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Homage to Korean Modern Architecture: ‘40 years of Architecture’

Homage to Korean Modern Architecture: ‘40 years of Architecture’


The special exhibition of donated artifacts at the Seoul Museum of History from Jeong In-Guk named ‘40 years of Architecture’ was opened from 22 September. Following last year’s special exhibition of danated artifacts by the architect Bak Hak-jae ‘Proofread 22 Times!’, it’s the second exhibition about Korean modern architects, curated by the museum. After Korea’s independence, Jeong In-Guk had to lay the foundations of modernism in the midst of chaotic circumstances. What could he do at such a time?
In his book The Critical Biography of Modern Korean Architecture, Park Kilyong (honorary professor, Kookmin University) comments that ‘Jeong In-Guk was eager to make his own practices correspond with an attempt to synchronize Korean architecture with world architecture’. This report written by Park Kilyong will reexamine the architect Jeong In-Guk and the history of Korean modern architecture.

materials provided by Seoul Museum of History (Unless otherwise indicated)



written by Park Kilyong (honorary professor, Kookmin University)


Over the past few years, there have been several exhibitions dedicated to Korean modern architects. In line with that, the Kimchungup Museum, built in 2013, has continued this legacy of collection, research and exhibition activities. The Mokchon Architecture Archive, which opened in 2010, has also been active in enriching public knowledge. Every year, a memorial exhibition is held for the anniversary of the passing of Kim Swoo Geun and it has also proposed new agendas. Hosted by the Cheongju National Museum in 2016, ‘Now again with Kim Swoo Geun; Kim Swoo Geun and Constructing the Museum’ extends the line of this flow.
‘The present’ is remaining alert subject to endless stimulation, and its body is leaning forward. So if it wants to look back, it has to turn its face with all its might. As galleries have been expanding their exhibition programmes into the realm of ‘architecture’, archiving has become one of the major means of engagement. From 2013, announcing an exhibition series on architects, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) has introduced Jung Ki-Yong, Itami Jun, Jong Soung Kim and Tai Soo Kim, sending ripples through the community and making us proud of Korean architectural history.
It’s obvious that the focus of the Seoul Museum of History lies with urban architecture. Navigating beyond this introductory approach and shaping a critical perspective on modern architects, however, doesn’t seem like a very new attempt. The Seoul Museum of History hosted the Special Exhibition of Relics Donated by the Architect Bak Hak-jae ‘Proofread 22 Times!’ in 2015 and now hosts the Special Exhibition of donated artifacts from Jeong In-Guk named ‘40 years of Architecture’ this year, 2016. The architecture exhibitions of the MMCA were mainly composed of images whereas the Seoul Museum of History decrypts architecture through analysing social and historical heritage. Therefore, this exhibition will be focused on reading rather than observing.


Jeong In-Guk’ architecture style is processed with a visible Modernism – an international style – and a romantic deviation from Modernism – regionalism.


When and How did We Become Modern?
In any case, the museums mentioned above are renewing the values embodied within the heritage of modernism, and we can see the wealth of thought that has accumulated over the last 60 years, as well as how many people have been welcomed into the community and therefore how far architecture has advanced.
For convenience’s sake, let’s define modern architects from the Japanese colonial era as the first generation and ‘the independence architects’ as the second. This second generation was educated in the Japanese colonial era and began practicing after independence, but came to extinction in 1980s. In general, an architect’s working period spans about 30 years, and the 30 years of this second generation was caught in extremely tough circumstances.
Until recently (no, until now), the period of existence of the second generation has been undervalued; Modernism in a shabby, thoughtless, retarded third world country. Thus we mesmerise ourselves with our own mythology, telling ourselves that we can ignore the situation of that time or even transcend it. However, it is an excuse to say that there’s nothing we could do about it, it’s simply not acceptable. A ballerina’s blaming her worn-out shoes for her bad jump does not sound convincing. We simply browse physical objects left behind by the time with only eyes. Yet the time of ‘fathers’, on which ‘the present’ wants to cast light, is not very long – it’s no more than 60 years.
Among others, the career of Jeong In-Guk is about 25 years starting from defecting from North Korea in 1950 to his death in 1976. It’s a considerably short period of time when it comes to an artist’s career. Due to war and poverty, his generation had a late start, but hard labour and world weariness resulted in an early death. It was the same for the painter Lee Jung-seob (1916 – 1956).
However, the period of productivity of Jeong In-Guk reveals a very high density of events: the oppression of the Japanese colonial government; the rapture of independence, and the ideological conflicts which swept over it; the Korean War which brought an end to all; escaping to the South and starting over again; becoming the poorest country in the world, which lived off international aid; a society plagued by a dictatorship; a miraculous revival through a planned economic development. All of these shifts were compressed into a quarter century and became the background to his generation.


