Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the building and infrastructural demands of Western merchants on the Bund at Shanghai gave rise to what arguably became a distinct subgenre of architecture casually referred to by expatriates as the “compradoric” style.1 Taking the form of rather plain classical revivalist structures, the compradoric style was not a true style of architecture, but rather an informal name given to Shanghai’s many structures built under the influence of Chinese compradors – middlemen that worked between Western clients and the Chinese builders. Compradors, essentially assistants hired to handle managerial and purchasing tasks, are even thought to have made design decisions on buildings that may not have had an architect.2 Compradoric buildings, despite their low-architectural origins, were then “not without a certain grandeur and an air of wealth”.3
One of the best descriptions of what long-staying Westerners in China meant by “compradoric” architecture came in 1906, when a Charles M. Dyce explained that all of the foreign owned buildings around the Shanghai Bund “had a strong likeness one to another, because they had all to be built to supply the same kind of wants. They all stood in their own compounds, enclosed by a wall; and the compounds varied in extent from one acre to two or three. The important building was the dwelling house, which usually stood in the front part of the compound. It was built in a very solid fashion, with thick walls, and usually with a verandah running all around it both on the ground floor and storey above… When these buildings were erected in the early days of Shanghai as an open treaty port, there were no foreign architects; and the plans had to be drawn by the [Western] merchants themselves, with the assistance presumably of the Chinese architect or contractor. Probably the whole thing was managed by the compradore. The design of these buildings was therefore simple in the extreme. It was unusually a square or nearly square building … All around [the building], both upper and lower, ran a roomy verandah built of brick with open arches. This style of architecture required plenty of space, but that was available. Expense was no object; and taking it as a whole, it was simple, and even grand in its simplicity; and certainly most comfortable, so that it was probably much more suitable to what was required than any professional architect could have designed. It was christened by some wag the compradoric style…”4
The arcaded verandas and balconies were such defining characteristics of the style that they were once described as features that “orientalised” these otherwise Italianate villas at Shanghai and other Chinese ports.5 That is to say, such architectural features had embedded themselves so deeply into the fabric of Shanghai’s Bund’s cityscape that they came to be seen as “Oriental” building characteristics.
However, the reverse may also be true. Rather than being classical structures taking on Asian qualities, compradoric buildings were Asian structures that adapted (Western) classical features over time. That is to say, such buildings were arguably derived from the Bengalese bungalow that had become the prevalent form of housing in India for Western expatriates in the early 1800s. As the bungalow evolved and Western influence grew in China, such buildings became framed with brick — becoming more rectangular — and the compradoric style emerged in Shanghai.
It wasn’t only merchants on the Bund at Shanghai who were building in this simplified revivalist style, for even government funded structures designed by Western engineers generally leaned towards building plans drawn in a similar compradoric style. To be sure, it was British Royal Engineers that “introduced improvements to bungalows. Terms like ‘engineering vernacular’ and ‘Military Board style’ were coined to describe the appearance. More elaborate bungalows of brick or even stone became achievable even with unskilled labor. Flat roofs were introduced, and tiling replaced thatch on pitched roofs. Architects became involved in fashioning the veranda arches and pillars, roofs became more elaborate, and clerestory lights were inserted to improve ventilation by raising the main roof above the veranda roofs. These ‘classical’ or pukka bungalows evolved an upper floor, with stairs connecting the ground and first-floor verandas, both with balustrades, arches, and pillars. By mid-century, [1800s] the term ‘bungalow’ had lost its one-story connotation in the Far East.”6
What then ensued may have been a feedback loop of sorts, where local Chinese builders pulled from Westerner-designed buildings and Western engineers drew from earlier bungalow and Chinese designs. The result was a distinctly practical and efficient, if not somewhat kitsch, type of Western-Shanghainese architecture proliferating between the 1850s and 1890s. To be clear, compradoric buildings were so common in Shanghai, and so well understood, that its sportive name became an architectural pun which circulated in various publications: “The prevailing style is inclined to the classical, and is, according to local jest, not Doric, but Compradoric.”7
It was then around the turn of the twentieth century that compradoric-style buildings began to appear in meaningful numbers in Korea. By this time, new buildings in Shanghai were shifting away from revivalist brick bungalow influence, however an urban island of multi-storied brick structures with arcaded verandas similar to those in China began to develop in the heart of Seoul’s legation district of Jeong-dong. This occurrence was not random, but rather can be traced back to certain government building projects best characterized and made manifest by the British Empire and the Korean monarchy.
