New Phone

I am constantly amazed at the quality of phone cameras nowadays.

When travelling, if I don’t require the enormous file sizes, or lens flexibility, that my SLR provides, I simply carry my phone for increasingly fantastic quality stills and video.  I have recently upgraded to the current Samsung Galaxy 8 and took the following image whilst on the way to a local restaurant.

Shot at dusk up a dimly lit alley, I was particularly impressed with the camera’s ability to handle the light and contrast of the scene.

Galaxy 8


Most impressive.


Gyeongbok Palace : A Brief History

Constructed between the 14th and 17th centuries, the ‘Five Grand Palaces’ of Seoul represent the pinnacle of Joseon Dynasty architectural achievement. The first and largest, Gyeongbokgung (meaning “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven”), was completed in 1395 and served as the main Joseon palace for almost 200 years. As with all the palaces, the name ‘Gyeongbokgung’ does not refer simply to one particular building but to the entire compound which, at its height, was composed of over 300 structures.

In 1592, during the Japanese invasion known as the Imjin War, the compound was razed to the ground and abandoned for 273 years. The royal court moved to nearby Changdeok Palace, which remained the seat of power until the restoration of Gyeongbok Palace in 1867, under the instructions of Prince Regent Heungseon. The palace’s revival, however, was short-lived.

Empress Myeongseong, known informally as Queen Min, was the wife of the 26th monarch of Joseon, King Gojong. Intelligent and politically aware, the queen held great concerns about the increasing influence of Japan in Korean domestic affairs. Considering her a threat to the expansionist ambitions of the Meiji Empire, efforts to neutralize her political influence finally resulted in her assassination, on 8 October 1895, at the hands of Japanese agents. The queen was murdered in Geoncheonggung, the royal couple’s private residence at the rear of the palace compound. King Gojong and his fourth son, Sunjong, subsequently fled the palace, taking refuge in the Russian legation from where they continued to oversee government affairs. This event marked the end of Gyeongbok Palace as an official royal residence.

After their annexation of Korea in 1910, Japan once again sought to erase this symbol of Korean culture and heritage, destroying all but ten of the compound’s structures. Further insult was inflicted in 1926 with the construction of the enormous Neoclassical Government-General Building within the grounds of the palace, intentionally blocking the view of Gyeongbok Palace from central Seoul. This architectural monument to oppression nonetheless survived beyond the end of Japanese occupation, eventually being demolished in 1995 as part of the South Korean government’s initiative to restore the palace to its former glory.

The main entrance is via Gwanghwamun, which has always operated as the primary gateway to the compound. Suffering the same fates as the rest of Gyeongbok Palace over the centuries, the gate was dissembled and moved in 1926 by the Japanese for the construction of the Government-General Building. In 2010, Gwanghwamun was fully restored and relocated to its original position in line with the main north-south axis of Gyeongbok Palace.

The entrance comprises a large stone wall punctuated by three arched portals, above which sits a double timber roof with upturned eaves. Whilst impressive as an overall structure, the true genius of the roof engineering becomes apparent when one notices the intricate interlocking method used to assemble the components. No nails or pins are used, every element is firmly held in place simply through its physical connection to the others.  The colourful decorative patterning is known as dancheong and can be found on many traditional timber buildings. Representing the five earthly elements and the cardinal points, the colours and motifs used were believed to protect the structures from evil spirits, whilst also serving as practical deterrents to the wearing effects of weather and vermin.

Once inside the gate, a wide stone path leads, via an inner gate, to a large courtyard which, in turn leads to Geunjeongjeon, the king’s throne hall. A magnificent structure elevated on a double tier stone platform, the throne hall is one of only a handful of palace buildings that survived the ravages of the Japanese occupation, having been rebuilt as part of the 1867 restoration. The timber building, displaying the familiar double roof with upturned eaves, originally served as a formal venue for the king’s interaction with court officials, foreign ambassadors and other important visitors.

Located to the north-west of Geunjeongjeon is another surviving structure from the 1867 restoration, Gyeonghoeru Pavilion. One of the most picturesque, and photographed, of the palace buildings, the pavilion sits in a rectangular lake and was used as a royal banquet hall for particularly auspicious occasions. An interesting feature of the structure is the use of square and cylindrical stone pillars to support the dining platform. Originally ornately decorated with carved dragons, they were left plain when recreated in the 19th century.

As it stands now, Gyeongbokgung is a stunningly beautiful recreation of a royal place complex first created over 600 years ago. The structures listed above, although amongst the most significant, form just part of the experience of visiting one of the most fascinating built heritage sites in Seoul. Time and curiosity reward the visitor with a myriad of architectural and decorative details that were once only for the pleasure of an exclusive few.

