Twice in the last two weeks I had the opportunity to talk to a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul about his work on the philosophy around what people build and his push to reintroduce a philosophy back into the field that finds its origins in Eastern as opposed to Western ways of thinking. Yesterday I sat in on his class and was able to discuss a little bit with some of the other grad students there.
A suggestion from one student in the Yonsei program, interestingly corresponds with an idea from an article I read today and I think reorients the desire to understand architecture in Korea in a new and important way.
The student suggested that the best way to get a quick introduction into the state of the built city environment in Seoul and Korea would be to take a tour through the various parts of the city that were built during different periods in Seoul’s development. The Bukchon neighborhood which I posted about previously would be a preserved representation of the neighborhoods at the turn of the 20th century. Other neighborhoods were planned and built immediately post war. Some neighborhoods were built for the affluent classes in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and then the finale would be to juxtapose all of that with something that has been built recently. The idea he had was that this could be a quick tour of a day or two that would truly reveal a sort of progression through time that would reveal the constant transformation of practice that is continuing to accelerate.
An article recently appeared in Space Magazine, written by a composer, titled "I am not clear". In the article the composer describes the other layering that exists, this time in the Korean psyche. He describes this as his personal internal conflict with the layers of culture that shape his perspective on the world and in turn his work. "Looking at Korean culture," he describes, "we find shamanism at the bottom, and the traditional culture of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism above it. Then there are layers of modern and contemporary culture, like Christianity, democracy, and capitalism at the top." Later in the same paragraph he writes something that I have come to believe might be the potential of this layering. He talks about how these layers sometimes contradict each other but that Koreans are now destined to live with them. He states “If we can find a value in this day and age that penetrates through these layers, that will become a value that we can offer on the world stage.”
Source: Lee Geon-yong, “I am not Clear”, Space Magazine, No. 523, June 2011
The idea of branding culture and nation is a weird one to try and comprehend, but the world is beginning to get caught up in the idea of the need to sell “cultural image” and “national image”.
A few articles below talk about South Korea’s entry into the fray:
These are silhouettes of Hanok in Bukchon. They are traces of plan drawings that have been made available via the Kilburn website. I wanted to do this to abstract the size and shapes of spaces that Hanok’s create in order to question the common comment I read that all old Asian architecture looks the same.
Changdeokgung Second Set
Changdeokgung First Set
The Changdeokgung Palace complex was inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List in 1997 for its outstanding architecture and a design that is in harmony with the landscape.
I usually prefer the smaller sites over the larger temples and complexes but this palace complex is truly amazing. Built in 1405, this palace was meant to bring some balance to the city by providing a alternate to the Gyeongbokgung Palace. Unlike Gyeongbokgung which was built according to a main axis and symmetry Changdeokgung was built in harmony to the area’s topography.
This was a real first for me in truly experiencing the power of the thresholds and the power of design that consciously intends the inhabitants to physically know when one space has ended and another has begun. It was impressive in that even without fully enclosing the spaces, the architecture somehow seems to control experiential qualities of every separate space in a unique way.
Cultural Philosophies and What WE Build
Sometimes I am just lost everywhere in the world
What I find most fascinating about looking into “traditional” architecture is how it seems to follow or interact directly with a philosophy on how society functions. Social, economic, political, and spiritual all seem to exist together and the built structures seem to be formed by that coexistence of all of those forces.
The belief I had coming back to architecture for grad school remains pretty firm. That belief is that the built environment is a direct representation of society, or a manifestation or product of the complete system of values by which society functions. Something that is fascinating to me; it might be argued that architecture is not art, but like art, in the final product we are revealing a very deeply ingrained system of values and memory that might not be readily apparent in our everyday trips to the grocery store.
There are huge difficulties in looking at “traditional” architecture. The revelations are visceral. The contradictions with the present are drastic. Fascinating about Korea’s traditional architecture was its apparent respect of ambiguity and modesty as a means of seeking not so much an egalitarian society as much as harmony with all that exists. Can great beauty come out of restraint? It sounds too good to be true, and may be. The traditional architecture here is no better than that in many other up and coming economies around the world whose governments are seeking to highlight their cultural greatness. Is it real, or is it really great advertising?
What does it mean that all of the thatched roofed homes disappeared and have been replaced by concrete boxes? The old pictures of Seoul from a century ago or what the first western visitors must have seen in this country is all gone aside from a few tourist “traps”. What does it mean? Has culture changed and truly embraced an entirely different system of values?
Link to Article by Kim Sung-woo, Korea Journal, Autumn 2007
"The way to experience the beauty of Korean architecture is not necessarily through the visual experience of a spatial setting, but the continuous, temporal experience of responsive bodily feeling."
"When there is no alternative to the Western perspective on the aesthetics of architecture, a new aesthetic perspective is needed…"
Renovated Hanok overlooking Gyedong-gil (street). Redone by a magazine editor to be her place of work. She said it took her over five years to complete with a majority of that being in the design stages and likely fighting through the mountain of legal issues involved in proposing changes to a hanok in this area of heavy preservation.