Site Upcycling in South Korea


One of the recent trends in eco-friendly efforts is upcycling, i.e., creative transformation of waste or unwanted materials into new products of higher value.  In my blog post dated 12 January 2020 I have introduced the Seoul Upcycling Plaza which showcases upcycling drives in daily lives like clothing, food and housing.  The South Korean Government has in fact put in a lot of efforts in rejunvenating abandoned/unused sites into theme parks or arts/cultural complexes providing much better value to the community. In this blog post, let’s talk about some of such upcycled sites.

Chungju Jade Cave (a.k.a. Chungju Hwalok Donggul – 활옥동굴)

Chungju Jade Cave was formerly a mine with deposits of jade, dolomite and talc which was discovered in 1900 and developed in 1919 during the Japanese colonization period. The mine made significant contribution to the local area’s development during Korea’s industrialization period but was closed down in 2018 due to low profitability.

The Cave has now been transformed into a theme park – the Cave is over 8 km long with different sections to explore.  There are parts of the Cave decorated with murals drawn with fluorescent materials and LED displays. As a former mine, there are exhibits which can help visitors better understand the mine operations and the working life of the mine workers.  If you like wine, you would definitely go to the wine section where you can enjoy wine tasting.  If you are interested in farming, you can visit the wasabi farm section.  For those who like doing some exercise, there is an artificial lake made from the Cave’s underground water where you can enjoy kayaking.

You can have a quick tour of the Cave by watching this video.  The Cave is closed on Mondays and its opening hours differ in summer and winter seasons – Summer (April to October) 9.30am to 6.30pm / Winter (November to March) 9.30am to 6pm.

Samtan Art Mine (삼탄아트마인)

Samtan Art Mine was formerly a coal mine which was opened in 1964 and had made huge contribution to Korea’s rapid industrial growth. It was closed down in 2001 due to low demand for household coal and the Government’s policy of shutting down unprofitable mines. In 2013, it was transformed into an arts/cultural complex known as Samtan Art Mine, and won the Public Design Award of the same year.

Samtan Art Mine has reused the coal mine sites, machines, facilities and records to allow visitors experience the real work environment of the miners and better understand the working life of the miners.  The outdoor exhibition hall and the Memory Garden are places for commemorating miners. In particular, the memorial stone entitled ‘The Coal Miner’ has been erected for commemorating miners’ contribution to industrialization of South Korea and miners who were killed due to various accidents including the tragedy in 1974 in which 26 miners were buried inside the mine.

On the other hand, there are art works, ceramics, and sculptures collected from around 150 countries, and some of them are on public display.  The Art Mine is also used as a shooting place of dramas, movies and music videos, including the popular Korean drama, “Descendents of the Sun” (태양의 후예).

You may get further detail on Samtan Art Mine by watching this video.  Samtan Art Mine is closed on Mondays except for summer peak season (18 July to 23 August), and the opening hours are different in summer and winter seasons –  Summer 9am to 6pm / Peak season (18 July to 23 August) 9am to 7pm / Winter weekdays 10am to 5pm / Winter weekends 9.30 am to 5.30pm.

Oil Tank Culture Park (문화비축기지)

After the 1973 oil crisis, the Government had built an oil storage base with five tanks in Mapo-gu District to store oil for future emergencies and had classified the oil storage base as a first-class security facility. However, as the oil storage base was near the World Cup Stadium site, it was closed down in 2000 for safety reasons ahead of the 2002 World Cup.

In 2014, the abandoned oil depot was reborn as the Oil Tank Culture Park. The five tanks have become open cultural spaces, and a new community space for the public was built.  The forest on the site was preserved and various kinds of flowers and trees were planted to create the park.  Cultural events like exhibitions, performances and workshops are held in the Culture Park.

Below is a brief introduction of the cultural/community spaces (which are numbered from T0 to T6):

T0. 문화마당(Culture Yard)

Upon entry into the Culture Park, you will see a plaza which was formerly used as a parking lot. This is a good resting place for the public, and performances, festivals and markets are also held here.