Add in the costume drama theatrics of the periodic ‘changing of the guard’ ceremony at the front gate, along with glimpses of young tourists running around in hired traditional Korean outfits, and the result is a distinctly festive atmosphere infusing some serious architectural history.

Room With A View

I love a view.

I especially enjoy a decent view of a new cityscape from my hotel room whenever I’m travelling. Small pokey rooms, inadequate climate control, bad TV reception, all can be forgiven, in my opinion, if one can simply look out a window and contemplate a busy urban environment. Recently I have been in the habit of taking a photo of the views presented to me in various hotels.

The following images of the good, bad and underwhelming, act as a kind of opening diary entry of my visit to a particular city:

Bangkok 2




Okayama Hotel









Bangkok II

Seoul 2

Seoul II


Australian War Memorial

On a recent trip to the country’s capital, Canberra, I paid a visit to the one of the city’s premier sites, the Australian War Memorial. Opened on Armistice Day (November 11th), 1941, the building acts as both a memorial to those who have died in war and a military history museum, exhibiting an extensive range of artefacts from the British Colonial era up to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AWM 20

Comprising three main areas (shrine, museum and archives), the building’s design resulted from the collaboration of two Sydney architects; Emil Sodersten and John Crust. A strong Byzantine architectural theme dominates the overall form of the building, particularly evident in the Commemorative area. Visitors enter via a square gate form flanked by two large towers, evoking the dramatic temple facades of ancient Egypt and Persia. Inside, a long courtyard lined with arched loggias leads to the domed Hall of Memory, inside which is the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, added in 1993 to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War.

The hall’s interior is decorated with stunning examples of both the mosaic and stained glass art forms, all designed by Australian artist Napier Waller. Rising from an octagonal floor plan, three of the walls are illuminated with stained glass depictions of Australian servicemen and women, complemented by four walls decorated with similar themed mosaics. All are depicted with a noble realism, supplemented by images alluding to nature and the supernatural that are reminiscent of the Romanticism of William Blake’s works.  The dome is decorated with a beautiful Art Deco inspired abstraction, representing the ascent to eternal life, dramatically rendered in fiery orange and red hues. Napier Waller was himself a veteran of the First World War, losing his right arm at Bullecourt, France in 1916. Being right handed, he subsequently had to learn to use his left arm for painting and drawing, going on to create numerous murals and mosaics, including works for Melbourne Town Hall, the State Library of Victoria and the Myer Emporium dining hall. One of his most renowned commercial commissions can still be seen on the façade of the Newspaper House building (‘I’ll Put a Girdle Around the Earth’, 1933) in Collins St, Melbourne.

Walking along the elevated hallways flanking the courtyard, one is presented with the names of the thousands of men and women who died during past conflicts. The entire west gallery is dedicated to the fallen from the First World War (66,000), whilst the east gallery remembers those from the Second World War onwards. In total, there are 102, 185 names listed on the bronze plaques, many accompanied by poppies placed by relatives. A large rectangular memorial pool, surrounding an eternal flame, sits between the galleries, softening the severity of the architecture which, although monumental in form, is not overbearing.


The memorial space is actually a pleasant, if solemn, place to be. With its severe geometry, water feature and domed hall, it is reminiscent of Moorish palace architecture in Spain, or of Islamic built forms throughout North Africa in general.


Overall, the architecture serves its purpose in a respectful and dignified manner, providing visitors not only with a place to honour those who fought for the country, but also enabling greater knowledge and appreciation of the conflicts in which they fought.


Colonial Architecture 3

Korea Under Japanese Rule

Part 3 – The Inter-War Years

The period between the two World Wars (1918 – 1939) was one of great upheaval and change. The rise of communism and fascism in Europe, along with the global effects of the Great Depression, created for many a time of hardship and uncertainty. This was certainly the case for the citizens of Korea, living at this time under the increasingly harsh rule of the Japanese Empire.

Architectural styles and trends, of course, continued to develop throughout the world, and the Korean built environment was certainly not left devoid of examples from this era. Many buildings, in particular those representative of the occupying power’s administrative and financial institutions, were designed by Japanese architects, creating tangible symbols of oppression. The surviving structures have subsequently been repurposed, or simply rebranded, in the interest of practicality, not to mention the fact that many are actually significant examples of particular styles from the era.

In this third instalment of the ‘Colonial Architecture’ series, I will explore remaining examples of commercial, financial and administrative architecture built during this contentious period.


  1. Seoul City Hall

Constructed in 1925 by the Chōsen Architectural Association, the building that now forms part of the Seoul City Hall complex was originally built as the headquarters for the Japanese governor-general of Korea. The structure rises from a rusticated stone base to a stripped classical façade, topped by a squat tower stepped back from the central entrance form. The tower’s roof is a four-sided tented form, mimicking those found on Japanese pagodas, and revealing the design as an example of the Imperial Crown Style. This style was greatly utilised by Japanese architects throughout Asia during this period.

