The Korean House - 5.1 New Housing Types aft er the Opening of Ports

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Understanding Korea Series No.5
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In 1876, the Joseon Dynasty formally opened its ports under the pressure of foreign powers. After this opening, foreigners, including diplomats, missionaries, and civilian businessmen from Europe, the United States, and Japan entered Korea through its ports. During the initial stage of their stay, they rented hanok. As they resided in Korea for longer periods of time, however, they gradually constructed their own houses and business buildings that fit their lifestyles. In the 1880s, a number of unconventional, Western-style buildings were constructed in Seoul, the capital of Korea. These buildings had brick walls and roofs made of tin plates or slates. Some were two-story buildings. At first, these buildings were called various names such as two-story house, tin-roofed house, and brick house. In 1890, this type of building became collectively known as yangok, which means “Western-style house.” Accordingly, hanok was then used as the generic term denoting a traditional Korean house. Therefore, the terms hanok and yangok were two neologisms of modern times that were used to distinguish between the different styles of buildings after the introduction of foreign architecture.

Not all houses constructed by foreigners were brick houses. While Westerners preferred building brick houses, the first Japanese immigrants built modernized wooden buildings. When the Japanese constructed public facilities, however, they typically opted for brick buildings, and as a result these brick buildings became the representative architectural style of yangok. In yangok, every room was clustered around the middle hallway or hall within one building that had a compact floor plan. As such, the interior and exterior spaces were strictly distinguished and the inside was only accessible by using an entrance. Hanok had accessible doors and windows that connected the room directly to the yard. And in terms of layout, urban traditional hanok had buildings surrounding a courtyard while yangok placed a building in the middle of the property with the yard around the perimeter of the house. Furthermore, the major difference between yangok and hanok was the use of ondol and maru since such rooms were only used in traditional hanok.

The construction of yangok began in earnest after 1905 when many Japanese people entered Korea following their country’s victory over the Russians. Around this time, there was mass construction of yangok that were meant to serve as official residences in urban areas, including Seoul. Yangok used to be constructed in small quantities by diplomats, missionaries, and businessmen as their business offices or houses. Massive official residences, however, were built on large plots of land in the urban center and were designed to form a complex. When Japan established a Residency-General in Joseon in 1906, this spurred the construction of official residences for management and company housing for employees. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea and established the Government-General of Korea. After this, the Government-General of Korea was able to start construction of new government offices and official residences on state land, including the grounds of old royal palaces, without any restrictions. The construction of official residences gradually escalated, and in 1921, out of 1,495 newly built houses in Seoul, 417 were official residences—approximately 28 percent.[1]

These official residences were constructed using the modern housing supply system in which buildings were constructed prior to finding inhabitants. This was different from the traditional construction process in which a person or family would request the construction of the house. With such a system in place, several standardized layouts were designed with the social position of future inhabitants in mind and were offered to such people once the construction was finished. Generally, the styles of official residence buildings were differentiated by size. For example, the governor-general of Korea was provided with an official residence of over 100 pyeong (330 square meters) because he was the highest-ranking government official, while local employees were provided with official residences of 18 pyeong (about 63 square meters), the smallest size. The latter were not considered small compared to the standard house of Joseon because 18 pyeong was about the same size as a hanok with nine bays.

Gunsan Japanese-style House of Sinheung-dong (Hirotsu House)

In the early stages of Japanese occupation, the official residences of Japanese colonial leaders and their staff applied the style of modern Japanese wooden structures. Japan, having opened its ports in 1854, began incorporating Western styles into traditional Japanese wooden structures and produced what is now recognized as the pseudo-Western style or early modern Japanese style. This hybrid modern house style was applied to the official residences and included rooms positioned on both sides of a hallway that was connected to the entrance. Some of the rooms were traditional Japanese tatami rooms designed to suit the Japanese lifestyle. However, as the duration of these officials’ stays in Korean was extended, efforts were made to make improvements that could negate the impacts of the Korean climate. The addition of ondol rooms was one of the representative efforts.

