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[Weekender] An escape from city bustle, Seoul’s book shelters offer more than page-turning experience

May 13, 2023 - 16:00 By Hwang Dong-hee
A view of Odong Book Shelter located inside the Odong Neighborhood Park in Seongbuk-gu, northern Seoul (Seoul Metropolitan Government)

Odong Neighborhood Park, located in Wolgok-dong and Jangwi-dong in Seongbuk-gu, northern Seoul, is a popular destination for local residents. Situated at the top of a 119-meter-high mountain called Wolgoksan, the park offers a gentle walking trail surrounded by a densely forested area.

At the starting point of the trail, a unique building captures the eyes of visitors. Odong Book Shelter, which opened May 2, is one of seven "book shelters" that the Seoul Metropolitan Government operates as part of its project to create mixed-use community spaces inside city parks. Launched in 2019, the project aims to open a total of 20 book shelters by 2026.

The unique building gives off the feeling of a hanok, or traditional Korean house, with its wooden columns creating open bays with glass windows that open out onto a kind of "toenmaru," or porch space.

The snail-like roof of the Odong Book Shelter was inspired by the Wolgoksan Dullegil -- a circular trail around the mountain -- itself, said Jang Yoon-gyoo, the architect and a professor at Kookmin University's College of Architecture. He is the co-founder of a local architecture practice, Unsangdong Architects Cooperation.

"I wanted (the book shelter) to be more like an extension and an integrated part of the park rather than just a building or being separate from the park," Jang told The Korea Herald on Wednesday. "The shelter can be considered an extension of the trail, as the tornado-like design of the roof alludes to the walkway's series of wooden decks along its slopes."

A view of Odong Book Shelter located inside the Odong Neighborhood Park in Seongbuk-gu, northern Seoul (Seoul Metropolitan Government)

The different heights of the building's layers of pleated roofs let natural light pour into the building, creating an air of openness and transparency. The beams are wooden to give the feeling of being in a forest even when inside.

Before the book shelter was built, the space was home to a neglected sawmill. Now the renovated community space provides a reading area, cafe and rest area where residents can relax and enjoy a lazy afternoon.

"I think it’s important to create small community spaces like this in each town or neighborhood," said Jang, "because those small works of architecture are directly linked to our daily lives."

A view of Bongjesan Book Shelter located inside Bongjesan Park in Gangseo-gu, western Seoul (Hwang Dong-hee/The Korea Herald)
A pond near the Bongjesan Book Shelter located inside Bongjesan Park in Gangseo-gu, western Seoul. (Hwang Dong-hee/The Korea Herald)

Bongjesan Book Shelter in Gangseo-gu

Located in Bongjesan Park, Bongjesan Book Shelter, which looks like a mountain cabin, welcomes visitors looking for a peaceful space to read and relax amid nature.

"Since we opened in March, many people have visited," said an official at Bongjesan Book Shelter on Wednesday.

"Some drop by to read books, some bring their own work here and many children drop by with their mothers in the afternoon. I would say the majority of them are from the neighborhood."

At around 5 p.m. on Wednesday, about half the seats were taken: Some people were studying, some were working on laptop computers, and some, including mothers and children, were reading books.

"We live just over there," said Lee Ha-eun, the mother of a 7-year-old, pointing at one of the apartment buildings nearby. "My daughter is playing outside on the playground with her friends, and I am taking a little break. She sometimes comes up here to join me."

A 20-something college student said she came here to study.

"I brought my homework today. I live nearby, and I really like the view here with a full window that looks out to the forest."

Two sides of the building have glass windows, and the greenery seen through the windows puts the mind at ease.

The walking trail that passes the book shelter extends to the ridge of Bongjesan.

Visitors at the Yangcheon Book Shelter in Yangcheon-gu, Seoul, on Wednesday (Hwang Dong-hee/The Korea Herald)

Book Shelter as a community beyond a library

Yangcheon Book Shelter, located inside Yangcheon Neighborhood Park, opened in November 2020 and has become a popular space. About 230 people visited the shelter daily on average and the occupancy rate for the 90 available seats reaches 100 percent on weekends, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

"The aim of the project is to build a community center that works beyond the role of a local library," said a Seoul city government official.

"That is why we named the space a ‘shelter’ rather than a library. … We want each park (and mountain) in the neighborhood to fulfill their role of being responsible for residents' leisure, and in that context, we are building a shelter inside a park."

The architecture of each of the seven book shelters was thoughtfully designed to make the shelters blend in as parts of nature.

The Yangcheon Book Shelter, which won a Korea Public Building Award in 2021, is nestled between a persimmon tree and a zelkova tree. The folding doors are installed facing a lawn so that they can be opened in sunny weather or for special occasions like concerts or film screenings.

Each book shelter offers family-oriented programs for children and students to participate while their parents can relax and enjoy.

Other than the Odong, Bongjesan and Yangcheon spaces, there other book shelters in Seoul are Eungbong Book Shelter in Seongdong-gu, Ssangmun Book Shelter in Dobong-gu, Cheonwang Book Shelter in Guro-gu and Achasan Book Shelter in Gwangjin-gu.

The eighth book shelter is scheduled to open at Yulhyeon Park in Gangnam in October.