Disappearing Spirits of Modern TimesA report on the crisis modern cultural heritages face
Kim Da-eun  |
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승인 2007.08.30  16:00:02
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  Shinchon Station  
WITH THEIR school located in Shinchon, most of Yonseians must have been to, or at least heard of, Shinchon Train Station. Nevertheless, how many of Yonseians know that it is the oldest train station remaining in Seoul? What about the old memories of waiting with close friends to catch a train in the tiny station? Under the uninterested eyes of passer-bys, the “old” Shinchon Station now recollects the past days alone. Yet the station can be said “lucky,” considering that numerous other heritages of modern day are disappearing due to negligence of people and under the umbrella of “development.” People cherish traditional palaces and royal mausoleums as “our heritages,” but not many of them are concerned to heritages of modern times. How longer will it take until we regard those witnesses of our modern history?

  Prof. Kim Jung-shin  
Present conditions of modern cultural heritages
   While we call heritages formed until Joseon Dynasty as “traditional,” “modern” cultural heritages consist of “architectural structures and facilities constructed between the late 19th century and the mid 1940s.” Yet cultural heritages from the later period can be also included “if they are highly valuable and on the verge of destruction or deterioration.” The period includes the nation’s most turbulent times: the Enlightenment era, the Japanese Imperialistic rule and the Korean War. According to a research conducted by CHA (Cultural Heritage Administration), there are about 5,000 modern heritages existing in Korea in 2004. In 2001, CHA has devised the Law for Registration of Cultural Heritages to save the remains of modern times that have high historical and cultural values. Among them, 341 modern cultural heritages are registered so far. While cultural heritages that are “designated” from the government are protected with strong restrictions, heritages “registered” according to this law rely more on the owners’ will to preserve them. Featuring the look of modern times, such cultural properties enable us to get a glimpse of the lives that our parents, or grandparents, have led.
   In recent days, however, those cultural heritages are facing a serious crisis of demolition. A large number of them are disappearing at a rapid rate, and the pace accelerates as the government continuously releases new policies to develop regions relatively lagging behind economically. Many old buildings were demolished in the midst of active development. As an example, Myungdong Stock Exchange, established in 1922 and having been the most popular meeting spot in Seoul in ‘60s to ‘70s, was destructed in 2005. “A number of people including our organization held out campaigns to stop the demolition, yet the efforts were finally proved ineffective,” recollects Prof. Kim Jung-shin (Dept. of Architecture, Dankook Univ.), Chair of DOCOMOMO (Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the Modern Movement) Korea, which is an international NGO (non-governmental organization) protecting modern heritages.

  Prof. Lee Mahn-yol  
What causes their demolition?
   Mostly, the continuing destruction of modern cultural heritages has to do with their economic values. A large number of modern cultural heritages are buildings that were used in the past, or even now. Thus, most of them are located in the midst of cities, where land prices are exorbitant. This encourages the owners to tear down their old buildings to construct up-to-date ones which they think would be more profitable. In addition, modern heritages of buildings are considered as “real estate.” Investment in real estate in Korea has been extremely overheated, which causes an irresistible temptation for the owners to “develop” their buildings as shopping centers of department stores. In the case of the old Myeongdong Stock Exchange, a new residential-commercial building is planned to replace it. Likewise, the main cause of the rapid destruction of modern heritages is the idea that preserving the old buildings is not profitable. Some even destroy the modern heritages apparently to avoid registration. In June 2007, salt storehouses in Sorae salt farm were devastated into pieces. As CHA was preparing to protect the about 70-year-old storehouses as cultural heritages, the owning company hurried to destroy them; the storehouses were disappeared just three days before the legal deliberation for registering them were to be held.
   Other than economic consideration, there is another grave factor that deteriorates the conditions of modern cultural heritages: the indifferent attitude of people. This mostly owes to the Koreans’ negative perception of their modern history, which includes the invasion of Western Imperialism, the Japanese annexation of Korea and the Korean War. Many of them consider those times as dishonorable and thus wish to get rid of the remains of those periods. Kim explains “For instance, some see heritages of the Enlightenment Era as a result of Korea’s involuntary acceptance of Western culture and object to preserve them as modern cultural heritages.”

  Simpson Hall

Economic benefits of the modern heritages
   In fact, the extreme objection of the owners of modern heritages partly due to people’s misunderstanding of related policies. “Many possessors of modern cultural heritages worry that their property rights will be strongly restricted, once their properties become ‘cultural heritages’,” points out Prof. Emeritus Lee Mahn-yol (Dep. of History, Sookmyung Women Univ.). “Such concept is valid to some extent, when talking about ‘designated’ heritages; for instance, they need to get permission from the government, which is not easily given, even for minor changes to the heritage. Nevertheless, the regulations for ‘registered’ heritages are far weaker than those of designated ones. Moreover, government allows the owners to make repairs and improvements, financial aid is even available,” he continues.
   In fact, the government helps utilizing modern heritages, not only protecting them, since many of them are still strong enough to be used. Furthermore, by attracting people with their unique and antique look, modern cultural heritages can be actually utilized as various ways. There are many examples of modern heritages reformed as cafes or shops abroad. For instance, in the city of Otaru, Japan, a 100-year-old bank remodeled into a souvenir shop is gaining huge popularity among people. In addition, registering a building or a structure as a cultural heritage can also be a great promotion. “If people know better about the incentives of registering their cultural heritages, the number of protected modern heritages would increase a great deal,” says Lee.

