Generations of Contemporary Korean Architects

Extracted from KIM Sung Hong & Peter Cachola Schmal Eds., Megacity Network Contemporary Korean Architecture. Berlin: Jovis, 2007, pp.49-53.

Linking With the Past

Traditional Korean timber structures with pillars, beams, and brackets came over from China before the first century A.D., and were developed, refined and used in every type of building on the Korean peninsula. The inherited timber structures were combined with ondol, a system that supplies heating from under the floor. This tectonic combination had a vertical limitation because the heated floor was restricted to the ground level. Up until the early twentieth century, when the brick and concrete frame structures were imported from the West, there had not been any mid-rise urban building in Korean cities. There were tall palaces, temples, pagodas, and pavilions, but all buildings were one story in terms of livable floors. The cities appeared completely flat to Western visitors. In this regard, any originality in traditional Korean architecture was concerned more with urban morphological variation than with architectural typological innovation. In other words, while the vertical structural principles were strictly standardized and institutionalized, the horizontal configurations had great diversity and flexibility in the formulation of building complexes, especially important in Korea’s mountainous terrain. However the modern Korean landscape presents a challenge that is even more complex than an uneven topography, and it is this: as hyper-density requires a high level of vertical flexibility lacking in the traditional earth-clad timber structure, is it possible to modernize traditional Korean architecture and transform horizontally distributed structures into vertical cities, so that Korean architecture today can find that link with the past?

The question is more complex than it might seem. The Korean word for ‘modern,’ keundae, was borrowed from Japanese and as such is conceived by Koreans as something ambiguous. While it represents enlightenment, civilization and urbanity, it also brings to mind subordination and unfulfilled hopes under atrocious colonizers. Modernism was understood more as the classical revivalism that the Japanese adopted and experimented with in its occupied territories than the European modernist movement which culminated in the 1920s. All this accentuates the distinctive rupture in the architectural history of Korea between the pre-colonial and post-Korean war period. The latter period saw for the first time the notion of ‘architect’ distinguished from carpenter, mason and artisan subordinate to Confucian aristocrats, who looked at building-making as simply a matter of technique. Modernism in post-war Korean architecture began on the twofold path of pursuing an emphatic break from any legacy of Japanese architecture, and an attempt to absorb the doctrines of the European modernist movement. Soon after, in the 1960s and 1970s, the plea to reinterpret ‘tradition’ identified as the pre-colonial heritage and to infuse it into modern structures gained momentum. However, the capacity to fully reconnect to the past has tended to fall short of expectations, as it has mainly been expressed as an iconographic revival of the timber structure or a mere replication of traditional typology.

The Forerunners                                                                                           

There were a few architects, such as KIM Swoo Geun (1931-1986) and KIM Jung Up (1922-1988), who understood the dilemma between the specificity of local culture and the generality of the modern architectural movement in terms of fundamental spatial and tectonic considerations. KIM Swoo Geun’s major achievement was transforming the intricate horizontal relationship between interior and exterior space and the materiality of timber structure into the sectional configuration of vertical building morphologies. His own office in Seoul, the Space Group Building (1971), is the best example of the fundamental inversion of the spatial logic of the traditional house. He also extended architecture towards other visual arts, music and drama, and by doing so he helped to distinguish architecture as art rather than simply a set of building and construction techniques. He was an icon of modern architect under the 30-year military dictatorship, and in 1977 Time Magazine called him the “Lorenzo of Seoul.”[1]

While KIM Swoo Geun tried to eliminate figurative elements with external references and return to more abstract geometries, contemporary and rival KIM Jung Up boldly experimented with the plasticity of architectural form. His reinterpretation of the tripartite composition of timber-roof structures in the formal language of Le Corbusier (who he practiced under) was acclaimed as one of the true innovations of modern Korean architecture. It was best demonstrated in his French Ambassador Building that was erected in Seoul in 1960.

While their accomplishments are not to be understated, neither of these two fabled architects or their contemporaries could really transcend their time and bring architecture to bear fully into the realm of ordinary citizens and everyday urban life. Instead of developing their ideas through collaboration with planners, technicians and legal experts, they extended their individual and imaginative capacities to their limits primarily on the architectural object as such. Architecture remained restricted to narrow groups of institutional and cultural elites who distanced themselves from harsh urban realities. At the same time, military leaders exploited architecture as a tool for fabricating their cultural policies and legitimizing their regimes. The banality of everyday architecture was thought to be compensated by the particularity of the architectural masterpiece. The buzzwords ‘symbol,’ ‘monument,’ ‘tradition’, and ‘landmark’ were prescribed into every design brief and guideline for public building. KIM Swoo Geun himself was caught up in the turmoil of iconographic nationalism. His design of the Buyeo Museum was publicly criticized for its visual resemble of Japanese architectural motives. And so at this time, modernism was still fundamentally perceived as a move away from colonial and Confucian culture.


