Inha Jung’s Architecture and Urbanism in Modern Korea is a comprehensive overview of Korean architecture and urbanism from the late nineteenth century to the present. This text, the first survey of its kind in English, offers a thorough examination of the built environment of modern Korea by systemically moving from larger urban issues to vernacular housing and canonical architectural designs. Based on the assumption that architectural trends have kept in line with the formation of urban space, the book provides a detailed analysis of planning idioms and regulatory regimes that resulted in the significant changes of urban structure of the 1930s, 1970s, and the early twenty-first century. Equal emphasis is given to the historical transformation of urban housing from urban hanok to apartment buildings. Close analysis of the changing patterns of residential space not only adds to our understanding of everyday urban life but also offers a wealth of insight into the formation of architects’ spatial consciousness.
The main thesis of the book, as clearly indicated in the introduction, is to examine Korean architects’ odyssey toward a “modern identity that can be called their own” (xii). Despite its encyclopedic coverage of architecture and urbanism throughout the last century, the author’s interest revolves around two opposing but complementary goals: one, an investigation of historical changes and discontinuity in Korean architecture, and the other, an identification of its unique nature and continuity. As the built environment of modern Korea has been largely shaped by the nation’s unique modernization, one that has been imported, delayed, and rapidly processed, its trajectory is characterized by the complicated process of conflict and negotiation between foreign influence and regional specificity. As such, the issue at stake is to critically assess the discrepancy between Western modernism as a prior model and local reality as defined by the deficiencies of construction techniques and new materials. The author considers the belatedness of Korean modernism not merely as a symptom of backwardness but as an inevitable condition that would prompt a distinctive treatment of materials and forms in its own way. For him, the limits of technology encouraged architects to “[focus] on seeking an alternative that would reconcile advanced technology with aesthetic principles” (98). The widespread use of precast concrete curtain walls that gave a unique look to Korean high-rise buildings in the 1960s and 1970s, an attempt to substitute for a more advanced aluminum curtain wall system, demonstrates such a move.
Although a fair amount of attention is given to the continuous process of conflict and negotiation between imported modernism and regional characteristics, Jung’s ultimate aim is to argue for genuine Koreanness through the “identification of the elements that have remained unchanged” (xi). Here, he takes on the decades-old debate over what is “Korean” in Korean modern architecture. In the face of aggressive foreign influence, many architects tended to find design approaches grounded in Korean tradition in order to establish a sense of cultural identity distinct from the West. Some were interested in reinterpreting formal motifs of historical building; others were drawn to its spatial arrangements.1 Jung delineates a shift in emphasis, triggered by Swoo-Geun Kim’s Space Group building in 1971 (the book’s cover image), from formal to spatial dimension in readopting tradition in modern use. A dramatic spatial sequence of the Space Group building, the author argues, found its origin in the peculiar treatment of the void space in hanok (traditional Korean house), and this unique spatial character in turn has affected the work of younger architects such as Hyo-Sang Seung and Young-Joon Kim.
Expanding this thread of thought on traditional space, Jung identifies the madang (courtyard arrangement) and the manner in which void is conceived and treated in hanok as unique DNA running through Korean architecture and urbanism despite processes of rapid modernization. At times, the author takes an essentialist approach to the notion of “Korean” or “Korean space.” For instance, he argues that the madang survived because “it emanates from the core of the spatial consciousness of the Korean people” (144). One might wonder, however, if placing a multifunctional open space is only specific to Korean architecture. Also one might be curious about how the treatment of void space in traditional Korean architecture is similar to and/or different from that of other architectural practices. While Jung describes the nature of the madang in terms of “emptiness,” “indeterminacy,” and “in-between-ness” (144), these spatial qualities were often employed by Japanese commentators who attempted to identify the distinct characteristics of Japanese space.2
There is no doubt that the madang is one of the unique features of Korean architecture. However, the idea of madang is not a fixed entity that arises from the essence of traditional Korean architecture but it is rather a historical one that has been periodically recalled in the name of “Koreanness” at certain junctures. How has the idea of madang been revisited by particular agents and what stimulates such an impulse? It would have been more productive for Jung to historicize the invention of tradition and ascertain its practical and discursive effects than to identify unchanging elements in Korean architecture. Similarly, it would have been more helpful to know more about the circumstances under which the neologisms, such as geunchuk (architecture) and hanok, were coined.3 Jung’s book can be read productively alongside rich scholarship on Asian modern architecture, with specific attention to the formulation of their cultural identities in the face of Western colonial expansion, aggressive modernization, postcolonial challenges, and globalization. It would be valuable to learn about the establishment and operation of modern institutions and educational programs in the early stage of Korea’s architectural profession within a larger context of modern Asian architecture.
Jung presents a periodized history that is structured less by architecture’s formal changes than by Korea’s sociopolitical events. This periodization, which considers Korean colonization (pre-1945), the country’s rapid development (1961–88), and globalization (after the mid-1990s), is useful in constructing a social history of Korean architecture. Such a strategy, however, is in part impeded by the omission of architectural practices of the two key moments from his account: the years after the liberation and Korean War (1945–60) and the years around South Korea’s Democracy Movement (from the late 1980s to early 1990s). Despite the lack of significant building projects, these transitional periods, which the author simply calls “two thick fault lines” (xi), witnessed the profession’s active participation in public discourses, such as issues of overcoming colonialism, ideological conflicts, the division of Korea into north and south, and massive political protests. An examination of these critical moments would have expanded our understanding of the relationship between architecture and society at each phase of the country’s modernization, making Jung’s politicized periodization more convincing.
Architecture and Urbanism in Modern Korea provides numerous illustrations, including maps, plans, and photographs, although larger images with better quality would have been more advantageous. It also contains a short biographical index of selective Korean architects and urban planners, and a bibliography refers readers to the books and periodicals published in Korean, Japanese, French, and English. This text will be welcomed by the scholars and students who have long waited for a survey text in Korean modern architecture and urban studies. It will also be useful to those interested in the development of modern architecture in non-Western contexts in general.
Jung himself previously wrote two excellent monographs on Chung-Up Kim and Swoo-Geun Kim, key figures in modern Korean architecture who represented the two competing positions in the debate over tradition. If Chung-Up Kim represented a tendency for reinterpreting the formal elements of traditional architecture, Swoo-Geun Kim represented a tendency for reconfiguring its spatial concepts. Inha Jung, Kim Su-gŭn kŏnch’ungnon: Han’guk kŏnch’uk ŭi saeroun inyŏnhyŏng [Swoo-Geun Kim: In search of modern ideal types] (Seoul: Migeonsa, 1996); Inha Jung, Kim Chung-ŏp kŏnch’ungnon: sichŏk ullim ŭi segye [Chung-up Kim: World of Poetic Resonance] (Seoul: Sanŏp Tosŏ Ch’ulp’an Kongsa, 2000).
For a discussion of the uniqueness of Japanese architecture and space, see David Stewart, The Making of a Modern Japanese Architecture: 1868 to the Present (Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1987); Isoaki Arata, Japan-ness in Architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006).
For the readers of Korean, see Pong-hŭi Chŏn and Yong-ch’an Kwŏn, Hanok kwa Han’guk chut’aek ŭi yŏksa [Hanok and a history of housing] (Kyŏnggi-do P’aju-si : Tongnyŏk, 2012).