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Architecture of South Korea

Note: since most latter South Korean architecture was based on earlier styles, which were in both modern day South Korea and North Korea, the early architectural history will cover the entire Korean Peninsula; since division to north and south in 1950 only South Korean architecture will be discussed.

Little early Korean architecture exists as the earliest people were believed to live in numerous structures, both stone and wood, but these have since collapsed and there are few archeological remains. Oddly, the earliest remains are of houses dug into the ground and heated flooring, which is a very traditional Korea feature still found today. After this early architecture, the Korean Peninsula was divided for much of history and architectural styles developed primarily by dynasty, although all followed the same general path; this begins with the Three Kingdoms.

The Baekje Dynasty (18 BC-660 AD; occupied much of the western and south-western Korean Peninsula) gained strong relations with China and Japan as their architectural styles matched this relationship. Unfortunately, nothing more than ruins remains from them today. The best example of their architecture is the Horyuji Temple in Japan, which they helped design and built.

The architecture of the Goguryeo Dynasty (37 BC-668 AD; primarily based in what is today North Korea with its capital in Gaesong) has been lost to time with the exception of a few archeological sites (many of which the North Korea government refuse archeologists access to). What is significant from these finds though is that Buddhist temples (begun after 372 AD) have been found in the structure of having an octagonal base surrounded on three sides with chapels, a structure that has been carried into the future. There were also a number of fortresses built during their rule. This style and design is essentially copied from the Chinese, but Buddhism also arrived from China so the religion and temple style were in many ways united at the time for the Koreans.

Pagodas from this time do exist though, including the Silla Dynasty's (57 BC-935 AD, based in the eastern half of the Korean Peninsula, in both modern day South Korea and North Korea) Bunhwangsa Temple (634 AD) and in the Pulguk Temple (700s), both in or near Gyeongju (Kyongju). During the Silla rule (after defeating the Baekje and Goguryeo dynasties in 688, this dynasty was called the Unified Silla Dynasty), most latter pagodas were three stories tall and had set proportions that were deemed to be in perfect proportion. Temples were also built during this time, but again little remains outside of ruins. Bulguksa Temple (500s, rebuilt in 752) in Gyeongju is the oldest temple in Korea.

The Silla Dynasty also built other structures, including a cave monastery that was built near Gyeongju, called Seokguram. This monastery was carved into the stone cliff with the walls covered in Buddhist sculptures and art. They also built the observatory, Cheomseongdae in the early-600s.

The Goryeo Dynasty (or Koryo; 936-1392 AD; occupied the entire Korean Peninsula) at first gained most of its architectural inspiration from China and the earlier Unified Silla Dynasty as it developed the Chusimp'o Style. Perhaps the finest example of this style is the Pusok Temple (Temple of Eternal Life; 1200s) in Yongju and is believed to be the oldest original wood structure in the Korean Peninsula today. This dynasty introduced a shift in style as paintings became a more significant aspect of a building's overall look and style. One of the last pagodas built by the Goryeo Dynasty was the marble pagoda built for the Wongak Temple (1348; moved to the Kyongbok Palace), which is now in Seoul.

These architectural adaptations from China continued into the late 1300s and early 1400s with the arrival of the Tap'o Style, which was derived from the Song Dynasty in China. This blossomed under the Confucian Joseon Dynasty (or Choson; 1392-1897). During this time there was a significant shift from building pagodas, as Buddhism was rejected by the new leadership.

Many buildings were built in the Tap'o style, but some of the best are also the earliest, including the Simwon Temple's Pokwangjon Hall and the Sokwang Temple's Eungjinjon Hall, both from the late 1300s (in North Korea). In addition to these early Tap'o buildings, numerous other examples from the Joseon Dynasty remain today. Much of the still standing architecture in this style was built during the latter half of the Joseon Dynasty's reign and the bulk of it was built in Seoul. The massive Kyongbok Palace (1500s, but destroyed and rebuilt in 1865-1867) in Seoul is a great recreation of this style in the palace form. The temples from this time and in this style are also numerous, including the Hua'om Temple, Kaisim Temple, Muwi Temple, and the Pongjong Temple. Despite the lack of pagoda-building, there is a significant marble pagoda in the Tap'o style in Seoul's Pagoda Park.

In 1910 the Korean Peninsula was taken over by Japan and this foreign occupier encouraged traditional Japanese architecture. This led to the building of some new Japanese-styled buildings, but more often just resulted in the lack of maintenance in traditional Korean structures and the destruction of some. The Japanese also introduced the Neo-Classical style from Europe and the Seoul Station (1925) and Seoul City Hall (1926) are both prime examples of this style.

After World War II Japan lost control over the Korean Peninsula and shortly after the peninsula was divided into north and south. The south fell under strong American influence and their architectural style moved likewise. With freedom, many traditional buildings were restored and new ones were built, but in the capital of Seoul, American modernism arrived in full force. Seoul, along with Busan and Incheon have become cities filled with skyscrapers and neon lights, literally growing up.

South Korea has also built a huge number of modern sports complexes in recent years as they have hosted both the Olympics (1988) and the World Cup (2002). In both of these cases, they welcomed architecture from around the world to combine traditional Korean elements with modern functionality and design.

The post-modern movement in South Korea has continued on the path of American styles as skyscrapers continue to build upward and modernism and convenience tends to win over style as numerous traditional styles are being slowly rejected by the people.

This page was last updated: July, 2012