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Architecture as perpetual crisis: the constantly evolving architecture of South Korea

South Korean architecture reflects the social, economic and political struggles that the country has faced

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Ps01001001012 000122 000 0001 eb

Map of the Korean Peninsula, dating from the Joseon dynasty. Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

Architecture as perpetual crisis: if order and stability are the essential ideas of both Classical and modern architecture, this characterisation may seem a contradiction in terms. But if we consider Korea’s modern history and its present geopolitical situation, often described in the Western media as a nuclear crisis, we may understand why South Korea is the site of a constantly evolving architecture of open attitudes and fluid conditions. 

Contemporary Korean architecture emerged in the latter half of the 20th century through a condensed and disjunctive process of modernisation, one of radical economic, social and political change. For centuries a hermetic, Confucian society, the past 100 years has seen South Korea move dramatically through colonial rule, a devastating war (which has not officially ended), adverse poverty, military dictatorships, an economic miracle, a series of economic crises, democratisation, growing inequality and the anxieties of a hyper-competitive post-modern society. 

Korea’s modernity was and is of a different kind from the West and the same must be said of its architecture. In contrast to the architecture of the West – a self-centric and continuous tradition of ideas, practices and monuments – the consistencies in Korea’s contemporary architecture emerge from the conventions of everyday living, systems of industrial production and topographical conditions, rather than any particular institutional or architectural tradition. For decades driven by a self-conscious  sense of backwardness and an anxious pursuit of modernity, it continues to move as a creative mechanism of unstable knowledge and practices.

Hys 294 03p

Hys 294 03p

Hongje-dong, Seoul, in 1956-63, when South Korea became one of the world’s poorest countries. Photograph by Han Youngsoo

Korea has a magnificent tradition of building and landscape that extends well over two millennia. It is a tradition, however, that was cut off and dismantled under colonial rule. Though the modern notion of architecture – translated as keonchuk in Korean – was imported during the Japanese colonial period (1910-45), few Koreans were able to practise as architects during this period and their legacy rarely continued into the post-colonial era. While suppressing older craft-based traditions, the Japanese had little inclination to train Koreans to be modern architects: the task of building up Korea as part of the Japanese empire was given to Japanese and Western architects. Furthermore, in their mostly eclectic and historicist practice, little effort was put into the productive assimilation of modern architecture. 

Japanese rule ended with its defeat in the Second World War, but the beginning of a modern Korean architecture was further delayed by the Korean War (1950-53), in effect the first major clash between the United States and international Communism. In the aftermath of its devastation, South Korea became one of the poorest countries in the world. With most industrial facilities in the North, South Korea was left without any infrastructure for industrial production, including any capacity for construction materials and building components. There were barely 20 individuals who could be called architects, as many died during the war and many went North to the Communist regime. Architecture, in the modern Western notion of the profession and discipline, could scarcely be said to exist.

The discussion of a modern Korean architecture begins after 1961, when a coup d’état took place that, two years later, brought General Park Chung-hee to power. This regime, which maintained a dictatorship until the assassination of Park in 1979, embarked on an aggressive policy of industrialisation and development. This politico-economic formation is most often characterised as ‘late industrialisation’ or a ‘developmental state’. In fewer than three decades, a modern industrial complex along with a group of privileged corporations emerged, not through the mechanisms of the market and technological innovation, but through a dictatorial state and its guidance of capital. From 1963 until 1995, South Korea’s GDP per capita rose 100 times to reach US$10,000 (in 2017, it reached $35,000). 

Gettyimages 610480203

Gettyimages 610480203

President Park Chung-hee takes cover behind a podium during a failed assassination attempt at Seoul’s National Theater in 1974. Photograph by Popperfoto/Getty

During the early stages of the developmental state, architecture was primarily a tool within the bureaucratic and industrial engine that drove the nation’s economy. Like the first Korean companies that were steered towards cars, steel and fertilisers, the first architectural offices in Korea were established through the guidance of the state. Without a relevant private sector, the architectural community built itself up on factory, school and bank projects supported by the government. In Korea’s state capitalism, the profession was subordinated to a construction industry that accounted for more than 20 per cent of the nation’s GDP. The Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO), established in 1968, did not begin producing I-beams until after the 1980s, by which time it had already become the fifth largest steel company in the world.

Together with a national policy that supported the cement industry, and with government restrictions on the import of building materials, the language of modern architecture in Korea comprised primarily in-situ concrete, a labour-intensive formation that dominated architecture and construction into the early 1990s. On the reverse side of this developmental ideology, the Park regime pursued a conservative cultural policy that propped up national identity and patriotism. Shrines and statues for war heroes, national museums and public offices were mandated to be designed in neo-traditional styles.  

