Unlike traditional Chinese architecture, which was intent on overpowering nature with symmetry and concentric rectangles, Korean design has traditionally incorporated natural surroundings and reflected the tastes of the architect. And, unlike Japanese architecture which emphasized natural forms and colors in a natural setting, Korean architecture often features columns and eaves painted in bright colors.

The gabled, tile roofs of traditional Korean buildings are different from roofs of buildings in Japan and China in that they curve gently upwards at the corners of the eaves. In contrast Japanese roofs have straight edges and Chinese building have upturned appendages. The great central beam is the most important part of a Korean building. It has traditionally been built before the walls. Pudo (stone pagodas used for housing the remains of esteemed monks) are found all over in Korea.

In Korean architecture, a building usually rises from a stone subfoundation to a curved roof covered with tiles, held by a console structure and supported on posts; walls are made of earth (adobe) or are sometimes totally composed of movable wooden doors. Architecture is built according to the kan unit, the distance between two posts (about 3.7 meters), and is designed so that there is always a transitional space between the "inside" and the "outside." The console, or bracket structure, is a specific architectonic element that has been designed in various ways through time. If the simple bracket system was already in use under the Goguryeo kingdom (37 BC – 668 AD)—in palaces in Pyongyang, for instance—a curved version, with brackets placed only on the column heads of the building, was elaborated during the early Goryeo (Koryo) dynasty (918–1392). [Source: Wikipedia]

Daemokjang; Traditional Wooden Architecture (Designated 2010)

Daemokjang; Traditional Wooden Architecture of Korean was added to UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity List in 2010. According to UNESCO: The term ‘Daemokjang’ refers to traditional Korean wooden architecture and specifically to the woodworkers who employ the traditional carpentry techniques. The activities of these practitioners also extend to the maintenance, repair and reconstruction of historic buildings, ranging from traditional Korean houses to monumental wooden palaces and temples. The Daemokjang are in charge of the entire construction process, including the planning, design and construction of buildings, and the supervision of subordinate carpenters.

“The wooden structures created by Daemokjang are smooth, simple and unadorned – distinctive features of traditional Korean architecture. The traditional construction processes require both technical skills to design the building with consideration to its size, site and function, and aesthetic sense to select the lumber for the construction materials, cut and shape the wood, and assemble and interlock the separate wooden pieces without using nails, creating the so-called ‘joints that withstand a millennium’. The know-how of Daemokjang has been handed down from generation to generation and takes decades of education and field experience to master. In working to restore monumental buildings using traditional techniques, Daemokjang practitioners reinterpret the beauty of traditional architecture with their artistic creativity and re-create it with their technical skills.

Carpenters with skills in woodworking are called moksu, and among them, the few notable figures with especially advanced skills in the area are called ‘Daemokjang’. Traditionally in the Korean architecture fields, daemokjangs are thought to be master artisans and therefore were responsible for building the royal palaces, temples and other historically significant constructions, and repairing them when necessary. Their skills have remained highly appreciated throughout decades, as good skills allow for the wooden beams of traditional structures to be seamlessly connected, perfecting the designs of Korean architecture.

Architectural Treasure in Seoul Rebuilt Without Modern Tools

Sungnyemun, or Great South Gate, the 600-year-old national treasure burned down by a disgruntled man in 2008, was rebuilt by a team of masons and carpenters using only traditional tools. Jung-yoon Choi wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “At the most famous building site in Seoul, no modern sounds of construction reverberate: no electric drills, no jackhammers. Just the clink-clink-clink-clink of masons working ancient stones. Overseen by a 70-year-old artisan with the gnarled hands of a man who has spent his life working with a hammer and chisel, they are rebuilding the six-century-old structure known as Sungnyemun, [Source: Jung-yoon Choi, Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2011]

“Considered a national treasure, the gate once formed part of a protective wall encircling the city, keeping out thieves and invaders. For countless generations, its presence gave Seoul residents a sense of security, a window to the past. Then, three years ago, a mentally ill man with a grudge against the city over a land compensation case set a fire at the wooden gate and surrounding stone wall. For more than five hours, the conflagration raged, destroying 90 percent of the structure's second story. Passersby cried at the charred remains. Some took deep traditional bows, treating the old gate as an ancestor. The public's call came swift and shrill: Refurbish the icon immediately.”

