Architecture as the Built Form of Colonial Ambitions

              During his February 2003 TED Talk, On Modern and Romantic Architecture, Reed Kroloff defined architecture as the “built form of our cultural ambitions”. [2] Derived from this statement, the title of this article puts forth an interesting point of view on an important period of Korean history. Anyone interested in the 20th century history of Korea soon learns that, from 1910 to 1945, the country was a colony of the Japanese empire. During that period, a lot of negative things happened and one of the most effective forms of propaganda for the Japanese coercion over the Korean people was through architecture. They used different techniques to show their superiority and though now destroyed, the Government General of Korea Building (Chungang Chong – 중앙청), by German architect Georg De Lalande, was one of the best examples of that built coercion.

Picture taken before the building’s destruction; barely nothing could be seen of Gyeongbok Palace. [A]

Gyeongbok Palace today. [B]

              Completed in 1926, the construction of the copper-domed monolithic structure took over 10 years. It was constructed in a neo-classical style, foreign to Korean’s traditional style of architecture. The construction process was also different; instead of using the usual system of apprenticeship involving carpenters/masons/master builders, it was Western techniques and engineering principles that were used. [5] The building of four-stories high was built symmetrically and had a single centered tower. Its layout was meant to look like the character (日) to represent the first character of the word Japan (Nihon – 日本). [4] Already impressive to the sight, it is hard to imagine how striking it must have been when it was completed. As Lankov says: “Seoul of the 1920s was a city of one or two-story houses with straw roofs still visible in the downtown area […] it was the city’s major landmark until the late 1960s.” [3]

Anachronistic design. [B]

            Foreign and lavish materials were also used; from the exterior granite stones to interiors of white marbles, everything spoke of grandeur and opulence. [5] Anachronistic to the architecture style of the time, it created a stark contrast with Korean wood framed governmental buildings (in styles such as Gyeongbok Palace).

Architectural details and lavish western-looking interiors. [C]

          Since it was housing the colonial government, the building had to be the most visible symbol representative of Japan’s power over Korea. Hence, it had to be imposing not only in size and materials, but also its site location was carefully chosen as a way to express dominance, superiority and aggression.

               The colonial government decided to implant the Government General Building within Gyeongbok Palace’s grounds, the most important of the 5 palaces of Seoul. It was placed right in front of the main Throne Hall of Kunjongjon (근정전) completely hiding it. It not only blocked the view of the palace, but the whole process was also an opportunity to destroy ample parts of the royal compound to make way for the construction. At the same time, the Japanese showed:

a sadistic understanding of Korean psychology and [used] the [optimal] way to disrupt the natural lines of harmony associated with Korean geomancy […], whereby all architectural constructions must first be aligned with harmonious patterns of wind, water, dust, lines and figures, the site of the new building was calculated to emphasize Japanese domination and reduce Korean popular resistance. [5]

A lot of debate came with the project, mostly concerning the fate of Gwanghwamun, the main gate of the palace. Scheduled to be destroyed in 1922, the gate was preserved because of a letter published by a prominent Japanese intellectual and founder/leader of Japan’s Folkcraft Movement, Yanagi Muneyoshi. [1] The gate ended up being moved to another location 5 years later in order for the building to show its full might to the Korean people. It was brought back to its original location after the Colonial period.

                  Occupying different functions after the end of the Japanese reign, the Korean government dismantled the building in 1996 amidst mixed voices. Some argued that it was a symbol of Japanese imperialism and that Gyeongbok Palace had to be brought back to its original beauty, while others said the building was a mark of the past that should remain in order not to forget what happened.

                 Through this cleansing process initiated by the Korean government in the 1990s to lessen the mark of the Japanese occupation, some buildings were demolished while others were preserved and given a new function. There are still some important buildings in nowadays Seoul that date back to that period and most of them are in the process of being turned into cultural assets. For example, the Old Seoul Station, after 2 intense years of renovation, has now reopened as a cultural station. In the same line of ideas, The Bank of Korea Building transformed 10 years ago from its original banking activities to become an economics and numismatics museum.

                 As Korea moves on and looks towards the future, much reflection should take place in order to assert and develop its national architectural identity. After numerous foreign invasions throughout its history – by the Chinese, the Japanese, the Manchu and the Mongol -, a resulting colonization by Japan, a political division that split the country in two which ultimately led to a war and finally the post-Korean War Western culture invasion*, much work is still left to do. Interestingly enough, today’s work by architects in Korea is an accession of that reality and it is with eager eyes that the public should look at their work.

*Invasion is used here to refer to the growing “Americanization” of Korea’s culture. From music to entertainment, western icons are more and more visually present. Influences from the West affect styles, topics and methods employed within the television, movie or music industry.


  1. DE BARY, William. Yanagi Muneyoshi and the Kwanghwa Gate in Seoul, Korea, in Sources of East Asian Tradition: the Modern Period. Columbia University Press, 2008, 1152 pages, pp. 551-553.
  2. KROLOFF, Reed. On Modern and Romantic Architecture, TED Talk, February 2003.
  3. LANKOV, Andrei. The Seoul Capitol Building, as seen on (original on
  4. PAK, Yangjin. Korea’s National Museum and Colonial Experience, as seen on
  5. THOMAS, Ronan. The Capitol, Seoul, as seen on
  6. WHELAN, Charles. Japanese Colonial Architecture Crumbles as Asia Moves On, as seen on


A. Website:, as seen on Dec 16th 2011.

B. Website :, as seen on Dec. 14th 2011.

C. Website: %3Farticleid=32541&, as seen on Dec 7th 2011.

David Martin


About mtlcan

I am a graduate from Université de Montréal, Canada. I am currently getting professional and life experiences in Seoul, South Korea. I look forward to spreading the word about Korean architecture.
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4 Responses to Architecture as the Built Form of Colonial Ambitions

  1. Joonbae Park says:

    Just a little comment on the word “invasion” in relation to culture, it almost seems more relevant to maybe look at this as a form of cultural enlightenment; where the systems and institutions governing politics, economics, law, philosophy and science are transformed to allow a nation and its people to move forward and develop into a mature and flourishing civilization.

    • mtlcan says:

      Interesting point of view! It is true that Americanization happened on multiple levels of the society. Maybe it is more along the lines of strong cultural influences rather than cultural “enlightenment”.

      Thank you for commenting!

  2. Pingback: O Palácio Gyeongbok (Gyeongbokgung) em Seul -

  3. Pingback: O Palácio Gyeongbokgung em Seul - Viver a Viagem

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