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Korean Architecture


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Art produced by the Korean people traditionally has shared aesthetic concepts, motifs, techniques and forms with those of their neighboring countries, China and Japan. Yet despite its many similarities, the art of Korea has developed a distinctive style of its own. Korean art has seldom displayed the grandeur and aloofness of the Chinese nor the decorative sophistication of the Japanese. In terms of technical perfection and precision, Korean artists have generally been considered inferior to their immediate neighbors. The strength of Korean art rests in its simplicity and spontaneity. The architecture of Korea provides an excellent example of these traits. In addition to Buddhism, which was the main inspiration for many of the nation's architectural feats, the Chinese philosophies of um (yin in Chinese) and yang, geomancy, Taoism and Confucianism also influenced Korean architecture. Koreans easily integrated the philosophical and religious principles of these teachings into their own work and applied their own interpretation of them into their own architectural plans and lay-out.

Nature has always been regarded as an element of utmost importance in Korean architecture. Numerous Buddhist temples scattered across the country attest to Korea's outstanding tradition of Buddhist art. They were frequently located in only those mountains famed for their scenic beauty. What is unusual about ancient Korean architecture is that it never attempted to resist or compete with the natural environment. It unanimously attempted to harmonize its structures with the natural surroundings. In the popular scheme for temple buildings in ancient Korea, sanctuaries, chapels and lecture halls were most often arranged in a compound at the foot of a mountain or in a valley in such a way that they were practically hidden by the trees and shrubs. Conspicuousness and ostentatious display were traditionally avoided in Korean architecture.

In selecting the site for a building of any function, whether a private dwelling or a public facility, such as a palace or a temple, Koreans tended to attach special meaning to the natural surroundings. They never considered a place good enough for a building of any type unless it commanded an appropriate view of "mountains and water." This pursuit of constant contact with nature was not based only on aesthetics. The principles of geomancy was based on the idea that for humankind to achieve its proper unfolding, both intellectually and emotionally, it needed the support of nature. Geomantic principles were thus applied in selecting dwelling sites for both the living and the dead. A structure was invariably positioned to face a stream with a mountainous area at its back side. Ideally, the mountain had to have "wings" at both ends so that it could embrace the structure which, in keeping with um-yang considerations, had to have a stream flowing in front. Efforts were made to avoid having man-made construction disrupt this natural contour of the terrain.

Traditional Korean architecture was seldom inclined toward ostentatiousness in scale or ornamentation. Rooms were of relatively small in size and simply decorated. The lack of inner space was made up in the outer courts. The exterior spaces were regarded as being more important than the interior. This is because Korean buildings were usually composed of many smaller integrated structures that were connected by courtyards and gates. Korean architects also favored the natural patterns of wood grains, just as potters were concerned with bringing out the inherent or natural characteristics of the clay. Typical of this long-cultivated preference for simplicity in decoration was the sarangch'ae or master's salon which was commonly found in the house of a Confucian scholar-bureaucrat living during the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910). Situated in the "outer" quarter of the house, a cultured gentleman of respectable demeanor was never supposed to be superfluous in decorating this room. A few pieces of wooden furniture of simple design would suffice as it was mainly used for reading and for scholarly pursuits. His taste for simplicity would often be emphasized by a small landscape painting rendered in ink and some pieces of pottery.

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