“The task or rebuilding the monument “rested squarely on the shoulders of Shin Eung-su, one of South Korea's foremost carpentry experts specializing in the refurbishment of historic structures. His task is monumental. To do his job correctly, Shin must do it the old-fashioned way, just as they did 610 years ago when his ancestor artisans built the wall. That means no modern tools. Instead, he uses implements — nails, hammers and masonry tools — fashioned in a nearby blacksmith shop erected just for this purpose. He must also, if possible, salvage as much burned wood as he can and fill in the gaps using only pine trees native to Korea. "The key of the reconstruction is doing the entire thing in the traditional way," said Shin, a compact man with graying hair. "From selecting the materials to coloring and putting it together, everything must be done the way that it was done centuries ago. It's a very complicated process."”

Traditional Korean Homes (Hanoks)

Traditional Korean homes have walls made from stone or homemade brick and heated with an under-the-floor, charcoal-fueled ondol system.In the old days, ordinary Koreans lived in homes with woven straw roofs and stuccoed wattle-and-daub (essentially mud on a wooden frame) walls or mud walls covered by cement. Some had a roofs made of rice stalks. Thatch roofs easily caught fire, and spread to the neighboring houses, but they were easy to replace when the whole community pitched in. Over time, thatch roofs have been replaced with tile and slate roofs.

Traditional Korean homes face the south or southeast to absorb the sun's rays, block the wind and abide by the rules of feng shui (geomacy). A typical old-style Korean home was built around a courtyard, and had three to four bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. Bedrooms had floors warmed with ondols. Windows were of glass. Reflecting the Japanese influence, rooms were divided with rice paper walls mounted on wooden frames that slid on grooves in the floor and sliding doors made of latticed frames of wood covered with rice paper. Today, few people live in these kinds of houses anymore. [Source: Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Traditionally, dwellings with thatched roofs and houses with clay-tile roofs symbolized rural—urban as well as lower-class—upper-class distinctions. The traditional houses of yangban (gentry) families were divided by walls into women's quarters (anch'ae ), men's quarters (sarangch'ae ), and servants' quarters (haengnangch'ae ), reflecting the Confucian rules of gender segregation and status discrimination between the yangban and their servants in the social hierarchy of the Chosun Dynasty. Western architecture was introduced in the nineteenth century. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]


Construction, Architectural Features of Traditional Homes in Korea

The gabled, tile roofs of traditional Korean buildings are different from the roofs of traditional buildings in Japan and China. Korean roofs curve gently upwards at the corners of the eaves. In contrast Japanese roofs have straight edges and Chinese buildings have upturned appendages. The great central beam is the important part of a traditional Korean building. It is built before the walls.

Upper class families lived in tile-roof houses usually surrounded by a stone wall with a front gate. There was often a cowshed, servants quarter or barn next to the gate. The "L"-shape or "⊏"-shape main structure included a main living room for women, a hall, a room facing the main living room and men's quarters. Kitchens were usually dimly lit and had an earthen floor.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The basic Korean house is built first by laying the floor with its channels for the ondol heating system and a covering of flat rocks, mud, and mortar. The structure itself rises on upright beams that support the beams of the roof structure. Doors and windows consist of wood-framed openings with actual door and window panels covered with white rice paper instead of glass. Mud brick walls are constructed between the uprights and covered with plaster, while the roof is covered with straw thatch. Simple wood and earth materials are used for the kitchen and outhouse. The enclosing wall is made of stones laid along layers of earthen bricks and protected from the rain by a "roof of thatch running along the top of the wall. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Buddhist Temples in Korea

There are around Buddhist 7,300 temples and monasteries in Korea, many of which are located in the forests and mountains. There are two reason for their remote locations: first, mountains and forest have always been associated with spiritual purity, and second, Buddhist monks were often persecuted by Korea's rulers and remote location gave them some safety. All Korean temples are built without nails so that they can be dismantled and moved to new locations. In China, Japan and Thailand temples are often in the middle of town. Now more Buddhist temples are being erected in urban areas.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Their rectangular compounds house a main hall, in which there are usually three large statues of different types of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Other buildings include memorial halls to former congregational members who have died, gates and buildings that guard and protect the temple and its believers from demons and other enemies, and living quarters for the resident clergy. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

A temple feature that is found in Korea and nowhere else in the Buddhist world is a shrine to the mountain god (sanshin) on the hillside above the temple. It usually contains a painting of a kindly old man with a white beard (the mountain spirit), a tiger (a mountain animal), and a pine tree (a symbol of long life). The shrine of the mountain god has nothing to do with Buddhism but more likely refers to the long period when Buddhist temples in Korea had to be hidden away in the mountains at the mercy of mountain forces including the fearsome tiger. Its presence at nearly every Buddhist temple suggests the continuing harmony between Korean Buddhism and other signs and symbols in Korean tradition. In Korea you will often see swastikas on temples. This does not mean the Koreans worship Nazis. In Asia the swastika represents good fortune, plus the lines are turned counterclockwise, while those on a Nazi swastika turn clockwise.