The Influence of Historical Criticism
Spanning right across that time, the architectural oeuvre of Jeong In-Guk appears inconsistent and diversified. It is processed with a visible Modernism – an international style – and a romantic deviation from Modernism – regionalism. An artist cannot have such a pluralistic approach simply by accident, it must have derived from ‘Historical Criticism’, in which one searches a new principle by himself through a process of continuous reflection. As one branch of literary criticism, ‘Historical Criticism’ finds its grounds for an argument from historical contexts, so that it becomes subject to the constant observations of history. Among us, Bak Hak-jae and Jeong In-Guk did that work.
His journey towards historical criticism began with his graduate thesis submitted to Waseda University in 1942. His thesis A Study on Palaces of the Yi Dynasty was the very first architectural history thesis written by a Korean, and it used the aesthetic philosophy of Heinrich Wölfflin (1864 – 1945) as a catalyst. It states that both the ‘style of land (Stil des Landes)’ or ‘Style of race (Stil des Rasse)’ work together as ‘Grundstimmung’. Later, Dualism and Periodicity in Development of Architecture Style became the arterial line of his books, such as History of Western Architecture, Theory of Modern Architecture, Theory of Contemporary Architecture as well as his doctoral thesis, The Style of Architecture.
Jeong In-Guk has left a wide range of critical reviews, including comments on current topics and architectural reviews, and he was at the centre of several debates on traditional architecture. In 1967, the National Museum (now the National Folk Museum of Korea) project had to be put on the backburner due to a boycott and endless reproaches to its design competition brief ‘Design the museum as the imitation of a traditional Hanok’. At that time, Jeong as a juror and an advisor, had the responsibility to retrieve such situation around the competition.
Around that period of time, his perspective was being hardened by Korean Modernism and regionalism. This perspective turned into a foundation for reactionary forces against Modernism and soon became a code of conduct by which it would set Korean Modernism on a new path.
He was inspired by the reactionary forces that were against the tyranny of Western Modernism in some developing countries, especially in Mexico, Brazil, India, Israel and Japan. After the 10th CIAM, he thought the so-called ‘reaction of the third generation’ was the way we should all go.


(left) Theory of Modern Architecture  (1965), (right) History of Western Architecture  (1967)


Constructing Korean Modernism
From the standpoint of Structuralism, Jeong In-Guk’s research, critique, architectural design and social participation do not exist as a separate entity. They are interconnected with each other, not independent. After him, such an integrated structural statement will never appear again. Today, the sky is full of shining individuals, yet we can no longer find a milky way. There lies the distinctive value of the unique heritage left by Jeong In-Guk along with the integrity of Korean Modernism showed in this exhibition.
The exhibition has four sections including an introduction.
    · Foreground: Jongno, the Mecca of Korean Modernism
    · Mid-ground: Jeong In-Guk at Hongik University – Modern Architecture Office / four agendas for architecture, specimens of the time

    · Background: The three-dimensional structure of his research, critiques and social relation
    · Beyond: Epilogue
The exhibition divided his architecture into four discrete phases: Classic Modernism (Main Building at Hongik University); International Style (Former Korea Meteorological Administration); Hybrid between Romanticism and Modernism (Detached Office of KEPCO); and Vernacular Architecture based on Regionalism (Museum at Yeungnam University). Covering a period of 20 years, at first glimpse this narrative looks like ‘a chain of ironies’. This is because the former is rejected by the latter, and the latter comes as a result of modifying the former. They build themselves up and then reject themselves to rebuild, erase and rewrite. His architectural principles not only make a social contribution, but also come as a clinical test for his architectural practice. If one injects a vaccine developed in a lab into his own body, he would quickly understand whether the vaccine would cause an allergic reaction or work profitably as a cure.


Main Building at Hongik University


Former Korea Meteorological Administration


Detached Office of KEPCO



Social Relations of an Elite
We’ve been describing architecture as a sociological tool for each age’s civilization, but Jeong In-Guk’s remark that ‘architecture represents our sociological reality’ sounds more concrete. It is important to note that he founded the Architecture and Art Department at Hongik University in 1954. Although this provoked widespread controversy over whether architecture could be considered an art and, moreover, as within the bounds of fine art, professor Jeong In-Guk pursued the diverse cultivation of talents against a more traditional Korean architectural education inclined towards engineering. Professor Jong Soung Kimm says the curriculum at Hongik University was like a combination between the Bauhaus and Beaux-Arts. It was a very progressive move, particularly when architectural education at that time was blindly following a technician training system, a relic of the Japan. Against our expectations, design didn’t take up a large part of the curriculum of Hongik University. Instead, the curriculum placed significant value on historical education and allowed the sharing of various liberal arts with art school.
Next year, we are going to host the UIA 2017 Seoul World Architects Congress. I think this is the fruit of the accomplishment of 1965, in which the Korean Institute of Architects succeeded joining the Union Internationale des Architectes (UIA) after having overcome the sabotage enacted by North Korea in 1965 as well as a the fruit of our international relations which have been nurtured since 1975, when Jeong In-Guk was elected as a board member of UIA. In 1974, when he came to take on the post of president of Korean Institute of Architects, Jeong In-Guk insisted upon the integration of three main architectural organisations. But it seems that the factionalism of that time still remains with us.
Drawn in the form of an exhibition, the life of a structuralist displays a multilayered identity composed of a professor/architect/researcher/social coordinator/critic. When I learned about the exhibition plan, defined as ‘Jeong In-Guk: A Homage’, a thought came into my mind that I wanted to show this exhibition to certain people (including myself): design professors who can’t design (I don’t know if such people still exist!); architects whose principles and practices don’t correspond; scholars who can’t think ; teachers without a heart (again, numbering very few!); and the glamorous yet unsociable heads of organizations.

Installation view of the ‘40 years of Architecture’, Seoul Museum of History, 2016


Park Kilyong is an honorary professor in the School of Architecture at Kookmin University. He has also served as the Dean of Kookmin University College of Design, the Head of Environment Design Institute and the Dean of the School of Architecture at Kookmin University, as well as the Director of the Kookmin University Museum. He showed his critical thinking in the publication of his writings, Genes of Korean Modern Architecture, the Architecture of the Second Modernity and has also co-written Consilient Mapping: Nine Probes for Architecture in Korea.


tag.  Jeong In-Guk , Seoul Museum of History , Park Kilyong
no.587 (2016.October) 
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