In Seoul, structures like the British legation and the new Korean palace halls at Gyeongungung [Deoksugung] bore a striking resemblance to the architecture of nineteenth century Chinese open ports. The completed British consular buildings in Korea were stylistically identical to their architectural cousins in China, designed by the same British government department that engineered Her Majesty’s government offices in places like Shanghai, Wuhu, Kiukiang, Chinkiang, and Peking. This department, simply called the Office of Works, maintained a branch in Shanghai whose staff oversaw the design and construction of some thirty three consular buildings throughout China, often taking state representatives out of their vernacular Chinese-styled structures and putting them into larger brick buildings of a compradoric nature.8 Such compradoric architectural qualities followed British representatives to Korea, where the Shanghai branch of the Office of Works designed and supervised a number of consular buildings built in the 1890s.
The construction of these buildings was indebted to the Chinese community and Korea’s newly opened shipping routes, providing the British government with both workers and building materials that had just become available to the Korean peninsula. When a Qing community formed in Korea in the mid-1880s, they brought their brick architecture with them. Sino-styled transoms, ridged arches, brick diapering, and perforated masonry patterns were transplanted from places like Shanghai, Tianjin, Peking, and Mukden. Chinese blue and red brick slowly worked their way into the Korean cityscape, and by the end of the 1880s, the essence of Western-Shanghainese bund architecture had found itself in Seoul.
When it was decided that new British consular facilities would be built in Seoul, the Office of Works in Shanghai had already proposed a number of different building plans since 1884. One early proposed design, for example, shows an extremely plain one-story timber structure slotted for the consulate site at Chemulpo, prepared by a Mr. Donaldson in the Shanghai office. This building appears to have never been constructed, particularly since one report indicates that a wooden structure, dubbed “The Royal Oak”, was imported from Nagasaki to Chemulpo in 1884 for British consular use.9
After much back-and-forth between the British Office of Works, the Foreign Office, and the Treasury, preparation for new consular buildings in Korea’s capital city finally began in 1889.10 Francis Julian Marshall, the head of the Office of Works at Shanghai, drew up plans for two buildings known internally as House No. 1 and House No. 2. These buildings were identical in form and style to the arcaded buildings of the same type in China, a product of both Marshall’s reliance on Chinese masons and his consistent use of efficient brick design. To be sure, the two contractors for the project were both Chinese and would have just entered Korea within the last five years. Furthermore, the Office of Works historically relied on military surveyors and engineers in Asia whose previous works clearly informed Marshall’s designs.11
When construction began around May-June 1890, the Joseon-styled diplomatic residence previously used by consul-general Walter Hillier was torn down. It was hoped that some of the old Korean estate could be preserved but the new buildings lacked any sort of Korean influence at all.12 Instead, they resembled the consular compounds and compradoric-style merchant houses of Shanghai, built from hundreds of thousands of bricks delivered by the project’s Chinese contractors.13 Unsurprisingly, the Office of Works continued in their architectural tradition by designing a similar, one-story consular structure in Chemulpo in 1896.
By the time Gojong took up residence in Gyeongungung (Deoksugung) in 1897, British-Shanghainese architecture had reportedly caught his eye. According to Hillier, the Korean monarch desired Marshall to design his new palace structures, though no evidence has been found indicating Marshall ever became involved.14 The emperor had already called for a few foreign-styled structures in Gyeongbokgung several years earlier, particularly a columned Italianate villa known as Gwanmungak (c1888-1891), but the key new palace buildings at Gyeongungung were decidedly non-Korean. Instead, brick arcades were adopted for a number of these palace structures, the most prominent being the 1901 Jungmyeongjeon building, the Imperial Guesthouse buildings (later Sontag Hotel), and Dondeokjeon. The smaller customs office building within the palace grounds, as well as Jeonggwanheon to a lesser degree, displayed Chinese influence, too.