According to “Most traditional buildings are built of wood. Usually no nails are used and the wood, often, whole tree trunks are merely interlocked. In this way, the buildings can be dismantled and moved to different locations. Each piece of the building depends on all of the others and the whole depends on each part. In the cities, cement is being more and more used, but much care is taken to make it look like the traditional wood complex. The temple builders are so keen to preserve the traditional atmosphere that they even go to the trouble of making the washing and toilet facilities in the same style as the other buildings. When you visit a temple, you will notice a lot of wood and stone used to make different objects.”


Features of Korean Buddhist Temples

Many Korean temples have outer gates and inner gates protected by fierce multi-colored guardian gods. The guardian gods on the outside gate sometime have lightning bolts coming out of their nostrils and a serrated swords in their hand. The inner gate at the antechamber to the temple complex is often guarded by four guardian kings, representing the four cardinal directions. The king in the north holds a pagoda representing earth, heaven and cosmic axis. The king in the east holds a sword with the power to evoke a black wind that produces tens of thousands of spears and golden serpents. The king in the west possesses a lute. And the king in the south holds a dragon and a wish-fulfilling jewel.

According to “A temple compound includes many different buildings. Ranging from grandiose main Buddha Halls to tiny Mountain Spirit Shrines perched on the sides of mountains; no two temple buildings are alike. Each one is built so that the aerial view of the compound forms a mandala, and the main hall the focal point of the compound is enhanced by the juxtaposition of the other buildings. The main hall is the heart of a temple complex and so it is built with special care and ceremony. It is highly ornamented and decorated to enhance the beauty of its complex architecture. [Source:]

“Just about every temple includes a separate Mountain Spirit Shrine in its compound. The mountain spirit, the resident spirit long before Buddhism, arrived in Korea, has territorial rights to the mountain and consequently gets a higher place in the Bong am-sa Temple temple compound. Many temples also have separate buildings for the Seven Star Spirit (Big Dipper) and for the Recluse.

“One of the most important shrines is for Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, who usually has green hair and waits to help tormented people. The Judges of the Hells are placed along the walls of the shrine. Often there is yet another hall dedicated to Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Sometimes a special shrine is dedicated to the Buddha's disciples who have attained enlightenment: the Disciple's Hall. Sometimes there are sixteen and sometimes there are as many as one thousand disciples.

“The roofs are of special interest. Layer upon layer of whole tree trunks of varying girth are interlaced to produce the strength necessary to support the heavy tiles. Sometimes tiered and gabled to an extreme degree, aesthetic proportions are always kept in mind. An interesting fact is that traditionally, people believed that evil travels in straight lines. In order to stop it from entering the building the ends of the roofs are curved up.”

Skyscrapers in South Korea

The tallest building in South Korea is currently the 123–story Lotte World Tower. It is 554.5 meters (1,819 feet) tall. It has 123 floors and was completed in 2016 and is the 5th tallest building in the world. (as of 2020). [Source: Wikipedia +]

Haeundae LCT The Sharp Landmark Tower in Busan South Korea is the second tallest building in South Korea and the 38th tallest building in the world. (as of 2020). It is 411.6 meters (1,352 feet) tall. It has 101 floors and was completed in 2019. The Haeundae LCT The Sharp is a three-building complex +

There are various other projects planned over 300 meters, including the 338 meters (1,109 feet) tall Parc1, scheduled to resume construction in 2016, the 510 meters (1,673 feet) tall Busan Lotte Tower currently on hold, as well as the 553 meters (1,814 feet) tall Hyundai Global Business Center slated for completion in 2021. [Source: Wikipedia]

Stephen Heyman wrote in the New York Times: “When it comes to the skyscrapers of East Asia, no country can match the vertiginous zeal of China....South Korea, by contrast, has never been known for its vertical ambition. Until recently, the tallest building on the Korean peninsula was actually North Korea’s retro-Futurist Ryugyong Hotel , a pyramid-shaped skyscraper begun in Pyongyang in 1987 and still unfinished. [Source: Stephen Heyman, New York Times, April 15, 2015]

