The period of Japanese imperialism was one of architectural experimentation. As architects came to find out, some of the Western designs were misfit for the Japanese climate. Something similar happened in colonial Taiwan when, after realizing that termites were chewing up their wooden buildings, architects turned to reinforced concrete. This resulted in cement manufacturing years before Korea. More importantly, this issue brought the first completely ferroconcrete Japanese-designed buildings that – as a further testament to the experimental quality of the colonies – wasn’t actually in Japan, but in Taiwan. This came in the form of the Taipei Telephone Office (1908).1 Yet the issue then was that in structures like this, the reinforcing bars were rusting out due to the humidity, causing the buildings to become structurally unsound, sometimes only lasting ten years.
As many have learned, transplanting architectural designs from one climate to another doesn’t always work out, meaning buildings and their features commonly evolve through trial and error. Depending on the issue, adjustments often have to be made – whether that is to the structure itself, to the person occupying it, or to the space being used through new technologies. In colonial Korea, there were no mishaps on the same scale as the issue with Taiwan’s first concrete buildings. Yet we can still explore how the most ordinary imported building designs fared on the Korean peninsula.
Above all other kinds of structures, Japanese clapboard homes became the most common transplanted building design in early modern Korea. Even during the 1920s-1940s, when brick, stone, and concrete buildings became increasingly common, most cityscapes still resembled those little remaining picturesque streets of Kyoto that tourists so love today. With roughly similar climates between Korea and Japan, one might expect that common wooden Japanese architecture fared well in Korea. However, the comments of missionary-doctor and diplomat Horace Newton Allen inspire us to consider the point further.
While reflecting on his time abroad after returning to the states in 1905, Allen went about comparing the comfort of various homes in Korea. In his description of “A Gentleman’s House,” he described the hanok as having “a rich oil paper that looks like brown marble, only it is nice and warm from the flues underneath so that if one has come in stiff from a chair ride in zero weather, his stockinged feet, from which a servant at the door has removed the shoes, begin to warm up most agreeably.”2 While some thought it too hot, causing one to become “half-boiled by the heat”,3 the wonderful warmth created during winter in hanok is something that many other Westerners of that period have praised and admired.
Allen had a decidedly low opinion of the heating in the Japanese home. After describing the gentleman’s hanok, he went on to say that “…the Japanese houses are notoriously cold, and a fire pot for warming the fingers is the only native system of heating.”4 The fire pot he wrote of was probably a charcoal-burning earthenware anka or furo-like metal brazier set in the middle of a tatami room. Though this tradition is still carried on today in present day Japan with the modern kotatsu blanketed heater (many early settlers likely blanketed their anka and braziers, too), it is unclear how early Japanese settlers fared in their turn of the century colonial homes.
We know that Japanese machiya (townhouse), and really all basic wooden clapboard structures, usually used the same kind of clays and plasters in its walls that hanok did. Yet insulation wasn’t, and still isn’t, a primary concern in Korea and Japan, save for the northernmost regions. This was true for the majority of the Western world around 1900, where ideas about controlling the interior temperature and climate of a building were also not common yet. Instead, the focus was on warming or cooling people – not the structures and spaces themselves. This view would have been quite normal for the average Korean and Japanese individual. Current ideas of well insulated, energy efficient homes run contrary to most people’s lifestyles of the time, regardless of culture. And even today, some find modern climate control of a space (particularly the use of forced air rather than radiated air) to be uncomfortable and unnatural, meaning the Japanese brazier may have been fine for others even if Allen didn’t like it. While the thermal qualities of a space can be quantified and measured, it is important to remember that comfort is relative and the human body is somewhat adaptive.