As in China, foreign construction materials were brought into Korea for the better versions of such buildings, becoming important characteristics of compradoric-style structures. Hundreds of thousands of bricks and tiles were being imported from the West to either Shanghai or Hong Kong in the last few years of the nineteenth century, some of which may have been re-exported to Korea.15 In 1901 alone, at least 200,000 pieces of tile or brick were reported as imported from foreign countries to the peninsula, the most significant amounts arriving in Busan, Chemulpo, and Mokpo.16 Though many of these may have merely been general construction materials, it’s possible some of these imports to Korea could have been, for example, the European floor tiles used in Jungmyeongjeon, Dondeokjeon, the Sontag Hotel, and Jeonggwanheon.
The designs of these tiles varied somewhat, but they were all versions of popular star patterns specific to carreaux de ciment, or cement tiles.17 Manufactured in France and Belgium by companies like L. Vigier (Gard) and H. Sand (Brussels), they were apparently shipped from Europe to ports around East Asia. To be sure, in one example, the exact same type of star tile found in the floor of Jeonggwanheon can still be seen today in the floor of Hong Kong’s Béthanie chapel (b. 1875), further connecting Korea’s architecture to that of Western-influenced nineteenth century Chinese ports.
Other characteristics found in Chinese architecture were also seen in Jeong-dong at this time. At Dondeokjeon, the iron railings displaying the imperial emblem were wrought with old Sino geometry — and the building’s brick diapering was virtually identical to patterns found in China. The green glazed ceramic balustrade posts at the British legation also indicate Chinese influence, with similar examples having been found in Hong Kong. These green glazed ceramic balustrade posts may have been featured in the French legation, too.18 As such, compradoric-style architecture was taken out of its Chinese context and transplanted into a Korean setting.***
The first compradoric-style structure ever built in Korea may have been the apartment villa and office built for the employees of the German trading firm E. Meyer & Co. Its exact date of completion is unclear, but one report suggests that the “imposing” and “elegant” structure was already under construction in August 1886 and was to be completed later that year.19 The villa appeared as if it had been picked up from the bund at Shanghai and dropped onto a hill in Chemulpo, its arcaded veranda and plastered brick walls being quintessential features of merchant houses in China. Simple in the extreme, even as far as compradoric structures go, E. Meyer & Co. brought a little piece of late nineteenth century China with them. In Seoul, the Russian legation building (built 1890) was a similarly plastered brick structure displaying the same compradoric qualities as the E. Meyer & Co. building. The Italian legation building, too, was not unlike the compradoric-style Korean palace halls, adopting the same kind of windows and wooden balustrades as the Sontag Hotel. Even the old Italian consulate building expressed Chinese character, virtually identical to examples like the east gate structure at Weihaiwei in Shandong, China.
Compradoric architecture never flourished in Korea the way it did in China. It was instead short-lived and mostly confined to the inland capital city of Seoul. Though Chinese and compradoric architectural features could be found here and there in minor structures, there were only a few buildings in early modern Korea that resembled the rows of arcaded examples along the waterfronts in China. Such examples were transplanted not at the behest of Chinese individuals, but mainly from Western personalities and institutions that had previous experience in East Asia. To be sure, in the case of the British legation compound, it was designed by a British government office based in Shanghai. The Russian legation was designed by Seredin-Sabatin who had some (vague) previous experience in Asia. Carl Andreas Wolter’s Korean branch of E. Meyer & Co. had its roots not in Germany, but in the company’s first offices at Hong Kong and Tianjin.20 A few, if not all, of the palace structures at Deoksugung, too, were designed by Western engineers — at least one of which previously worked in the Chinese world (John Reginald Harding).21 There was perhaps, in the occidental mind, an expectation that these were the best kinds of buildings that could be had at the time, drawing from the well-established compradoric architectural tradition that had been trending for decades in China.