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9439 kyungsub shin

The 1959 French Embassy in Seoul was designed by Kim Joong Eop, who worked under Le Corbusier in the early 1950s. Photograph by Kyungsub Shin

Within this dialectic of developmentalism and cultural conservatism, the first generation of Heroic architects, Kim Joong Eop (1922-1988) and Kim Swoo Geun (1931-1986), struggled to bring individuality and formal values into the architectural milieu. After working under Le Corbusier in the early 1950s, Kim Joong Eop returned to Korea in 1956 as the first self-consciously creative modern architect. While his most important works, the French Embassy (1959) and the main building of Jeju University (1967), were influenced by the sculptural language of Le Corbusier, his overall oeuvre was eclectic and erratic, much like his own personality and career. In contrast to Kim Joong Eop’s mercurial disposition, Kim Swoo Geun was a charismatic figure, the most influential Korean architect of the 20th century. 

After Park’s coup d’état, Kim Swoo Geun became a rising star in the new military regime. As the second president of the Korea Engineering Consultants Corporation, a public company that led the country’s development and planning, Kim headed major projects for the newly industrialising nation: a masterplan for Yoido (the ‘Korean Manhattan’), a redevelopment project for the historical centre of Seoul, a new city plan for a ship-building town and the plan for a new international airport, among others. The built works of this first period in Kim’s career – Hill Top Bar (1961), Freedom Centre and Tower Hotel (1963), Buyeo National Museum (1965), and Sewoon Sangga (1966) – were all state-sponsored projects and, like Kim Joong Eop, they were in the sculptural style of béton brut. In the midst of the anti-Japanese fervour that followed Korea’s reparation settlement with its former coloniser, Buyeo National Museum – attacked as a neo-Japanese design – became a turning point in Kim’s career.

Hill top bar

Hill top bar

A Heroic Realist propaganda sculpture sits in front of Hill Top Bar by Kim Swoo Geun 

Disillusioned with his role as a state architect and shaken by the Buyeo National Museum controversy, Kim broke away from his earlier sculptural monumentalism and distanced himself from public projects. Often using brick cladding as an ornamental, textural and scaling device, he veered towards the values of a Korean aesthete. He opened this new period with the intricate design of his office, the Space Group Building (1971, extended 1977) and began to function as a patron of Korean culture. In 1967, Kim inaugurated Space magazine, at the time the only architectural magazine in Korea, and he would later open Space Love theatre, a centre for avant-garde dance, music and literary performances. In the barren cultural landscape of Korea’s modernity, Kim Swoo Geun’s evolving role, initially as a ‘state avant-garde’ and later as a charismatic aesthete of Korean culture, encapsulates the anxious yet creative responses to underdevelopment and the pressure of symbolic expression.  

For South Korea, the 1980s was a transperiod of expansion and deregulation. In contrast to previous decades in which the state had been the primary architectural client, the private sector grew to provide opportunities for large commercial projects. On the one hand, the era of the corporate office began in earnest with many large firms incorporated into the Korean chaebol system. While most of them churned out banal apartment complexes, government projects and speculative developments, offices such as Seoul Architects-Consultants, led by the Mies-trained Jong Soung Kimm, pioneered new horizons in the use of curtain walls, steel construction and building systems – and, with them, the spatial sensibilities of a more open and rational architecture. On the other hand, conservative traditionalism – backed by authoritarian power, subsumed into the mechanisms of mass culture, and coloured by the imported language of Postmodernism – continued in major public projects such as the Seoul Arts Center (1988-1993) and Independence Hall (1987). 

66aa1323af2e36ebb8240516e4e8a610 seoul korea circa

66aa1323af2e36ebb8240516e4e8a610 seoul korea circa

During his dictatorship, President Park Chung-hee supported an aggressive industrialisation policy, resulting in the construction of Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon elevated highway, c1970

The most important aspect of the 1980s expansion was the explosive growth of the Seoul metropolitan area. In 1988, with skyrocketing real-estate prices, the Korean government pushed the Two Million Units Housing Construction Plan that would create the large satellite towns of Bundang, Ilsan, and Pyeongchon on the outskirts of Seoul. This expansive region around the capital city area now constitutes the metropolitan area of Seoul, where half of South Korea’s 50 million-strong population now resides. The creation of the new towns marked not only a turning point in Seoul’s growth as a modern megalopolis, but the birth of a new way of urban life: an urbanism of gated high-rise apartment complexes, long-range transport networks, and hyper-anxious competition for education and social status. At the time, it constituted the spatial mechanism of the rise of the Korean middle class, but it is now the background of a growing inequality that threatens to tear apart the fabric of Korean society.