Despite Allen’s opinion that Japanese homes were insufficiently heated, we should explore the time of which he wrote. Socio-economically, in the late 1800s there was a significant portion of Japanese living no better than Korean peasant farmers did.5 Indeed, the early Japanese settlement at the southern base of Namsan (Seoul) was known as a mud filled “nest of beggars” at the turn of the century – a far cry from the shining, Ginza-inspired main street of Honmachi that would develop later on around the present day Myeong-dong area.6 Allen’s opinion was that Japanese heating was quite miserable, and there is evidence to suggest that some of these first immigrant homes on the “frontier” of Korea were poorly built, but it is difficult to judge by anecdote how uncomfortable poor settlers may have been.
To be clear, Allen likely wasn’t referring to people like Japanese consuls, who would have been more than comfortable in their well-to-do homes. The fact that the common wooden Japanese home (however improved over time) came to dominate Korean cities may act as evidence that the versions from the 1910s-1940s were usually adequate. Yet for comparison it should be noted that other Westerners took issue with the ordinary Japanese home outside of Korea, too. Nathan Brown, a missionary and founder of the First Baptist Church in Yokohama, arrived in Japan in February of 1873. After having to temporarily rent a Japanese house, Brown commented that, “I think I never suffered as much from cold in New York as I have done since I came here – perhaps it is from our cold house, and its exposure to the high winds.”7 While it is difficult to tell whether comments like these were true reflections of the buildings they were in, such remarks still add something to our question of housing comfort and quality in early modern Korea and Japan.
In a way, the hanok was ahead of its time. Its radiant floor-centered heat was not only a standard comfort found in the homes of the rich and poor, but it is a technology that actually aimed to heat the space itself – not only its occupants. And if one needed the temperature altered or the air changed, opening the doors and windows was an easy way of letting in some of the cold air during winter. Oiled paper, hanji, was heavy enough for protecting against some insects and light elements, but light enough to aid in airflow. Breathable in summer and toasty in winter, the “natural” quality of heat made by ondol was even noted by architect Frank Lloyd Wright when, after his experience with the ondol in a home in Tokyo around 1920, he remarked that it felt like spring time.8 This inspired him to use radiant, underfloor heating in his designs, taking a little piece of Joseon architecture and implementing it into his Usonian style homes.
Yet not everyone thought so highly of Joseon architecture. In an 1882 report to the British minister in Japan, acting consul J.C. Hall wrote from Nagasaki that, “There is no house in Corea, so far as I could see, fit for a European to live in.”9 Even the first American ministers to Korea resided in hanok bought from the Min family as there were few foreign buildings at the time. In the Japanese world, exhibitions of its colonies used Korean architectural displays as a way to comparatively demonstrate its modernity relative to Korea’s “backwardness” and “unmodern” buildings. Despite the adoption of the ondol in Japanese homes, the ondol carried a distinctly negative social connotation in certain circles. To understand this, we must look at how Koreans in general were thought of by both mainland Japanese and some Westerners during colonization. This sentiment was not shared by all, but there was a common opinion that Koreans were a lazy lot – so much so that a 1909 Japanese publication entitled Korean Caricatures depicted Koreans making “unseemly rice cakes,” pimping “lower-class prostitutes,” and sawing trees ineffectively.10 As Dr. Todd Henry of UCSD points out in his always excellent research, even Korean cattle are shown as lazy in one illustration.11
Such ideas occurred amidst growing concerns of Japanese settlers “going native” and adopting “lazy” Korean lifestyles (a point that becomes interesting when we consider the Japanese government was very concerned with the poor image and reputation of its first settlers whom elite Koreans looked down upon). This grew into a discussion regarding Japanese settlers living in Korea who, after becoming “re-Japanized” upon moving back to the metropole, would often revert ‘back to a “lazy” Korean lifestyle of smoking long pipes while sitting on the enervating ondol.’12
It may be accurate to say that a cognitive dissonance formed as the racialized ondol was constructed in Japanese homes in Korea and in Japan. As has been the case with imperialism in other countries, cultural cherry picking resulted in inconsistent social views of Korea. Korean artifacts were bought or commandeered by Japanese collectors – and by the government – as quaint examples of a backwards culture while simultaneously praised for their beauty and workmanship.13 In the same way, it appears that a double standard formed around the ondol, at once being a practical and comfortable feature of the home that also encouraged what cultural ideologs considered a poor, lazy Korean work ethic. Despite the ondol occupying this odd social space of being both desirable and a catalyst for laziness, the hanok and its ondol survived in their modernized forms.