Lotte World Tower

Lotte World Tower dominates the Seoul skyline. Standing 554.5 meters (1,819 feet) tall, it is the world’s fifth tallest building behind 828-meter-high Burj Khalifa in Dubai, a clock twer in Mecca and a couple skyscrapers in China.Stephen Heyman wrote in the New York Times: “At 123 stories, the US$3.6 billion Lotte World Tower will be taller than New York’s One World Trade Center (104 stories) and London’s Shard (72 stories). It is being positioned as a triumph of modern architecture, Seoul’s own version of the Burj Khalifa, complete with a 2,000-seat concert hall, a three-story observation deck, a “six-star” hotel and a rooftop garden accessible from the ground floor via an express high-speed elevator. [Source: Stephen Heyman, New York Times, April 15, 2015]

“The building was intended to be the crowning achievement of Shin Kyuk-ho, 92, a Japanese-Korean tycoon who transformed a small chewing gum concern into Lotte Co., a multinational corporation with holdings that range from insurance and soft drink companies to the indoor theme park Lotte World, apparently the world’s largest.

“While conceived as a prestige project, the tower has been dogged by safety concerns since construction began in 2011. Separate accidents have left three workers dead and a passerby seriously injured. Recently, a series of small sinkholes have appeared near the construction site and a nearby lake has mysteriously shrunk in size. Safety issues have contributed to a decline in visitors to the mall from 100,000 per day when it opened last October to 58,000 per day in recent months, Reuters reported. In an attempt to reassure South Koreans — who have been especially vigilant about public safety since the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster — Lotte announced that Mr. Shin and 200 employees would move their offices to the building.

Among the building’s Guinness World Records is the fastest and tallest double-decker elevator, running from the basement to the 121st observation deck in just 60 seconds. Sohee Kim of Bloomberg wrote: “It boasts the world's highest glass-bottomed observation deck in a building. Visitors can stroll onto the glass a vertigo-inducing 1,640 feet—or half a kilometer—above the ground. It's also home to the world's highest swimming pool in a building, on the 85th floor.” The opening of building also provided “a much needed distraction for Lotte Group. The group’s chairman, Shin Dong-bin, and three other family members went on trial March 20 on charges ranging from embezzlement to fiduciary breaches, while China has been targeting the company's stores in retaliation for providing land for a U.S. missile-defense system. [Source: Sohee Kim, Bloomberg, April 3, 2017]

Lotte World Tower’s Design and Luxury Mall

Stephen Heyman wrote in the New York Times: “The tower’s tapered, curvilinear design, by the New York-based architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, alludes to Korean calligraphy and other traditional arts. At its base is a gleaming, 2.5 million-square-foot luxury mall housing high-fashion brands such as Céline, Chanel and Bottega Veneta, not to mention an aquarium and period reproductions of Seoul streets from the 1930s and 1960s. [Source: Stephen Heyman, New York Times, April 15, 2015]

Designed by architecture firm Kohn Pedersen, Lotte World Tower was inspired by traditional Korean pottery and calligraphy brushes. The tower contains office space, upscale apartments, a six-star hotel, an art gallery near its summit and cafés, in addition to a skywalk and an observation deck making it one of the best spots to appreciate the breathtaking view of Seoul's city lights [Source: Korea Tourism Organization]

Lotte World Mall, located next to the tower, features stores like Hermes to Celine as well as Avenuel, a complex of luxury department stores. Possessing 4.6 million square feet of floor space — an area nearly as big as the Vatican — the multi-leveled mall is regarded as one of the top shopping attractions in Seoul, with a variety of domestic and foreign brands. On the fifth level, there is a replica of Jong-ro Street from the 1930s, as well as a recreation of 1960's Myeong-dong on the sixth floor. The mall also offers a wide-range of entertainment facilities, such as a movie theater, aquarium, and more.

The mall opened close to the existing Lotte theme park in October 2014 with 100,000 visitors a day, but then was dogged by problems — that appear to have been blown out of proportion due to over-hyped safety cincerns — that reduced the number of visitors to 58,000, the Lotte company said. Reuters reported: ,”Glitches have been found at the giant, six-storey mall would be standard in any major new construction. Still, safety concerns have been magnified over issues as minor as water seepage from an aquarium or vibrations in one multiplex movie theater caused by speakers "Many people think this place is dangerous. Safety is a concern here," said Choi Dong-joon, a 33-year-old shopper and resident of Jamsil, an affluent district near the ritzy Gangnam area near Lotte World Mall told Reuters. "I only came because they have some luxury brands that you can't find elsewhere."[Source: Joyce Lee, Reuters, March 13, 2015]