Japanese people, who had lived in a warmer climate, struggled to withstand the cold winters of the Korean peninsula, which has an average winter temperature of below –10°C. They soon realized that they could not make it through a Korean winter with only a traditional Japanese indoor brazier or the type of Russian stove that was imported then. As a result, all of the official residences built after 1920s had at least one ondol room to help its inhabitants survive the cold winter. Ondol installation continued, and by the late colonial period the position of the ondol room moved to the middle of the house. The fact that ondol systems were being installed in official residences that were mainly used by Japanese nationals demonstrates the extent to which the ondol is a perfect fit for the Korean climate. When the official residences and private Japanese-styled houses were taken over by Koreans in 1945, after liberation, the first thing Koreans did was replace the tatami rooms with ondol rooms.

In 1920, Seoul experienced rapid urbanization. As a large portion of the population moved from rural areas to the city, Seoul suffered from a severe housing shortage. The population of Seoul was 250,208 in 1920, 302,711 in 1925, 355,429 in 1930, and 443,876 in 1935, with an annual population increase of 5.2 percent.[2] Because of such a situation, a housing industry emerged after the mid-1920s, providing a massive number of homes. The housing industry can be classified into two categories, one being Japanese-oriented companies that provided modern yangok and the other being Korean-oriented companies that provided standard hanok, as colonization did not immediately change the demand for traditional housing styles. There was, however, a similarity between these two types of businesses in that they both distributed houses using a method that was different from the previous norms. Whereas houses were traditionally constructed upon need, the new house distribution style meant that homes were mass constructed as housing complexes and then allocated to future residents.

In the 1920s and 1930s, yangok houses that were sold by developers were called “culture houses.” This name was coined by Japanese modernists who believed that Westernization equated with modernization and created this commercial name to promote the Westernized lifestyle. The typical culture house had a master bedroom, a dining room, a living room (family room), and a children’s room that were separated according to their functions. The most up-to-date plumbing technology was installed in the kitchen and bathroom. Moreover, the placement of each room was determined by its specific function, meaning that more important rooms were positioned at the sunnier front side of the house while ancillary rooms were placed on the other side with a hallway intersecting the two sides. Most of the buildings were one-story houses, and the exterior of the building was formed with a pitched roof using cement or slate tiles and walls made of either brick or wooden boards. As the complex developed, the streets and lots within the complex would be planned at the same time. In most cases, the arrangement of lots in rows of two surrounded by roads formed a rectangular shape. Both official residences and culture houses were developed as massive housing complexes using the same floor plan, with individual houses surrounded by their own yards. This style eventually became the foundation of yangok and modern Korean housing.


  1. National Archives of Korea, Iljesigi geonchukdomyeon haeje (Annotated architectural drawings during the period of Japanese occupation) (Daejeon: National Archive of Korea, 2009), p. 344.
  2. Seoul Metropolitan Government, Seoul dosigyehoek (Urban planning in Seoul) (Seoul: Seoul Metropolitan Government), p. 36; Seoul dosigyehoek yeonhyeok (History of urban planning in Seoul) (Seoul: Seoul Metropolitan Government, 1977), p. 9.

Understanding Korea Series No.5 A Cultural History of the Korean House

Foreword · Introduction

1. Nature & Culture of Korea

2. The Beginnings of the Korean House · 2.1 Prehistoric Dwelling Sites of the Korean Peninsula · 2.2 Formation of Ancient Society and House Patt erns

3. Hanok: The Formation of the Traditional Korean House · 3.1 Ondol and Completion of the Traditional Hanok · 3.2 Types of Hanok · ARCHITECTURAL FEATURES THAT REFLECT REGIONAL CHARACTERISTICS


5. Integration with Modern Culture · 5.1 New Housing Types aft er the Opening of Ports · EXPOSITIONS AND THE CULTURE HOUSE · 5.2 Transformation of Hanok in the City · AN EXAMPLE OF URBAN-TYPE HANOK: GAHOE-DONG · 5.3 The Emergence of Multifamily Housing · THE TERM APARTMENT|THE TERM APARTMENT|THE TERM APARTMENT

6. Modern Korean Housing · 6.1 Transformation in Korean Housing aft er Liberation · VARIOUS FEATURES OF THE URBAN DETACHED HOUSE · 6.2 The Popularization of the Apartment · SUPPLY OF APARTMENT COMPLEXES

7. The Present and Future of Korean Housing · CHANGES IN INTERIOR SPACES OF APARTMENTS

Glossary · About the Author