housing the king and queen, the harem and the servants, on the other hand, an administrative function. The buildings connected to it are grouped together in the front part of the castle. At the rear is a large park.
The most solemn part serves the representation of power and the throne room occupies the preponderant place. It is completed at the back by the residence of the king and the queen. The plan is that of Chinese imperial palaces where the buildings take place on a central axis with a concern for obvious symmetry.
We enter the palace through the Gwanghwamun gateway leading to the main gate leading to the south gate of the city and along which the ministries lined up.

Gwanghwamun door in 1900

Gyeongbokgung Geunjeongjeon Throne Hall

We pass through the Heungnyemun inner gate, then a stone bridge spanning a stream, then the Geunjeongmun gate leading to the large paved courtyard surrounding the throne room. This room takes place a little at the end of an esplanade delimited on all sides by a porticoed gallery supported by a double row of columns. The Geunjeongjeon throne room is set on a double terrace, each surrounded by a carved marble balustrade, and is covered with an imposing flysheet. We can feel the influence of the Forbidden City in Beijing here, but with the caveat of a tributary state: two terraces instead of three, double roof and not triple. The polychrome appearance of the palaces is like the old Korean constructions: vermilion columns, rather green horizontal beams with decorative motifs only at the end of these beams. At the rear of the throne room, the Sajeongjeon private audience room is located inside another courtyard. Moving north, you enter the king's dwellings, the Gangnyeongjeon, and finally the queen's, the Gyotaejeon. One of the rare buildings authentically from the 19rd s. is the Jagyeongjeon, residence built further north for a queen mother.

The Jagyeongjeon of Gyeongbokgung.

Jagyeongjeon brick wall.

The various bodies of the castle were surrounded by walls, combining stone and brick, the latter used to form decorative elements.
In the large recreational park to the north, the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion was placed in a pond. It was built in consideration of the symbolic elements, so the 24 stone pilasters of the outer low colonnade each correspond to one of the 24 divisions of the year according to the Chinese calendar.
A large screen dating from the years 1820-1830, representing the Changdeokgung (Palace of Prosperity) and Changgyeonggung palaces seen from a bird's eye view makes it possible to imagine what these royal castles really were: labyrinthine complexes. We can see how each main building, associated with outbuildings, constitutes an enclosure, sometimes itself subdivided. These enclosures are juxtaposed without apparent order outside the axis which sublimates the royal majesty which, for its part, follows Chinese rules. This compartmentalization of space, made up of sets that overlap with each other, forms a constant in Korean architecture. Another feature is provided by the Nakseonjae, a pavilion occupied until the 1960s: the pavilion is isolated in the middle of the courtyard and traffic is from the outside. The courtyards are spaces closely associated with the rooms themselves.

Screen showing the Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung palaces

Nakseonjae Pavilion of Changdeokgung

At the back of the Changdeokgung Palace is the Huwon Leisure Park, called from the 20rd s. Biwon (the secret garden). It is a vast area where nature is more or less developed. The buildings are more present near the residential area, the landscape more organized. In the lower part, a square pond (for the land) with a round island (for the sky) is completed with pleasure pavilions. On the side, the Yonghwa Tang building was used for examinations and on the hillside, the large two-storey building, the Gyujanggak, housed the royal library. Further back, towards the mountain, the human presence is less visible. We simply settle, from place to place, small pavilions, kiosks, gazebos, to discreetly develop a stream to create a cascatelle, or a zone to evoke the countryside with a rice field. These pavilions are often decorated with plates bearing poems in Chinese.
Another important aspect is that Korean buildings do not normally have floors. In the palaces, only the most important gates are arranged to have a watch floor, this comes from geomantic conceptions (theory of yin and yang).

Changdeokgung, pond and Gyujanggak library.

The Sujeong jon Gyeongbokgung palace.

The Sujeong jon Gyeongbokgung Palace which was an administrative building illustrates the architecture of the buildings of the castles. It is easy to distinguish the basement consisting of a terrace, a very heavy roof with considerable proportions, between the two, a hypostyle space. It has no load-bearing walls but a set of columns that support the roof. Between the columns a simple partition or a set of leaves consisting of a frame with a lattice and paper that open or rise in summer. The interior is a space that is defined according to the needs of the moment by the installation of sliding panels or movable leaves.
The Geunjeongjeon throne room in Changdeokgung Palace perfectly expresses the beam system: between the beams is inserted a combination of consoles forming like inverted pyramids. Originally, this system was used to support the overhang of the roof to keep water away from the base of the columns. It then developed and became more complex to become a marker of the building's status. If, on the outside, the hall seems to have a floor, it is not, and the hypostyle hall is supported by columns 13,80 meters high and about 54 cm in diameter. The frame is built by stacking with an absence of oblique pieces (crossbow).

The Geunjeongjeon Throne Hall of Changdeokgung Palace.

Detail of the beams of Geunjeongjeon. Changdeokgung.

Inside the throne room Geunjeongjeon. Changdeokgung.

Another aspect is provided by a building built for a queen: the ridge beam is double because it was necessary to obtain an even number of beams because the par goes with the yin which is related to the woman while the yang is related to the man and the odd. Likewise the pillars are square because the earth is square.
Finally, the small ceramic figurines only adorn the ridges of the roofs which have a relation to the royal function. Originally, they were intended to ward off evil spirits, but they have gradually been "humanized".

To conclude, if the architecture of the royal castles of the Joseon Dynasty is inspired by that of the Forbidden City, the Korean architects have created a unique style in the country.


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