When the Japanese occupation ended in 1945 the building was used as Seoul City Hall, a role it served until 2008 when a dramatic new glass structure was built directly behind it. Originally the 1925 building was to be demolished but, after a surprising degree of support to preserve it, the structure was registered as a historic relic by the Cultural Heritage Administration and repurposed as the Seoul Metropolitan Library.


  1. Shinsegae Department Store

The Mitsukoshi company began in 1683 as a kimono retailer in Tokyo. By the 20th century it had become one of Japans premier department store chains, constructing an outlet in downtown Seoul in 1930. Opening on October 24th of that year, the store introduced Seoulites to a number of modern retail innovations including semi-annual sales, the price tag system and cordial sales staff.

The building itself, sited prominently on a street corner, is an elegantly sober five storey design finished in grey stone. Large display windows at ground level give way to smaller rectangular fenestration, grouped in threes, on upper levels. The main flourish is a fourth-floor balcony sited above the clock which, in turn, sits above the stores nameplate.

In 1945 the store was acquired by Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul and renamed Donghwa Department Store. Used as a PX by the U.S army after the Korean War, it was eventually reopened as Shinsegae Department Store in 1963.

  1. Chosun Savings Bank

Sited adjacent to the Shinsegae Department Store, the Chosun Savings Bank building was designed by Japanese architect Hirabayashi Kingko in a severe neo-classical style. The façade is composed of four enormous fluted pilasters with Doric order capitals, defining the four window bays in a less than subtle manner. The neo-classical theme extends to a broad entablature form, simply decorated with circular motifs and a dentil line.

The overall effect of robustness and street presence, if somewhat over scaled, was deemed appropriate for contemporary financial institutions, and the building continues to serve its original purpose to this day as a branch of the Standard Chartered banking corporation.


  1. National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art

Located in one of Seoul’s prime cultural precincts, the red brick structure that now serves as part of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art complex was originally constructed in 1928 as the outpatient check-up facility of Gyeongseong Medical School. The building is a stark representation of the Functionalist aesthetic of the Bauhaus school of architecture; flat, unadorned plains punctuated by large factory like windows. The severity of the design is softened somewhat by the curved tower-like form at one end of the building.

Occupied by the Defense Security Command from 1974 to 2008, the structure was renovated as part of the new museum development, reopening in 2013.


  1. Seoul Metropolitan Council Building

The structure known as the Bumingwan building was initially built as an arts centre, featuring an 1800 seat auditorium and multiple ancillary performance spaces, all equipped with modern heating and air conditioning systems. Completed in 1935, the construction was partially funded by the Gyeongseong Electric Company and designed in a Modernist rectilinear style. The main standout feature is the Art Deco corner tower that soars above the main structure, its verticality emphasized by twin rows of glazing on each side, rising to a textured pinnacle.

On July 24, 1945, as supporters of Japanese rule gathered for a meeting inside the auditorium, two bombs were thrown at the podium by members of the Korean independence movement. Although the explosions failed to injure anybody, fear rippled through the administration, which would soon be ousted with the end of the Second World War. The event is memorialised by a plaque located near the main entrance to what now serves as the offices for the Seoul Metropolitan Council.

120 Collins St

A late-postmodernist design (by architectural firm Hassell, in association with Daryl Jackson) evoking the great New York art-deco skyscrapers, 120 Collins St was completed in 1991. With its 45 metre spire the building, at 265 metres, was technically the tallest tower in Australia for fourteen years, being surpassed by the Q1 building in 2004 (322 metres, located in Surfers Paradise, Queensland).

120 Collins

120 Collins remained the tallest in Melbourne until the construction of Eureka Tower in 2006 (297 metres).


Fading Past

I recently came across an article about a large painted advertisement located on a  building in Elizabeth St, Melbourne. Created around 1956, the ad depicts a cartoon like cat and originally advertised Mazda Lamps. Only the cats head is visible now and was, up until recently, in danger of being painted over by a new sign.

Safe for now, it had me wondering what other advertising and commercial remnants could still be seen within Melbourne’s rapidly changing built landscape. I found a wide range of examples from an equally broad range of eras, from the 19th up to the mid-20th century and beyond. Some were still quite legible while others were deteriorating rapidly and difficult to decipher. As with buildings, contemporary advertising and corporate signage from past eras are important heritage features in the urban landscape from both a stylistic and social history point of view. Graphic styles and fonts, as well as evidence of various mercantile activities, can help paint a more comprehensive and vivid image of a city’s urban past and the people who inhabited it.


This is by no means an exhaustive list, I plan to revisit the subject as I find more examples throughout the city and suburbs.