The growth and maturation of Korean society in the 1980s culminated in the breakdown of the strong state and the beginning of a dynamic modern culture. The 29 June 1986 Declaration on democratic reforms, the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the election of the first civilian as president in over 30 years, were all critical moments in the entry to an open, post-Fascist Korean society. After state censorship and restrictions on foreign travel were lifted in the late 1980s, information on international trends in art and architecture began to flow more freely into the country. The architects who emerged from these conditions – Joh Sung Yong, Chung Guyon, Min Hyun Sik, Kim Incheurl and Seung H-Sang – comprised the first generation to benefit from the freedom gained from a softer state apparatus and an expanding private sector.

Olympic village overview

Olympic village overview

1988 brought with it the Seoul Olympics and signalled a more open society in Korea. The apartment blocks forming the athletes’ village radiate out from a candy-cane community centre. Photograph by Mick Hales

Still without a shared disciplinary foundation or a workable historical tradition, the task was to bring their fragmented experiences to a sense of place and authenticity. The long evening light on the western wall, the deep smell of a wet wooden floor, the emptiness of a sculpted figure in a bare courtyard: by appropriating fragments as the objects of their subjective experience, they also became the first generation of Korean architects that willingly talked and wrote about their own architecture. 

In tandem with the emergence of an architectural avant-garde, the 1990s saw the consolidation of local corporate firms and the influx of their foreign counterparts that provided the designs for large-scale residential complexes, corporate headquarters, speculative commercial developments and government turnkey projects. Small local offices found opportunities in neighbourhood centres, newly established churches and four-to-five storey mixed-use buildings, all enabled by the demographic and financial assets created by the real-estate market. 

Exemplary of these attitudes is the work of Seung H-Sang, a disciple of Kim Swoo Geun and the most renowned Korean architect at the beginning of the new millennium. While employing an ordered typological approach, Seung imbues his work with sensuous qualities that explicate the complexities of Korean conventions and unstable disciplines. Based on several basic plan types, the spaces and their multiple effects are formed via overlapping plans, intersecting horizontal and vertical elements, changing levels and varied floor textures: a landscape more than architecture as a vertically built work. This conviction and aesthetic is most symbolically realised in the burial ground of Roh Moo Hyun (2009), the progressive former president of South Korea who threw himself off the cliff adjacent to this site. A horizontal funerary monument set in a luscious landscape of paddy fields and mountains, it has become part of the fabric of its artificial nature and the political body. At once beautiful, tragic and open to an unknown future, relying on the ritual conventions of stereotomic foundation on the one hand, and dispensing with the will to enclose and to build up on the other, it preserves a viable sense of an architectural aesthetic. Rather than some horizon that is assumed to exist inside and outside the subject, rather than an analogy between things and the world, it is the collection of the myriad experiences of the global population that defines Seung’s architectural formation.  

Memorial 31

Memorial 31

Former president Roh Moo Hyun’s burial ground comprises key attributes of architect Seung H-Sang’s work, such as varied floor textures. Photograph by Kim Jong Oh

Entering the new millennium, an emerging generation of Korean architects, many receiving their postgraduate education in Europe and the United States, established their practices. Opening their independent offices during the late 1990s, Byoungsoo Cho, Cho Namho, Minsuk Cho, Choi Moon Kyu, Choi Wook, Hwang Dujin, Jang Yoon Gyu, Kim Jun Sung, Jong Kyu Kim, Kim Hun, Kim Seung Hoy, Kim Young Joon, Lee Eun Young, Lee Min Ah and Lim Jae Yong distinguished themselves from the earlier generation’s subjective and ideological attitudes by demonstrating an apparent consistency and methodology that were new to the Korean scene. In contrast with previous generations who often took an oppositional view of the existing city, they were more comfortable acknowledging the forces that shaped their architecture. In tune with the international trends of the 1990s, the interest shifted from the creative subject to objective conditions, from experience to systems, from place to processes. Underlying this emerging attitude was a new set of conditions for Korean architecture: the increasing availability of diverse materials, a milieu actively engaged with a more sophisticated international architectural community, and urban-scale projects such as Paju Book City and Heyri Art Valley that involved a cooperative relationship between the public sector and private cooperatives.

‘In the face of an unfathomable geopolitical situation, with relative calm, it confronts the possibility of a new frontier to the North’

Within this generation, the work of Minsuk Cho’s Mass Studies provides an exemplary line of demarcation in the Korean condition. While Cho is the youngest architect of his generation to build extensively in an era of high growth, he has been able to theorise an architecture of high density within the specific conditions of the Korean metropolis. In his early ‘officetel’ projects, a building type normally dominated by commercial interests, he engaged with the systematic logic and symbolic desire of these projects employing ideas such as ‘systematic heterogeneity’. In creating a convincing urban presence, Boutique Monaco (2005), for example, differentiates the hyper-regimented flat slab system of the residential units and places it on top of the territorial, structural and sculptural lower body. His more recent institutional projects, such as Daum headquarters (2010) and the Southcape golf club house (2012), incorporate flamboyant forms based on consistent spatial and tectonic systems. Though Cho shares many of the sensibilities of diagrammatic and landscape processes, in contrast with these systems-oriented approaches that consider fragments and elements as historical and preconceived barriers to new solutions, he confers potential value on  his enigmatic figures. With the work of Mass Studies, the regimentation and disjunctions of the contemporary Korean condition are reformed into allegorical figures that sustain a spatial aesthetic, a tectonic order and a will to community. 