As for why the aesthetic of Chemulpo never approached that of the praya at Hong Kong or the bund at Shanghai, the answer arguably lies in the fact that no major merchant houses of the size of Jardine & Matheson ever significantly invested in Korea the way they had in China — though Jardine & Matheson itself did make an attempt by opening a shipping route to Chemulpo for one year.22 This is despite the fact that the regulations for the General Foreign Settlement were set up in a way that would, on paper, attract major (British-Chinese) merchant houses, yet none saw the Korean market significant enough to invest in.23 Some noteworthy American, European, and Qing companies did establish branches in Chemulpo and Seoul, but their trade was too small to warrant the kind of architectural expansion seen right at the water’s edge in large Chinese ports. Had they done so, the architecture at Chemulpo probably would have looked different.
Furthermore, the Japanese community, whose merchants were typically small business owners building in their vernacular clapboard style, played a role in preventing compradoric-style architecture from emerging. Not only were Japanese settlers reportedly the first foreign group to build in Chemulpo, but their settlement was centrally located on the waterfront, denying any potential for a strictly Shanghainese-styled bund. The result was a spatially divided and, to some degree, an architecturally compartmentalized port. Even the Qing community, which was generally responsible for constructing compradoric-style examples, did not use the style for their own settlements, instead opting for their vernacular row and townhouse structures.
Compradoric architecture in Korea could then essentially be called a Chinese construct, but one that was brought about and heavily informed by the Western world. It was viewed as both simultaneously plain and regal. While compradoric architectural features, namely brick arcades and verandas, continued to be found in Catholic structures for years to come, Korea’s short-lived fling with the compradoric style then abruptly came to a halt as the peninsula succumbed to growing Japanese influence. Characteristics of compradoric architecture were made manifest in other ways throughout the colonial period, yet perhaps never so pronounced as in Jeong-dong at the turn of the twentieth century. These last traces of the compradoric style on the Korean peninsula can still be found there today, in the palace grounds of Deoksugung.
I am indebted to the works of Mark Bertram and James E. Hoare, whose research allowed for the writing of this short post and the reframing of how we view some of early modern Korea’s most significant buildings by placing them into their broader context. To learn more, I recommend picking up their books. Bertram’s Room for Diplomacy is a comprehensive study of British consular buildings worldwide. Hoare’s Embassies in the Far East features a wonderfully detailed explanation of how the historic British legation buildings at Seoul were made. I would also like to thank Jihoon Suk, as our discussions and walking tours have granted me important insights and general food-for-thought regarding the buildings at Deoksugung.
Footnotes & Citations
1 Note that I have chosen to recover this informal term, compradoric, and use it as a specific classifier for these plain, veranda-clad, revivalist-influenced structures in China. It is separate, for example, from other types of buildings like shikumen, which is the fusion of Western and Chinese elements in close-quartered Shanghainese townhouses, and yang fang, which is a broader Chinese term also used to describe the fusion of Western-Chinese architecture. Note that most historical sources use the term compradoric as an ambiguous descriptor for either a building’s appearance or who built it.
2 One native Hong Konger documenting foreign settlement in Shanghai made note of this, writing that it was said some of the building designs were “left to the discretion of the compradores”. C. A. Montalto de Jesus, Historic Shanghai (Shanghai: The Shanghai Mercury, Limited, 1909), 47.
3 Cyprian A. G. Bridge, “Early Autumn on the Lower Yang-tze, The Fortnightly Review, vol. 19. (London: Chapman & Hall, 1876), 831.
4 Charles M. Dyce, The Model Settlement (London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd., 1906), 34-35.
5 C. A. Montalto de Jesus, Historic Shanghai (Shanghai: The Shanghai Mercury, Limited, 1909), 47.
6 Mark Bertram, Room for Diplomacy (Salisbury: Spire Books, 2017), 88-89.
7 Cyprian A. G. Bridge, “Early Autumn on the Lower Yang-tze, The Fortnightly Review, vol. 19. (London: Chapman & Hall, 1876), 831.
8 See Mark Bertram’s website Room for Diplomacy, in which a section entitled “China: Consular Building History 1866-1876” discusses the number of projects conducted by the Shanghai office.