The Next Generation

This left the next generation of architects to face the deep schism between architecture and urbanism, for the forerunners were not able to fully absorb the twin process of industrialization and urbanization that modern architecture confronted. American education had a powerful influence on the separation of two lines of inquiry, the micro-scale architectural disciplines and macro-scale urban planning disciplines. If architecture represented isolated points in the city, urban planning was concerned with the lines running madly towards the city limits. The mayor of Seoul in 1966, who was called Korea’s Baron Haussmann, once said tersely, “city is line.”[2] He pointed to a city government that could barely afford the minimum infrastructure, including roads, to follow the unbridled suburban expansion and urban redevelopment. The first City Planning Act was established in 1962 to positively facilitate compulsory acquisition and redevelopment. However the first Building Regulation was also established the same year, negatively restricting and controlling architectural objects. The pedagogical and practical separation between architecture and urbanism became deeply rooted in these regulatory systems. There was no comprehensive regulatory system and educational model to bridge the gap between these two realms. The concept of urban design, consolidating urban block, parcel, and buildings, was not employed until the 1990s.


The year 1993 witnessed a reemergence of civilian government after 30 years dogmatic, uniform military culture. In association with the emergence of a new government, architects opened their eyes to social injustice and their responsibilities therein, tackling issues such as the lack of public space, housing for the underprivileged class, and the commercialization of urban space. Many circles and associations were organized, but they were self-enclosed in that participants maintained solidarities based more on their common educational and practical background than ideological and intellectual grounds. These social movements quickly faded as the major patronage for architecture moved from the government to private sectors. As the market became differentiated, architects adopted new strategies for survival.


From the mid-1990s, the third generation of architects began to develop an alternative form of practice. Although there was a reaction against the paternalistic, individual and heroic model of the second generation represented by the two KIMs, the new generation recognized the power of the ‘star system’ in architecture. The predominantly younger faction of this generation, who were educated in European and American institutions, experienced how strongly intellectual and academic activities were linked to media celebrity and had an impact on cultural capital. They tended to maintain small-scale studios and experiment with new ideas in the classrooms. The other faction gravitated more towards the large corporate offices. In association with emerging housing and real estate development, these architectural firms continually expanded by maximizing money, man-power, and marketing strategies. These two architectural practices became more polarized as time went on. As of 2006, single-employee mini-firms occupied more than 47% of the total registered architectural firms in South Korea (3,364 firms), while the mega-firms each employed more than a thousand architects. In the global economy most of the mini-firms barely survive while the mega-firms compete to attract corporate clients to support their practices. This polarization is a direct reflection of the incongruence between pedagogical aims and practical realities.

But this plight is not unique to Korea. The blurring of theory and practice, private and public, culture and commerce are general symptoms in every capitalistic society in the world today. It is the coexistence and confrontation of Academicism and Futurism that Reyner Banham once diagnosed as the main affliction of modern architecture.What makes these issues distinctive in Korean architecture are the ways in which they are more immanently related to the combination of hyper-density and the acceleration of communication through the explosive usage of information technologies. Under these conditions, the new generation of architects is less obsessed with the burden of reconciliation between tradition and modernity. Instead, they understand the problems and issues they face are not qualitatively different from their Euro-American contemporaries, where there is an increasing asymmetry in the market in favor of the private sector. Korean architects today depend mainly on the patronage or wealthy elites and corporations. Many chaebols prefer to hire high-profile international architects, and Korean architects also have commissions in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

It is perhaps part of the maturation of Korean architecture and culture in general that Koreans are beginning to rise above what Dipesh Chakrabarty called the “inequality of ignorance[3], the conception that other traditions still need to refer to their works in Europe and demonstrate something regional, vernacular, and indigenous, while Europe do not feel the need to reciprocate. Global architectural trends are becoming less something that Korean architects are being influenced by and more something that they are a part of. And in their own part of the world, Koreans are also gaining a general conviction that they are more intellectual, dynamic, flexible, and culturally adaptive than their old neighbors and competitors, Japan and China.


[1]Kim Swoo Geun Cultural Foundation (2002), Tribute to Late Swoo-Geun KIM, Seoul: Space. P.285

[2]SON, Jeong Mok (2003. The Story of Seoul City Planning, Vol.4. pp.10-25

[3]Chakrabarty, Dipesh. (2000). Provincializing Europe. Princeton University Press.


About sonomad

Professor of Architecture & Urbanism
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3 Responses to Generations of Contemporary Korean Architects

  1. admin says:

    xjects (2010.07.22)
    It’s a great insight to relate ondol with morphology of Korean traditional houses.
    It explains well that morphology is not just a logical or structural appearance of an “organism” but more related with social systems and conventions that the “organism” belongs to.

  2. sonomad says:

    sonomad (2010.07.24)
    Architectural morphology is defined as how one space (or room) is related to another, and eventually to all other spaces in a system. It is connectivity and permeability of space, thus the structure of society is deeply embedded in the spatial morphology of architecture and city. Using a Korean traditional house as an example at one of chapter in my book, I described it at some length. Unfortunately it is written in Korean. Anyway, your comment is stimulating and encouraging. Thanks a lot. I also realize some images are needed for better understanding of my essay. I will work on that.

  3. admin says:

    pearlhill (2010.09.23)
    very interesting point about “ondol” of tradistional korean architecture. but I am yet curious about your argument about the limitation of vertical architectural innovation caused by “ondol” system in Korean traditional architecture. Could you explain further more about that with other countries architecture case? what types of architectural innovation were born than urban morphological variation in western country before modernization or industrialization or urbanization? Is the vertical structural typology demand more related with “density” along with urbanization? isn’t the same reason that most of suburban housing do not necessarily have verticality in even 21st centry?

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