Dwindling Japanese-Era Colonial Architecture in Korea

Nate Kornegay wrote in Korea Expose: “Once during an afternoon trip to Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do, I found myself photographing a small parking garage.” The “decaying wooden-framed, clay-walled building, an accidental survivor from the Japanese occupation, is presently worth absolutely nothing to the general public save for its use as a parking garage. This is a tragedy – not just for the warehouse-cum-parking garage, which admittedly is not of significant historical value, but for South Korea’s dwindling stock of colonial-era architecture as a whole. [Source: Nate Kornegay. Korea Expose, April 11, 2016]

“The Korean War, frequent city fires, and industrialization have since wreaked havoc on Korea’s cityscapes, destroying hundreds of thousands of old buildings that the country would never see again. This includes the traditional hanok houses, which, despite being a celebrated architectural design, has had more than 700,000 of its kind destroyed in Seoul alone since the 1970s. Trickier still is to argue for the conservation of old Western-Japanese buildings when the structures themselves carry so much baggage and have often been rejected as foreign impositions.For some people, early non-Korean modern architecture became a symbol of Japanese imperialism. For instance, socialist writer Cho Myeong-hui once characterized a piece of Japanese architecture as something disdainfully overlooking its chogajip neighbors in his 1927 narrative, Nakdong River.

“The rejection and politicization of colonial architecture in South Korea is epitomized by the dismantling of the Government-General building in 1996. The former seat of colonial rule was publicly (and controversially) demolished to make way for the restoration of Gyeongbok Palace. Other more recent casualties of the post-colonial demolition wave include a former tax building north of Deoksugung in Seoul, a colonial Japanese villa near the hot spring area of Oncheonjang in Busan, the Japanese styled Deokhwan Gwaneum-sa temple in Jinhae, and the mid-century Bethel Church in Masan. A former Army War College building in Jinhae dating to the colonial period is also presently slated for demolition.

“The case of the old Seoul City Hall building best illustrates officialdom’s cavalier attitude toward colonial-era architecture. The city of Seoul planned for a new city hall building since 2006 and announced in 2008 that the demolition would commence. The city argued that the old building, which dates to 1926, had no value as a cultural heritage site and that its age made it a safety hazard. Pledging to use all of its legal resources to complete the demolition, the city was, however, forced to keep the front half of the old hall and construct the new building behind it.

“When one considers that early modern architecture is what came to replace Korea’s beautiful, well-ordered Chosun-era city centers, hostility toward colonial artifacts is quite understandable. The Japanese government began dismantling Chosun fortresses and thousands of royal structures in the 1900s, robbing Korea of its traditional landscape. Gyeongbok Palace reportedly had over three hundred traditional-style buildings in 1910. By 1945, no more than eighteen remained. Some estimate that up to ninety-eight percent of Chosun-era architecture was destroyed during the Japanese occupation. It is then rather poetic that South Korea’s industrialization has since obliterated the colonial buildings that were once so ubiquitous.

Efforts to Save Korea’s Japanese-Era Colonial Architecture

Nate Kornegay wrote in Korea Expose: “But there is a strong argument for preserving colonial-period buildings considering that much of South Korea’s architectural heritage is actually reconstructed. Some Chosun Dynasty buildings are outright new, having been ‘restored’ in the last decade or two, and these reconstructions – like the Dongnae Eupseong Fortress in Busan, the restored roofs of Deoksugung Palace and the planned stone walkway nearby – are sometimes untrue to their original form. As such, they lack authenticity and run the risk of rewriting history, or at least creating a false representation of what the original looked like. [Source: Nate Kornegay. Korea Expose, April 11, 2016]

“The current revitalization project in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do, despite being colonial-centric, has proven to be immensely successful and popular with visitors. Ganggyeong, a nearby former river port town down on its luck, is following in Gunsan’s footsteps and having sections of its own old downtown restored. The old port area of Chemulpo in present-day Incheon has seen a number of building restorations, and the former migrant fishing village of Guryongpo, Gyeongsangbuk-do, has also rescued a street of colonial structures. In Jinhae, Gyeongsangnam-do, informational signs were placed in front of a handful of minor colonial buildings just last year.