9 Horace Newton Allen, A Chronological Index (Seoul: Methodist Publishing House, 1901), 15.
10 J. E. Hoare, Embassies in the East (London: Routledge, 2013), 180.
11 Before becoming head of the Shanghai office, Marshall worked as an assistant to the previous head, Robert Henry Boyce, who was a clerk in the Royal Engineers, a corps of the British Army. See Mark Bertram’s website Room for Diplomacy, in which a section entitled “China: Consular Building History 1866-1876” discusses Boyce.
12 J. E. Hoare, Embassies in the East (London: Routledge, 2013), 180-181.
13 J. E. Hoare, Embassies in the East (London: Routledge, 2013), 180.
14 J. E. Hoare, Embassies in the East (London: Routledge, 2013), 182.
15 During 1897 alone, some 149,000 bricks and tiles, 89,000 fire bricks, and roughly 207,000kg of fire clay had been imported to either Shanghai or Hong Kong from foreign countries that year. These ports were known as hubs for re-exportation to other smaller ports in East Asia. Commercial China in 1899 (Washington: Treasury Department, 1899), 2284-2285.
16 Returns of Trade and Trade Reports for the Year 1901 (Seoul: Methodist Publishing House, 1902), 10, 43, 78, 100, 128, 172, 204.
17 Such French tiles had become popular throughout Europe. Star designs like those seen in Gojong’s buildings were manufactured by a number of companies in France and Belgium, making it difficult to pinpoint where they came from exactly. Regarding their material, to be clear, some companies potentially could have used these designs in encaustic tiles – tiles made with different colors of clay – instead of cement.
18 Note that such posts may have also been used in the French legation. Photographs showing the balustrade posts on the first floor veranda of the French legation seem to indicate that they were similarly ceramic-made and glazed. The lighting in these photographs indicate the posts were reflective, suggesting they were not stone or cement. It is important to note that these posts were, however, a different shape than those at the British legation.
19 E. Meyer & Co. had at least two buildings in Chemulpo around this time. One was the hilltop structure that served as employee housing (and also probably work space) while a one-story mainstreet building served as the main office. It should be said that it is possible the building described in the North China Herald was referring to the mainstreet office of E. Meyer & Co. However, the description, which called it an “imposing” and “elegant” office, seems to better match the company’s grander structure on the hill, and not the simple one-story wooden structure that served as the mainstreet office. “…the most imposing of which will be the new and elegant offices of Messrs E. Meyer & Co., which will be completed in a couple of months.” North China Herald, August 27, 1886, 10; Due to its similarity to the Russian Legation (1890), the E. Meyer & Co. building may have been designed by Seredin-Sabatin.
20 E. Meyer & Co. did not establish offices in Hamburg and London until 1877 and 1883, respectively. Harald Fuess, “E. Meyer & Co. at the Eastern Frontiers of Capitalism: The Leading Western Merchant House in Korea, 1884 to 1914,” Journal of Business History, vol. 61, no. 1 (2017), 3.
21 John H. Dye designed the first iteration of Jungmyeongjeon (c1899), which subsequently burned down. John Reginald Harding designed Seokjojeon (c1900-1910). The other buildings are widely believed by Korean scholarship to have been designed by Seredin-Sabatin. However, no clear evidence has emerged on this.
22 Jardine & Matheson established a shipping route between Chemulpo and Shanghai between the end of 1883 to beginning of 1884, yet quickly closed the line and never set up permanent offices in Korea.
23 Harald Fuess, “E. Meyer & Co. at the Eastern Frontiers of Capitalism: The Leading Western Merchant House in Korea, 1884 to 1914,” Journal of Business History, vol. 61, no. 1 (2017), 16.
* See page 73 of Duncan Chesney’s Corea and the Powers.
** See page 37 of Horace Newton Allen’s A Chronological Index.
*** For more “traditional” Chinese architecture in Korea, see the building in Gyeongbokgung known as Jipokjae, which is a dramatic and interesting fusion of Sino-Korean design. It was built in 1891, around the same time as Gwanmungak, and can be considered one of the manifestations of Gojong’s interest in foreign architecture.
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