How to appreciate ancient Korean architecture

Saint Basil's Cathedral, located in Red Square in Moscow, is one of Russia's most famous and historical buildings. The cathedral, with its nine beautifully shaped towers, each unique in its own way, is a well-known tourist attraction, even among those who have never set foot in Moscow. There's even a sad legend surrounding the cathedral. The story goes that Ivan IV (1530-1584), the tsar of Russia commonly known as "Ivan the Terrible," was so moved by the beauty of the church that he blinded the architects so that they could never recreate the masterpiece anywhere else. This legend has been proven false by a number of Russian historians, but there is an element of truth hidden in this tale: that Russians place creativity above all else when evaluating a historical monument.

Thanks to the prevalence of Korean TV shows, Russians are excited to visit Korea and learn more about its history, and visit historical landmarks and heritage sites. Many Russians who have just started learning Korean will often say they want to see Seoul's four ancient palaces and the Jongmyo Shrine if they ever were to visit Korea. However, upon realizing their dream, many come back disappointed, saying that, "All of the Korean palaces look the same." They make similar comments about ancient temples, too. "They were all so alike, and we couldn't see what was exciting about them," they might say. Regular Russians without a particular interest in Korea will come back from their trips with the same sentiment. It could be that, for Russians, who are accustomed to their towering, dazzling palaces, Joseon's royal residences look exotic, but rather humble.

Personally, I think those who were disappointed missed out on something important. Contrary to the Western belief that man dominates the natural world, Eastern civilizations stress the importance of being in harmony with nature. Koreans see the land as a living, breathing organism that has a kind of energy flowing through it. When building important structures like royal palaces, geomantic experts were brought in to survey the land to select the best location. For example, the most ideal location for a palace was on a plain by the foothills of a mountain. It was believed that the spirit of the mountain, the source of all the energy coursing through the land, could be best received near the mountainside. Other factors were considered too, including the height and structure of the mountain, the scenery one would see from the palace window, and whether there was a river or stream nearby.

As a result, the finished structure became one with its surrounding landscape. It's my opinion that we should observe the palaces from this perspective. When visiting ancient palaces and temples, it's important to take note of the harmony of the entire picture. Through this new way of seeing, how could any of these palaces be exactly alike? There's always a different scenery, a new atmosphere. During the winter, the palace grounds are blanketed in a sheet of white snow. In the springtime, colorful flowers blossom in bouquets of joyful colors. During the monsoon season of the summer months, the palaces are filled with the smell of fresh rain. Autumn brings forth a rustle of red and golden leaves. Each season comes with its own delight. In comparison, couldn't one argue that Saint Basil's Cathedral, stuck in the concrete jungle of Red Square, is invariable and rather static?

One last tip about visiting any architectural structure is that it's often more about the emotions you feel when you are there. Of course, the exquisite details that define Western architecture can leave you in awe, and make you feel immense admiration for the architect. On the other hand, a Korean palace, which fits like a puzzle into its natural surroundings, can bring you peace of mind while filling you with a quiet energy. Could you say what emotion is more valuable than the other?

Lyudmila Mikheesku is a photo editor at the Russian media company Nezavisimaya Gazeta.


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