written by Park Sungjin | photographed by Namgoong Sun | materials provided by Jiyo Architects
If you walk through the old alleyways of Seochon, you will eventually arrive at Chebu-dong where shabby hanoks stand back to back. These hanoks dress themselves up in red and black brickwork and adorn the alleyways with a vibrant new landscape. The Chebu-dong Community Cultural Center is raising its steeple high between the hanoks and serving as a focal point for the low-lying neighbourhood. I paid a visit to the Chebu-dong Community Cultural Center, which had divested itself of its religious identity as a church and been transformed into a performance hall.
87 Years: Red Bricks Carved by Time
I never thought there would be a church like this. Before taking on the project, the architect also did not know about the old Chebu-dong Holiness Church, and neither did the locals in Seochon. If you go deeper and pass through one more alleyway between Sejong Maeul Food and Culture Street, which began to become famous several years ago, you will find a church soaring alone amidst small and shabby hanoks. The neighbouring area is already renowned for famous restaurants of different nationalities and flavors, from a Samgyetang (Korean chicken soup) restaurant to a wine bar, yet the church has remained out of the spotlight. As a matter of fact, in the area, there is no building that has as long a story as this church.
Chebu-dong Holiness Church was constructed on the present site in 1931 as a new building. At that time, the church held a children’s service every Friday. It was the beginning of Sunday school. In the Japanese colonial era, the number of church members increased to more than 200. Then the Japanese closed the church by force in 1943 with the excuse that the church had a strong inclination towards Adventism, and they turned the building into a bread factory. Right after liberation, in September 1945, the church members reclaimed and rebuilt the building, and that has remained until today.
The exterior, from the time of construction, has been relatively well preserved, yet you can also find partial extension works that are quite interesting. The point from which a masonry system changes into another looks like the growth ring of a tree and reveals details about the building’s extension history. When the church was built first, the ‘French masonry system’ was applied to alternately show the long and short sides of a brick. And as for the extension work undertaken after the liberation, the ‘British masonry system’ was used to make the long and short sides appear separately layer by layer. It doesn’t look as refined as the masonry work of the British ambassador’s residence. Yet as a modern masonry building, the church holds an important value as it allows us to observe the traces of time from the perspective of technical history.
Same but Different Bricks: Transforming Space
The project architect Kim Sejin (principal, Jiyo Architects) wanted to emphasise the sentiment and value of original brickwork. For the same reason, at the beginning of this remodeling project, he suggested a basic rule to preserve the original brickwork and wooden truss structure as effectively as possible. In this building, you can read the intentions and ideas of the architect from the context of how the red brickwork is preserved and exposed. Especially in the building’s inner area, which was used as a chapel, the brickwork shows diverse variations. When the architect had to add new materials to functionally transform the chapel into a performance hall, he chose black brick tile.
Then an acoustic design is applied to both side walls to create a rugged surface. On the rear side, a hollow masonry wall comes up with a porous structure, and on the front, a corbel masonry wall makes a bumpy surface. With the same brick, various looks are created for the lower surface of performance hall by making changes in the masonry system and surface shape as well as variations in density. Above these walls a rough wooden truss structure and part of a red exterior brickwork appears. Here, brick is used and borrowed on two different terms; function and emotion. Colours are different, but the same construction language presents a variety and sense of unity to the interior space. The resulting scenery of the interior space looks like a collage weaving different times.
The interesting part of here is that such use and manifestation of brick create an impression that turns the indoor area into an outdoor-like space. The performance hall’s solid side walls are an extension of the experience of alleys, not of the interior space. Exposed through slits in the front and rear, the red brickwork is also another architectural feature that alludes to the sentiment of alleys. The rear porous wall is in fact a common outdoor element used for light effects. Side wall windows which are supposed to be inside can’t be found at all, and this intensifies such an impression. The new performance hall makes you feel as if you were standing in an emptied space in the middle of an alleyway, not inside a building.
Moreover, installed behind the front stage, a wide window clearly displays the eaves and exterior decorations of a hanok, and the spatial interpenetration and intervention between modern folding doors and traditional overhang doors also work as one of the main agents that exteriorises the interior space. The performance hall is like a very private open-air courtyard nestled inside of the building. Via these folding and overhang doors, the modern brickwork flows over the hanok behind and leads to its courtyard. After contemplating how to preserve or expose the brickwork, the architect has come up with a creative space completely different from the original chapel.
Standing in the Alley
In the alleyway, only windows and doors indicate the intention and interventions made by the architect. As all the windows and doors are blocked from inside for functional reasons, the exterior wall’s windows and doors look like fossilized traces of memory. On top of that, the architect has restructured window frames with wood and painted their background in white. However, what would these blocked and muted windows mean? Would these windows be able to interact with the image and sentiments of an old church building, which has kept its place in the alleyway for a long time? When it comes to these questions, the architect’s passive approach and the absence of active reinterpretations or expressions leave much to be desired. The blocked and blinded white windows seem to have lost their function, like a blind person’s white eyes. This use of brick is not the exclusive characteristic of Chebu-dong Community Cultural Center. While old hanoks accumulate new layers for themselves, small bricks are added in all sorts of ways to both sides of the alley. In the Chebu-dong area, similar sized hanoks girded with brick are making a small community until today. But how long can this community defend itself against tourists led by the Food and Culture Street and against commercialism? Some of the remaining hanoks have allowed showy colours to cover their bricks and continue to modify themselves to accommodate a trendy commercial image.
The Way We Keep Our Memories
The significance of this project is an outcome not only of the architect’s creative idea and remodeling work. We should also give credit to the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG)’s purchasing process for the church building, which was designated as a Seoul Future Heritage in 2014 as well as to the discussion process of finding a way to use it. Due to a decline in the local population and the surge in tourism, the old church met a crisis. Out of concern that the historical church building might disappear, the church and its members suggested the SMG should buy it. After all, the city government accepted the offer and designated the building as its first Architectural Heritage Site. While the increase in the number of tourists, decline in the local population and the infiltration of commercial facilities into residential areas are now underway, the Chebu-dong Community Cultural Center has been reborn as an Architectural Heritage Site. This building is a defense line for us to inherit the publicness and wider culture of Seochon.
Chebu-dong Community Cultural Center will be rented out to community orchestras in Seoul for their practice and performance. The hanok will be used a place for small receptions and lectures.Thanks to this purchase and remodeling project, Seochon’s important scenery could be preserved. I hope that the scenery and culture of alleyways in Chebu-dong will evolve alongside this preserved scenery in a desirable direction. When I looked around the alley with the architect, an old lady enlightened us with a hard truth by saying, ‘Why on earth are you looking around these alleys where drinkers come every day to sing loudly and leave all their filth behind?’ I believe that the locals’ resignation could become a new hope. Memory is not a floating image without a concrete form. Still less a text stored in our brain. If so, what is the most apparent substance that creates and sustains our memory? It’s place. And it’s space. The reason why we try to cherish and preserve cultural heritage is that it is not an individual person’s but our shared memories and our community’s collective memories that remain there. I hope the reborn space of the Chebudong Community Cultural Center will serve as a precious container for all the memories of this area and as a token of the passing of time.