Before we take Allen’s comments as gospel that hanok from the time were better than both Japanese and Chinese homes, we should not forget that hanok had their issues. Anecdotes say that rats were able to get into the rafters and, subsequently, snakes would join. All manner of small “vermin” insects infested the interiors of hanok inns, according to Western travelers. Typically salt needed to be impacted into the base of the wooden frames, which would then work its way up into the wood over time. This was to help keep away insects and keep the wood dry, yet it is unclear whether this was an adaptation or a design feature. A similarly mixed feature was that the heat from the ondol during summer helped to keep the wood dry at the expense of the interior becoming like an oven.14 (Remember: the kitchen oven and the ondol were part of the same system) French Catholic reports going back to the mid 1800s explain that “smoke rises up in abundant puffs through the crevices in the floor…”, leaving us to wonder how well the common Joseon era hanok was usually constructed despite its great design. To be sure, many ordinary buildings from the turn of the twentieth century – across all cultures – were not built in the precise, exacting way one would do for a large government building, for example.
Furthermore, wood roof extensions were sometimes added on between the eaves and tile or thatch, suggesting either poor individual construction or design in many common hanok. Were the roof eaves almost always too short, requiring an added canopy to keep rain away from the building? It’s possible some of these roof extensions may have been added for privacy as it was normal for even the poor to shield their homes from outside eyes. They were also outfitted on street facing buildings by vendors who wished to shade their shop fronts or marginally extend them into the roads.
It would be easy to dismiss this feature, calling it a temporary and meaningless add-on that does not contribute to how we view and define Joseon architecture. However, it should be said that even Daewongun – the strong-willed regent that ruled in Gojong’s stead until he became king – had a hanok residence that contained roof extensions. When we examine the Noandang building at Unhyeongung, note that the roof extension is permanently attached to the actual frame of the roof (click here for photo). This means that roof extensions or canopies were not only used by both poor and royalty, but it was also done so in a permanent manner. To be sure, the roof section between the eaves and the roof tiles in Noandang is not a second tier of eaves (some hanok contained tiers of roofing under the giwa), but is indeed something that may have been added on and could be viewed as compensation for a design flaw. Today, new roof extensions on old hanok are commonly still made in the form of metal drain pans for rain gutters and water drainage. Could it be that all added canopies, or roof extensions, from the colonial period were made precisely for dealing with rain?
Homes on the Coast
A typical Japanese house had some interesting features for dealing with the environment that deserve mentioning. For one, they featured open and breezy designs not dissimilar from the hanok. This worked well for summer. More interestingly, one architectural element found in Japanese clapboard homes, and sometimes but not always in machiya buildings, that was useful in coastal Korea is the amado. Typically hidden inside a decorative storage box on the building’s exterior, the amado is a kind of screen on tracks that slides out of its box casing to cover shoji or glass windows (it should be noted that paper screens were just as common in Japan as they were in Korea up until modernization and glass became common). This amado screen was used to protect the interior from environmental elements and intruders. When we consider that most individual hanok were not shining examples of security and protection, it would be easy to argue that the amado was a better choice for buildings than the oil papered hanok doors. (In lieu of a good security measure, one Swedish missionary, who arrived in Korea in 1911 as a volunteer for the Salvation Army, wrote of tying a rope to her arm and the chogajip door so that she would quickly awake upon entry of an unwanted guest).16
Yet, with regard to protection from bad weather, hanok did not require this amado feature. Built in one of a few shapes depending on its region, a hanok’s entry facade would not be exposed to the elements of a storm. In Jeju and other coastal areas, this was further helped by their homes’ stone wall construction. Though French Catholic missionaries working in the 1800s wrote that, “The art of building stone walls for houses is unknown, or rather, most of the time, the money is lacking for such an expense”,17 photos from the turn of the century do show stone buildings along the coast. During colonization, it seems that some might have learned from earlier mistakes in coastal Jeollanamdo, for Mokpo, Yeosu, and Suncheon all contain a number of colonial era stone faced buildings. Some were supported by brick and finished with cement or stone while others used a concrete frame. There was even an Edo styled temple in Mokpo from the 1930s built with stone walls – a great departure from typical temple design. To be clear, however, early modern stone buildings were also found in Korea’s city centers.
