The Korean House - 6.1 Transformation in Korean Housing aft er Liberation

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Understanding Korea Series No.5
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THE TERM APARTMENT 1) Transformation in Korean Housing aft er Liberation VARIOUS FEATURES OF THE URBAN DETACHED HOUSE

Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, but was divided into north and south soon after. The Korean War followed, taking place over the course of three years starting in 1950. Therefore, housing construction in Korea recommenced after the armistice was signed in 1953. The housing construction industry mainly addressed the rehabilitation of buildings destroyed due to the war. At this time, Korea received assistance from the United States because it was difficult to effectively cover the shortage of housing with Korea’s economic capacity at the time. Also, the population in South Korea was expanding rapidly because many Koreans who left Korea during the Japanese colonial period and lived in Japan and China or those who left North Korea under communist rule were migrating back to South Korea.

According to historical pictures of Korean housing in Seoul from this period, many people lived in tents or shanties that were built illegally using building waste and constructed on state-owned lands either by streams or along the ridges.

To combat such issues, the Korean government initiated a project to supply public housing, including welfare houses. Though this was not enough to resolve the housing shortage, these efforts were significant for being the first public housing project carried out by the Korean government. Rather than building hanok, the housing type adopted by the Korean government was yangok structures made with cement blocks, paving the way for modern Korean housing. The rationale for selecting yangok over hanok was related to the availability of building materials; South Korea was lacking in wood while having an abundance of limestone, the raw material used for making cement.

After the liberation, brick became the standard building material for Korean public housing. Blocks were made with cheap cement, and these blocks were stacked up to build walls. Next, wooden trusses would be used to support the roofs. Briquettes made of coal made up for the lack of wood available for burning, though ondol systems were still used as the main source of heat. In order to have an ondol in the house like in a traditional hanok, the kitchen floor had to be installed at a lower level than the other floors, which made it difficult to lay the floor evenly. This challenge hindered the development of high-rise apartments in Korea until the 1970s, at which point a floor heating system with hot water pipes replaced the traditional ondol.

Besides the distribution of public housing by the Korean government, most of the houses in the 1950s were privately built hanok with columns and beams made with smaller, standard-sized lumber. Moreover, the structure of the roof was simplified by adopting the Japanese roof frame or Western-style truss. For example, urban-type hanok of the 1930s generally used 15-centimeter-thick lumber for columns[1] while simplified hanok of the 1950s installed 10.5-centimeter-thick columns and 10- to 40-centimeter-thick lumber beams, which were previously made of thicker wood.[2] To reduce the size of the structural materials, the overall weight of the roof had to be reduced. Therefore, instead of using traditional earthenware tiles, light cement roof tiles were widely used.

In 1961, Park Chung-hee came into power through a military coup. Through revisions to the Constitution and an election, he was inaugurated as president in 1963 and ruled until 1979. During this period, Korea went through unprecedented economic growth due to processing trade, or the export and processing of manufactured imported raw materials and half-finished products into finished products. As a result, Korea’s agriculture-focused industrial system transformed into an industry-focused industrial system and the country underwent rapid urbanization, two transitions that influenced houses in both urban and rural areas.

Within the city, both public and private suppliers produced an extensive number of detached houses in the yangok style in the 1960s and 1970s extensively. After the mid-1970s, the construction of high-rise apartments began. In addition, rural areas also adopted new standard housing that replaced thatched houses and traditional tile-roofed houses with cement brick buildings with slate roofs.

Most urban houses were detached houses. The walls were made of bricks or cement blocks, and wooden roof frames known as trusses were placed on the top before the roof was finished with tiles. Such houses typically had centralized layouts, and in the 1960s were usually single-story. In the 1970s, the houses were equipped with semi-basements, meaning that most of the houses were semi-two-story buildings. Later in the 1970s, houses were expanded to have three floors including a basement and above stories above the ground. Furthermore, heating and cooking systems were installed separately. The floor heating systems improved from traditional buttumak to include the use of a boiler that would heat up water and circulate heated water through pipes installed under the floor. Propane gas was also used for cooking. These improvements to heating and cooking equipment introduced innovative changes in the kitchen.

