Elements of Korean Architecture
Most historical buildings seen in Korea today date back to the Joseon Dynasty. Of the earlier Goryeo and Three Kingdoms periods, only stone tombs and fortresses remain. Joseon architecture prioritized open spaces, elegant lines, and harmony with nature. While lower-class houses were limited to mud walls and thatch, larger structures followed the Chinese fashions of curved tile roofs, large courtyards, and prominent wooden beams and pillars.
Korean architecture also developed its own unique and recognizable characteristics. Brick was less common; builders preferred materials like wood, stone, and paper. Chinese buildings tended toward shades of red and gold. Koreans, on the other hand, decorated with dancheong, or painted patterns in bright green, blue, white, red, and yellow. Lower-class homes used white plaster walls set into rough wood frames. Overall, proportions in Korean architecture were more moderate. Gardens and cities placed less emphasis on perfect symmetry in favor of natural beauty.
The customary Korean home is the hanok. Hanok varied by the status of their owners; the grandest homes of the aristocracy could be as much as 90 times larger than those of the peasants. All but the simplest structures were first produced as small, articulated pieces before being snapped and hammered into place, an art known as daemokjang. Through this method, no nails were needed to hold the house together. Larger hanok separated rooms with courtyards and corridors, creating space for nature even in the innermost areas of the home.
Following Confucian philosophy, men and women did not share living space in a hanok. Women spent most of their time in the inner rooms of the home, rarely venturing into its outer courtyard. Men, likewise, did not enter the women's area. The women's part of the home was called the ahn-ch'ae, while men occupied the sarang ch'ae. Aristocratic homes were split into clear inner and outer sections, but peasant hanok were often divided into two basic rooms by a central wall.
Ondol in Korean Architecture
One ancient element of Korean architecture still seen in modern homes and apartments is the ondol, or raised floor heating system. Standard wooden buildings rested on stone foundations, which contained a network of small tunnels. A carefully tended fire channeled smoke through those tunnels, beneath the floor, to heat the entire home. As a result, many Korean families still sit and sleep on floor mats, warmed by modernized ondol systems.
Modern Korean Architecture
Today, South Korea, and particularly Seoul, is a developed nation that combines elements of Western architecture with traditional Korean styles. Typical Koreans now live in bustling apartment buildings, but the government has taken steps to preserve older architectural styles through tourist-driven folk villages. It also maintains the many palaces, gates, and fortresses still dotting its land- and cityscapes, blending past and present architecture into a 21st-century whole.
Michael J. Seth, A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 14-15.
Yim Seock Jae, Windows and Doors: A Study of Korean Architecture, trans. Jean Young Lee (Seoul: Ewha Womans University Press, 2005).
Suk-Kyung Kim, "Housing Abroad: Asia" in, The Encyclopedia of Housing, ed. Andrew T. Carswell, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2012).
Dong-Sook Shin Gills, Rural Women and Triple Exploitation in Korean Development (New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 2016), 87-98.
Clark E. Llewellyn, "Korean Aesthetics, Modern Direction" in Korea Style, Marcia Iwatate and Unsoo Kim, eds. (Boston, MA: Tuttle, 2007), 8-28.
Donald N. Clark, Culture and Customs of Korea (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000), 94.
Daniel Schwekendiek, South Korea: A Socioeconomic Overview From the Past to Present (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2016).
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