Beyond the traces of past trauma
   As previously mentioned, some people are skeptical to the protection of modern cultural heritages since many of them are related to inglorious parts of history. Nevertheless, though we should see the dark side of our past days with critical eyes, it cannot necessarily be a ground for neglecting the historical values of modern cultural heritages. First of all, heritages regarding modern culture can be good “sources” for vivid education. “There is a Korean saying ‘to see is a hundred times better than to hear. When I observed the old buildings of Seodaemun Prison by myself, I could better understand the history of the independent movement of Korea,” says Jung Dong-eun (Soph., Dept. of Economics). A water tower in Yeoncheon Station, though it was constructed under Japanese rule, also realistically illustrates the lives of modern period; it was used to dispense water to steam engine trains, which are hardly found these days. As such, modern cultural heritages enable us to “experience” the history and culture of modern times, rather than merely learning from textbooks.
   Furthermore, preserving the heritages of modern period serves as a good reminder that provides us with the opportunities to deliberate on “lessons” from modern history. Simply eliminating the traces of past times does not promise us a better future. We can gain invaluable lessons from remembering the history. “For example, remembering Korea’s history as a colony can enhance Koreans’ ability to embrace other nations. Since they experienced a painful history, they know well theevils of Imperialism; Korea can help other countries not to undergo such experience,’ says Lee. He continues that “I guess the reason why many Koreans still find it inconvenient to commemorate our modern history is that honest evaluation and liquidation of past affairs has not been completed yet.”

  Building of Labor Party in Cheolwon

Improvements needed
   Given the significance of preserving modern cultural heritages, there are several ways to improve the current conditions. To begin, the present system regarding the protection of modern heritages has to be reinforced. As an example, civil organizations insist that cultural heritages with high values should be protected at least from sudden devastation even if the landlords are not giving consent to register them at present. “When constructing buildings, we need permission. In case of destruction, however, there are no regulations to prevent it at all. The government should make a law prohibiting, or at least suspending sudden demolishing of significant remains from modern culture,” insists Kim.
   Moreover, wide interests of people, especially the young, for the protection of modern cultural heritages are also very necessary. “We strive to help the students to realize the importance of acknowledging the value of history and conserving cultural heritages, not merely give priorities to “development,” says Kim. As an NGO protecting modern cultural heritages, DOCOMOMO Korea holds various programs that allow students to experience the spirit of the heritages. In the annual contest named “DOCOMOMO Korea Student Design Competition,” participants can present their ideas of how to utilize a modern cultural heritage. In a recent competition, a Yonseian team won first place. In addition, people can also participate in cultural heritage explorations, in which they can tour important sites of modern history with precise explanations about the heritages.
                  *                                                        *                                                       *
   People are apt to think that there is no compromise between development and preservation. They insist we have no choice but tearing down old buildings to catch up with up-to-date trend. Yet, if we had demolished Sungnyemun (South gate of Seoul) in the midst of developing Seoul, the National Treasure No. 1 of present Korea would not  existed today. Likewise, though modern cultural heritages might look like “useless” old remnants of past times, we must see their potential as historical and cultural resources hidden inside.
Most recently, the destruction of Dongdaemoon Stadium is emerging as a hot issue. People seem to be vacillating between the two roads in front of them: Should they choose to have a green park for the citizens, or save an old friend who has been standing with most Koreans for 82 years? The stadium holds a core position in the history of Korean athletic circle, and has held historical events like announcement of Revitalizing Reform policy of President Park Jung-hee. To kill the companion of our modern history is not the only way of acquiring a park for Seoul citizens. What we need now is a new viewpoint considering historical and cultural values of old structures.

  Seoul Station  
Box: Interview with the winner of the 4th DOCOMOMO Korea Design Competition
Q 1. What was your motivation for participating in the contest?
A1. As students studying architecture, we were interested in many contests. We decided to take part in not only because Docomomo Contest had a good reputation in and abroad, but also the subject itself interested us very much. We think old Seoul Station has a profound meaning as a witness of our modern history. Accordingly, it is important to utilize it properly, emphasizing its symbolic value. 

Q 2. Could you give a brief explanation of your work, “A Wall: In-between?”
A 2. First of all, we thought that the most serious problem of old Seoul Station building is the complexity of its surrounding area. Many other buildings including new Seoul Station or a department store leave no chances for old Seoul Station to catch people’s eyes, despite of its symbolic and historical value. As a solution, we chose to insult a “wall” between the old station building and the others. The wall firstly emphasizes the sight of old Seoul Station by separating it from surrounding buildings; it can also serve as a screen for cultural events regarding Seoul Station. Secondly, the wall can be utilized as a “linking hub” between various functions existing in Seoul Station. Since the functions of Seoul Station have gradually increased without specific plan, they are rather scattered. The wall can concentrate these functions by being a center of paths liking them one another. Lastly, the wall is easy to expand, responding aptly to the possible needs of future if Seoul becomes a hub of Eurasia.

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