In the past, a kitchen’s agungi needed to be placed lower than the floor level, meaning that the kitchen floor was always lower than other interior spaces including other rooms and the maru. In later housing models, however, it was possible to install a kitchen at the same level as spaces that used the ondol.

As the level of the floor evened out, the relationship between the kitchen and maru also started to change. In hanok, the kitchen was the designated work space for women. However, in a society in which the perception of gender roles was becoming more moderate, these evenly leveled kitchens became intimate spaces, often used as dining rooms. In the past, the maru had been used as a space for the communal life of the extended family, but as family sizes got smaller, the nuclear family became more commonplace and the maru was used only by the immediate family. As a result, the maru became a living room of sorts. The integration of the living room, dining room, and kitchen into a single open space is known as an “LDK house,” which became the standard floor plan of both apartments and detached houses.

The complete integration of the toilet and bathroom into the interior space is closely related to the improvement of plumbing technology. In the 1920s, toilets in urban hanok and culture houses were already located within the building, but the disposal of excrement was still handled conventionally; thus, the toilet was positioned near the entrance or next to the street. As flush toilets were made available in the late twentieth century, it became possible to position toilets inside the house. In order to install all of the plumbing in one space, the toilet and bathroom were positioned together.

After the late 1970s, many two-story buildings were constructed in urban areas, including Seoul. This was done in order to improve the city’s housing density and to help alleviate the burden of an increasing population. During this process, a house that was built with reinforced concrete slabs for both the floor and the roof, called a “slab house,” became the most common construction style for detached houses. Therefore, carpenters, whose profession involved making complex wooden roof frames, gradually saw their role replaced by modern house construction. Moreover, after the last wave of slab house construction in the 1980s, changes to the design of detached houses were thrust aside as high-rise apartments began to dominate the urban housing landscape.

The primary reason for the disappearance of hanok from the housing market after the 1960s is imbalanced supply and demand of building materials. The most natural material, wood, was scarce while industrial products, including the cement and oil needed to produce bricks and blocks, were available at a relatively cheap cost. In addition, the memory of the Korean War instilled a desire to have a strong, fireproof house. Moreover, hanok required continuous repairs that were not compatable with the work schedules of urban laborers. The size of the nuclear family as compared to the extended family also played an important role in the prevalence of yangok.

Korea’s urban housing industry may have gone through a period of experimentation during the early twentieth century, but houses in rural areas retained the traditional hanok style until the mid-twentieth century. In fact, rural regions were excluded from the modernization that stemmed from the industrialization of the 1960s. During this period, the government encouraged the rural population to migrate to urban areas for the expansion of the urban labor force.

Around the mid-1970s, the government performed a modernizing project in rural areas called Saemaeul Undong (the New Community Movement), which involved the provision of agricultural machinery, a readjustment project surrounding arable land, and the improvement of rural housing. The improvement of rural housing proceeded by developing and supplying standard rural housing models and sharing the cost of remodeling with the government. As such, the government would provide annual proposals for standardized rural housing according to family size and region. The proposed house layouts were similar to those of popular urban detached houses. Much like an urban detached house, a centralized floor plan that included brick or cement walls and a wooden truss roof on top was recommended. There was only one difference, however: in these houses in the rural area, there were large maru (living rooms) at the center of the house that would have direct contact with the yard. This meant that the entrance hall was ignored. This feature was the result of incorporating the traditional hanok’s spatial relation between the interior space and the outer courtyard. Such a feature was necessary because rural villages still required spacious courtyards for agricultural work.


  1. Kim Seok-sun, “1921-1945 nyeon-ui geonchuk jujaeryo-in mokjae-wa byeokdol-ui saengsansa-e gwanhan bigyo yeongu” (A comparative study on the production history of timber and brick as the main architectural material in 1920–1945), Daehangeonchukhakhoe nonmunjip (Journal of the Architectural Institute of Korea) 11, No. 1 (April 1991), p. 168.
  2. Kim Dae-il, “1950nyeondae Seoul jiyeok gani hanok-ui josa yeongu” (A study of the simplified hanok in Seoul in the 1950s) (master’s thesis, Seoul National University, 2009), pp. 91–105.

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