Beyond Common Korean and Japanese Homes
Questionable design and environmental misfits go beyond ordinary homes. There were the massive estates and mansions of, for example, the Governor-General in Yongsan and Yun Deok-yeong in present day Seochon. The official residence of the Governor-General (click for photo) was a spacious, French Second Empire style building (1909-1945). However, like the great palaces of old Europe, there seems to have been no efficient way to cool or heat such large spaces. The goal, as has been throughout most of history, was to heat or cool the occupants themselves – not the space of the structure. As such, one could conjecture that such a house may have been uncomfortable during the peaks of summer and winter. This, coupled with the enormous electrical requirements for daily use of the mansion, may have been a contributing factor in the Governor-General’s decision to rarely, if ever, stay in his official home.18
To explore this point further, we can look at the home of the previously mentioned Yun Deok-yeong, whose main home was completed in 1917 on his old Byeoksusanjang manor – for truly such a place could only be called a manor. A large, Victorian-Renaissance affair possibly built by Chinese masons under French design, the main building was a castle-like structure located to the west of Gyeongbokgung overlooking a neighborhood of hanok (Click here for Joseon Ilbo photo, 1926. Click here for Panorama photo, 1930s). Many of these hanok are now the ones being used by trendy businesses in present day Seochon.
Yun Deok-yeong is remembered as being a pro-Japanese individual whose enormous estate surely contributed to his large debts. The main building was damaged in a fire in 1966 and subsequently demolished. Much of the estate has been divided into hundreds of small lots (around 500, judging by the old Korean address system that was a hold over the Japanese system), but what is unknown to some today is that a secondary Japanese-influenced Western-styled villa, which is now referred to as the Bak No-su House, and a large hanok structure, which is currently occupied by squatters, were both part of the original Byeoksusanjang estate. Even sections of the original wall and gate remain, meaning traces of Yun Deok-yeong’s legacy are still present in Seoul.*
While it is unclear how warm these large estate homes may have been, we know that the size alone would have presented heating challenges. For comparison, in the first part of the twentieth century, some similarly sized country estates in Britain were known to be quite cold. Some weren’t outfitted with central heating until the 1960s despite the cold.19 Interestingly, when piped hot water became available in the second half of the 19th century, “most owners and their guests preferred to use hip baths in front of the fire of their bedroom or dressing room rather than using a purpose-built bathroom; often, into the early twentieth century, the only fixed baths were to be found in servants’ quarters.”20 Thus, even in parts of Europe, it wasn’t common for estate homes to be well heated at this time despite the development of new heating technology.
In contrast to these huge mansions that required a lot of energy to heat and light, stone and masonry based missionary homes seemed to have weathered the Korean climate relatively well. While their constructions were similar to Yun Deok-yeong’s home in many ways, they were ordinarily much smaller than his (there were a few cases of large homes built by Westerners). Summer was survived by breezy porches and vented subspaces, which may have been more true of bungalow designs. Heating was often provided by large fireplaces. In winter, these homes probably had cold spots and heat leakage like any other common American or European home at the time since many of them were simply transplanted designs from the West. These brick fireplaces can still be found in a number of remaining missionary homes today, as well as early Japanese-built Western-influenced homes and government buildings.