“Some Japanese structures that remain include: 1) A wooden colonial-era warehouse in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do, now a parking garage; 2) the Old City Hall shaded by the much larger new Seoul City Hall; 3) the former Customs House in Gunsan, a town in Jeollabuk-do that has successfully revitalized itself by preserving its many colonial buildings; 4) the Old downtown Ganggyeong, which is trying to preserve remnants of its own colonial architecture; 5) Sonnae Onggi Cafe, located in a colonial-era house in Jeonju, Jeollabuk-do; 6) a Japanese villa in Busan. The office of the Government General during Japanese rule, later turned into the National Museum of Korea . It was razed in 1996 to make way for the restoration of Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul. The former War College in Jinhae is slated for demolition. The brand-new Dongnae Eupseong fortress in Busan is still considered ‘restored.’

Gardens in Korea

Tim Richardson wrote in The Telegraph: “Korean garden culture is just as rich, important and diverse as the traditions of neighbouring Japan and China, which have received far more attention over the years. Korea, after all, has had the same kind of history – of imperial dynasties, monks, bureaucrats, courtiers, teachers, soldiers, poets and scholars, all of whom incorporated garden-making as part of what constituted the “good life”. This overlooked country is replete with interesting historic gardens, ancient temples and dramatic mountain landscapes. As a result, South Korea is likely to become more of a tourist destination for Westerners, especially as it continues to thrive economically and looms ever larger in our consciousness – just as Japan did in the Eighties. [Source: Tim Richardson, The Telegraph, 29 Aug 2013]

“Slightly unexpectedly, it was plum and cherry-blossom time in Seoul – spring was almost as late in this part of the world as it had been in Britain. In the city’s botanical garden, the bright blossom sang out among the woodland trees ranged up the steep hillsides, thrilling to behold as the dawn light broke. This interest in trees and mountains can be traced to prehistoric traditions of animism, shamanism, feng shui and the belief in mountain and forest spirits – a religious spectrum known as Seondo. These traditions seem still to exert some hold over Korean attitudes to nature. On the vernacular level, there is a “village grove” tradition in Korea: a revered copse with supernatural qualities at the edge of a village. Animistic beliefs were later incorporated into Buddhist teaching, with almost all the 3,000 temples in Korea including a mountain spirit shrine or painting. The oldest traditions of garden-making in Korea were concerned with the construction of simple pavilions and walks through unadorned nature, revealing as little human intervention as possible.

“Accordingly, it is noticeable how Korean garden and landscape design as a whole tends to be more naturalistic than that of Japan or China. All three traditions include the idea of the miniaturised and idealised landscape – often a mountainous scene – translated to the garden setting, but Korean gardens lend as much importance to the sensation of walking through the actual landscape.

The Suncheon Bay garden expo is a vast event that is now attracting up to 30,000 visitors per day, though hardly any Western tourists. British garden designer Charles Jencks told The Telegraph : “They do still have this connection to the landscape, which is severed in the rest of the world. It’s a living tradition. They love getting out, walking and wandering. In their hearts they are animists, so they intuitively relate to everything that grows.”

Gardens in the Seoul Area

Tim Richardson wrote in The Telegraph: “You can see this tradition in action at even the grandest of ancient Korean gardens, the Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul, the second most important imperial palace in the city and the one traditionally favoured by the royal family. The reason for its popularity rested on its “rear” or (more cheesily) “secret” garden, a private 78-acre woodland interspersed with streams, formal pools and pavilions, of which a dozen or so survive today. It was first laid out in 1406, though the palace complex was later razed several times, either by fire or invading Japanese forces, and then rebuilt. The steep inclines and elegant winding walks in this woodland “garden” create the impression that the space is even bigger than it is in reality – at times, it feels like wild nature. Several pavilions are positioned for the enjoyment of tree-viewing, while others overlook pools with islands. [Source: Tim Richardson, The Telegraph, 29 Aug 2013]

“Away from the rear garden, in the public palace precincts, there are important garden elements, notably the monumental tiered granite terracing that rises behind the queen’s apartments on three sides, planted with flowering shrubs that are placed so they can be contemplated from the palace’s rooms and balconies.

“More evidence of the importance of woodland in the Korean imagination can be found at Chosun, the site of the royal tombs on the outskirts of Seoul, a venerated spot where people dress in their best clothes to visit. This is a favoured venue for couples in the advanced stages of courtship – I’m sure I saw one nervous young man proposing; I felt like giving the poor fellow a tot from my hip flask. These monumental tombs, and the grassy precincts that preface them, are all secreted within dense woodland. Other Korean garden highlights are the temples of Seonamsa and Songgwangsa – not too far from the Suncheon Bay expo – and the city of Gyeongju, north of Busan in the south east, which is to Korea what Kyoto is to Japan: a city of temples and gardens, including the royal palace and celebrated Anapji pond.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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