During the more than half century of relentless development, Korea went through several economic crises: the oil shock of the mid-1970s, the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and, most recently, the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, all having a fundamental impact on every aspect of Korean society. For Korean architecture, the shock of the most recent economic downturn, in particular, reverberated. In contrast to previous crises, managed by expansive building opportunities, the most recent was a turning point in Korea’s compressed process of modernisation. The stress of this has taken its toll as South Korea now has the fastest ageing population in the world. If Korean society has sustained the promise of a better, future, the essence of modernity, of developmental will has waned; the very survival of the architectural profession lies in the balance as many of the large architectural firms, including Space Group – the office established by Kim Swoo Geun in 1960 – have gone under. 

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Dsc02875

Anmyeondo House in Taean-gun, by JYA-RCHITECTS. Photograph by Hwang Hyochel

At the same time, as the recent citizens’ movement that overthrew a corrupt presidency illustrated, Korean society has demonstrated a remarkable resilience. Furthermore, in the face of an unfathomable geopolitical situation, with relative calm, it confronts the possibility of a new frontier to the North. An open-minded and active citizenry has provided the foundation of the transformation of both public and private sectors, and hence the possibility of new architectural creativity. South Korea’s state apparatus, at both local and central levels, is now evolving into more horizontal forms, with issues of economic and environmental sustainability at the forefront of the political agenda. In recent years, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has led the way with the establishment of new institutions such as the City Architect of Seoul (with Seung H-Sang as its inaugural figure), public architecture bidding systems, the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, and public policies that pursue community-based regeneration. Likewise in the private sector, changing demographics and an uneven real-estate market have created new demand for renovation and reuse, affordable single-family houses, single-person housing and shared home ownership. While opportunities for conventional commercial, public and institutional projects are no longer plentiful, new kinds of clients – corporations seeking to shift towards consumer-oriented services, NGOs and non-profit foundations concerned with multicultural issues and marginalised social groups, neighbourhood shop owners seeking to create an architectural identity – have emerged. Younger clients seek younger architects. This has reversed the Confucian sense of hierarchy and has, ironically, provided opportunities for emerging offices such as Ateliers Lion Seoul, Choon Choi, JOHO Architecture, JYA-RCHITECTS, Lifethings, lokaldesign, Nameless, Oujae Architects, SoA, The System Lab, UTAA Company and WISE Architecture. For the moment, their work most often comprises tough realism requiring creative engagement with environmental issues, materials, fabrication and local communities. 

171220 place 1 page 01

171220 place 1 page 01

KEB Hana Bank, Seoul, by The System Lab. Photograph by Yong-Kwan Kim

For the first time in its history, the Korean architectural community sustains the full array of generations – historical figures, established architects producing mature work, young architects and aspiring students – and is furthermore fully part of the global milieu. Whereas in past decades, the involvement of international architects has been mostly hit-and-run affairs, South Korea is now an international setting for diverse projects that provide the ground for unstable yet stimulating ideas. 

In recent years, public projects such as Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza (2014) and MVRDV’s Seoullo 7017 (2017, published in AR December 2017/January 2018), institutional projects such as Dominique Perrault’s Ewha Campus Center (2008), Álvaro Siza’s Mimesis Museum (2009) and the Amorepacific corporate headquarters by David Chipperfield (p34), promise to be enduring schemes to be discussed in a wider intellectual forum. In such a rich and dynamic milieu, it is uncertain where this new horizon of Korean architecture is headed. Can it survive and thrive as a softer discipline in a post-modern society? Can the state apparatus and the private sector evolve to become part of the diversified mechanism of cultural production? How will the crisis of the Korean Peninsula play out? Will North Korea provide a near frontier for architecture and urbanism? History tells us that Korean architecture has been most rigorous when it neither affirms nor negates traditions and ideas. It has been most resilient and most dynamic when it engages in the unknown as a productive practice of both buildings and ideas. As the compound characters of wiki – the Korean term for ‘crisis’ – tell us, there is both danger and opportunity in such moments of significant and radical transition. 

Dongdaemun zha 8957

Dongdaemun zha 8957

Recent projects such as Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza, completed in 2014, spell a new era in Korean architecture. Photograph by Iwan Baan

This piece is featured in the AR’s February 2018 issue on Korea – click here to purchase a copy