We know that in at least one instance, a different kind of heater could be found in the house of Presbyterian minister Eugene Bell. In a letter dated 1898, written during the construction of his family’s home in Mokpo, Bell seemed to have had an early form of central heating in what he called a “Russian stove.” Judging by the description of the stove as being “an immense mass of brick” covered in plaster with a flue that “runs round and round and round” up to a damper near the ceiling used for trapping in heat, Bell’s stove was indeed a traditional Russian style masonry heater.21
How he was able to build such a thing in a city that seemed to have had hardly any Russian influence at the time (though there was plenty of Russian interest in the area) is unclear. That being said, given that Bell hired a Japanese painter to travel from Seoul, it is possible that someone from the Russian community in Seoul was also brought into Mokpo for work on Bell’s house. Such a large heating fireplace, particularly one situated in the center of the home so the radiant heat would affect all rooms that shared a wall with the heater, was used by setting a fire once or twice a day, keeping a steady, acceptable heat throughout the building. In this way, it was not unlike the ondol, making it well suited for Korea’s harsh winters.
There were also those missionaries that used iron heating stoves. Sometimes acquired through Townsend & Co. in Chemulpo (Incheon) during the early 1900s, even Bell tried to get into selling this kind of heater from the Round Oak stove company by offering his services as their sole dealer in Korea.22 More or less functioning like the Japanese charcoal-burning braziers that Allen criticized (simply an enclosed vessel for fire), these wood-burning stoves were usually bigger and burned hotter than the little Japanese pots, and were seemingly popular in the Western community.
While Britain was slow to adopt this technology in houses, Western Europeans and Americans embraced enclosed stoves.23 Japanese architects, who typically always worked towards being technologically and stylistically forward, were also influenced by this – for even the previously pictured fireplace in the former Japanese Consulate of Mokpo used metal for its firebox.
By the 1920s, alongside Japanese officialdom’s obsession with fireproofing buildings, furnace and boiler fed radiators started to become more common. One of the more interesting examples of this can be found in Changdeokgung, where both Injeongjeon, the main audience hall, and Huijeongdang, which served as residence for the Korean royal family after annexation, were fitted with this technology. In Injeongjeon, we can still see the old piping attached to the columns. However, the size of the space leads one to wonder whether or not the radiators were able to properly keep anyone warm. Outside Huijeongdang, we can see the spot where its boilers – the ones that kept the royal family warm here – were formerly located.
The former McLellan House, a patterned brick Princess Anne and Chinese influenced home that was expanded upon by its later Japanese owner, was also outfitted with a boiler (pictured here) and, perhaps, a cast iron radiator system. The house may have originally only had a small fireplace for warmth; it is unclear whether or not the boiler was a later addition. Similarly, the Governor-General’s Residence at Yongsan and Yun Deok-yeong’s home could have been outfitted with boiler-radiator systems as time went on. In the previously pictured Wilson home, it should be noted that it was constructed with a dedicated boiler room.
As building construction became more precise throughout the colonial period, when even city hanok arguably became an improvement over Joseon era hanok, boiler-radiator heating became more common (though hanok still maintained its classic ondol). By the mid-1920s and into the 1930s, large furnaces were the main source of heat for government buildings and provincial offices. Examples of old radiators could still be seen in the former Jinhae War College, but one of the earliest examples of fixed boiler technology arrived in Korea around 1887 as part of the Jeondeungso power plant that lit Gyeongbokgung.25
As such, it seems there was a significant split between the public and private spheres with regard to heating methods, where boiler and radiator systems were largely adopted in official buildings while more traditional forms of heating were used in the common Japanese and Korean homes. The exception to this was mostly in Western-styled homes, including those owned by both Westerners and Japanese, and in the homes of the wealthy.
Ultimately, people with the means to do so usually make up for a building’s shortcomings in other ways. This was true in early modern Korea as well. The earliest modern Japanese buildings and hanok have both been criticized and praised, but we shouldn’t forget that their construction improved between the late 1800s and the 1940s. The comments of early Westerners at the turn of the century, as they related to comfort in the home, tell us something about how architecture evolved throughout the colonial period, but such remarks also reveal how they experienced the people and constructed environment around them. By comparing the various kinds and qualities of common Korean, Japanese, and Western buildings in colonial Korea, we can get a better sense of the variances in their livability and how they changed over time. Architecture is not always perfect, yet in early modern Korea it seems most common building designs – transplanted or not – were adequate enough.