T1. 파빌리온(Glass Pavilion)

This is made by dismantling the oil tank that was previously used to store gasoline and installing glazed walls and ceiling.  Through the transparent walls and ceiling, you can see the Maebongsan Mountain and enjoy the outside scenery which changes with the season, weather and time of the days. This is used as a multi-purpose space for exhibitions, performances and workshops. This is also the shooting place of the Korean drama, “A Korean Odyssey” (화유기).

T2. 공연장(Stage)

The oil tank that was previously used to store diesel fuel was dismantled and the upper part was left wide open to the sky without any exterior structure. This has become an outdoor stage and performance hall.  This area was surrounded by the Maebongsan Mountain and the remaining concrete wall of the tank which create natural reverberation of sound providing good acoustic effect, and the nature around this area provides excellent backdrop for the performances. The lower part of the tank was reconstructed as an indoor performance hall.  This is also the shooting place of the Korean drama, “Start-Up” (스타트업).

T3. 탱크원형(Sustained Oil Tank)

The tank previously used to store oil has been preserved in its original form as a reminder of the historical backgound of the oil storage base and the economic situation at that time.

T4. 복합문화공간(Culture Complex)

The interior of the tank previously used to store kerosene has been retained and become a culture complex for cultural activities like performances, exhibitions and experiences.  You can still see the huge iron exterior wall and pipes of the tank which remind you of the high volume of oil stored in the tank in the past.

T5. 이야기관(Story Hall)

This is the exhibition hall showcasing the history of the oil storage base from past to present, not just in words but also through objects like helmets and work clothes used by the workers. You can see how the tanks looked like in the past, and appreciate their magical transformation into the present form.

T6. 커뮤니티센터(Community Center)

This is a new structure made from the steel plates of the dismantled tanks at T1 and T2.  This is a community space consisting of creative lab, lecture halls, meeting rooms and cafeteria. On the top floor, there is an “Eco Lounge” where you can find a library and a lounge area for visitors to take a break, and an open rooftop deck where you can see the sky.

You can join a walking tour of the Oil Tank Culture Park by watching this video.  The outdoor area is open 24/7, but T1 to T6 are open from 10am to 6pm on Tuesdays to Sundays (closed on Mondays). Please also note that depending on the operation schedule, entry to T1 to T6 may be restrictied – for example, T5 Story Hall may be closed temporarily for preparation of exhibitions.

Nodeul Island (a.k.a. Nodeulseom -노들섬)

Nodeul Island, located on the Hangang River under the Hangang Bridge and in the heart of Seoul, is a man-made island built in 1917 when the Government built the Hangang Bridge connecting Yongsan-gu District on the northern bank of Hangang River and Dongjak-gu District on the southern bank of the Hangang River.  Until 1960’s, it was a popular family picnic spot, but after failure of several development projects, it then stayed abandoned for about 50 years.

In 2019, the Nodeul Island was revived as a music and culture complex under the theme “getaway from everyday life”.  The Island does have a lot to offer for you to chill out – magnificent views around the Hangang River, 300,000 square metres’ green space, two concert venues (one indoor and another outdoor) for concerts and performances, restaurants, convenience store, bookstore with a cafe and reading area, a plant atelier selling plant products and providing classes on growing plants, and lounge bar selling makgeoli (Korean traditional milky rice wine).  The Island is also the shooting place of the Korean drama, “Start-Up” (스타트업).

You can have a quick tour of Nodeul Island by watching this video.  The outdoor spaces are open 24/7 and most of the facilities are open 11am to 10pm from Tuesdays to Sundays (closed on Mondays).

The above four sites have undergone huge transformation from an abandoned/ unused site into a site offering much higher value to the community.  Such transformation offers very good examples of site upcycling.  You can try to find if there are any similar hidden treasures in your country/region which can be upcycled.

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Kim Bokyoung, “Cultural regeneration of S. Korea’s industrial heritage“, Arirang News, 2022-02-05

Claudia Kim, “VJ Unique S. Korean cave“, Arirang News, 2020-08-20

Kan Hyeong-woo, “Seoul’s Nodeul Island revamped into culture and music complex“, Arirang News, 2019-10-11

Kan Hyeong-woo, “Life & Info: Seoul’s Nodeul Island has been rejuvenated into culture and music complex“, Arirang News, 2019-10-10

Seoul Metropolitan Government, “문화비축기지“, 서울의 공원

Samtan Art Mine“, Jeongseon

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