Citations and Footnotes
1Yasuhiko Nishizawa, “A Study of Japanese Colonial Architecture in East Asia,” Constructing the Colonized Land (London: Routledge, 2016).
2Horace Newton Allen, Things Korean, (Fleming H. Revell Company, 1908), 66.
3Arthur Judson Brown, The Mastery of the Far East (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919), 50.
4Horace Newton Allen, Things Korean, (Fleming H. Revell Company, 1908), 67.
5Jun Uchida, Brokers of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea, 1876-1945, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center and Harvard University Press, 2011), 38.
6Jun Uchida, Brokers of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea, 1876-1945, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center and Harvard University Press, 2011), 38 and 71.
7Hamish Ion, American Missionaries, Christian Oyatoi, and Japan, 1859-73 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).
8Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography (London: Faber & Faber, 1945), 429.
9J. C. Hall, “A Visit to Corea, in October 1882,” Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, New Monthly Series, Vol. 5, No. 5 (May, 1883), pp. 274-284, pg 4, a visit to corea)
10Todd A. Henry, “Assimilation’s Racializing Sensibilities: Colonized Koreans as Yobos and the “Yobo-ization” of Expatriate Japanese,” Positions: Asia Critique 21, no. 1 (Duke University Press, 2013), 21.
11Todd A. Henry, “Assimilation’s Racializing Sensibilities: Colonized Koreans as Yobos and the “Yobo-ization” of Expatriate Japanese,” Positions: Asia Critique 21, no. 1 (Duke University Press, 2013), 22.
12Todd A. Henry, “Assimilation’s Racializing Sensibilities: Colonized Koreans as Yobos and the “Yobo-ization” of Expatriate Japanese,” Positions: Asia Critique 21, no. 1 (Duke University Press, 2013), 29.
13See E. Taylor Atkins’ book on Koreana for more on this topic.
14Arthur Judson Brown, The Mastery of the Far East (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919), 50.
15Charles Dallet, History of the Korean Church 1874, from the 14th part of David Gemeinhardt’s English translation of this publication’s introduction.
16Annette Hye Kyung Son Ek, “The Swedish Perception of Korea and the Koreans during the early twentieth century,” World Congress of Korean Studies (Third Congress), 12.
17Charles Dallet, History of the Korean Church 1874, from the 14th part of David Gemeinhardt’s English translation of this publication’s introduction.
18Walking tour with historian Jihoon Suk.
19Marilyn Palmer, “Nineteenth-century technical innovations in British country houses and their estates,” Engineering History and Heritage 166 (ICE Publishing, 2013), 38.
20Marilyn Palmer, “Nineteenth-century technical innovations in British country houses and their estates,” Engineering History and Heritage 166 (ICE Publishing, 2013), 40.
*I first learned of the remains of Yun Deok-yeong’s estate through historian Jihoon Suk, who took the time to kindly show me this area and explain its fascinating history.
21Eugene Bell, letter to his mother, December 11, 1898.
22Dae Young Ryu, “Understanding Early American Missionaries in Korea (1884-1910): Capitalist Middle-Class Values and the Weber Thesis,” Archives de sciences sociales des religions (2001), 10.
23Marilyn Palmer, “Nineteenth-century technical innovations in British country houses and their estates,” Engineering History and Heritage 166 (ICE Publishing, 2013), 41.
24Correspondence with historian Jihoon Suk.
25Moon-Hyon Nam, “EARLY HISTORY of KOREAN ELECTRIC LIGHT and POWER DEVELOPMENT,” IEEE Conference on the History of Electric Power (2007).
***This article’s featured image is from the interior of an old Japanese farmhouse in Daejeo, Busan.