Culture House Thought in Colonial Korea (1920s-1940s)

By the 1920s, Korea’s urban spaces had become aesthetically diverse. Remaining buildings typified by nineteenth century East Asian open-port architecture, institutional Meiji-influenced European revivalist structures, and the first wave of modernist designs all stood confusingly next to each other. Western missionaries and diplomats, too, were increasingly moving out of their modified Joseon-style buildings and into more modern, and more purely Western, architectural examples. Mission compounds would in many cases become a hodge-podge of old hanok, Western-Korean hybrids, and modern American-styled structures devoid of the ornate, Victorian influence of just two decades before. Downtown Seoul, though once equated to New York’s famed Fifth Avenue in the early 1920s, had become an architectural melting pot.1 Less like salt and pepper and more like seven-spice, the variety of styles, designs, functions, floorplans, and materials of these buildings worked together to form a unique urban space that, however somewhat similar to other early modern Asian cities, was distinct to Korea.

This variety extended to residential architecture, and while vernacular Korean and Japanese homes — the kinds defined by Joseon giwa/chogajip and Meiji clapboards — remained throughout the colonial period, the evolution and modernization of the home on the Korean peninsula was made manifest by those of means, pushed forward by specific institutional and commercial players, and normalized through modernity’s ensuing socio-political momentum. The new homes of the middle and upper class grew out of various interpretations of what a modern house should be — perhaps best understood within the context of what was termed the “culture house”. [munhwa jutaek, bunka jūtaku]

The culture house emerged from the Japanese metropole in the early 1920s, its influence later spanning the entirety of the empire. Aesthetically fluid and sometimes pastiche, the culture house was not a type of architecture per se, but existed as a specific design phenomenon within the greater context of Japanese society’s struggle to fuse and consolidate Western ideas with Japanese life. It is perhaps best described not as an architectural style, but as a fluid conversation made physically manifest in architectural form, with each built example being a slightly different answer to specific questions surrounding modernity, identity, family, and lifestyle within the context of a larger socio-political story. It materialized at the confluence of a decade-long housing shortage in the metropole exacerbated by the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, a growing middle class across the empire’s urban centers, and new Japanese architects gradually diverging from the architectural old guard rooted in the work of Tatsuno Kingo and Josiah Conder.2

Culture house thought went beyond architecture and resided in the realms of domesticity and urban development. It dealt very little with building structure, the discourse surrounding it instead focused on layout, lifestyle, and contribution to residents’ identity in relation to modernity. Nevertheless, architectural style became a core component of what made a culture house . . . a culture house. They can be read as both progressively innovative and thematically artificial – innovative in that they tackled the progressive problem of fusing very different lifestyles, yet artificial in the way some seemed stylistically “themed” and detached from the culture[s] they were built within. All this is to say that the culture house could generally be defined as a modern Japanese design mode, but an eclectic and fluid one that partially borrowed from the architectural lexicon of various stylistic trends from abroad and within Japan.

The Emergence of the Culture House

The culture house first appeared as a set of model houses at the 1922 Tokyo Peace Commemoration Exhibition, emerging not as a natural, vernacular architectural form, but one that was commercially developed and spectacularly presented in a public forum. As one of a number of housing displays in Japan since 1915, the “culture village” [bunka mura] section of the 1922 exhibition showing these model houses drew from contemporary discourse on domesticity and helped define modern thought on modern housing in Japan. The Architectural Institute of Japan (AIJ), which oversaw the culture village’s model houses, formed a committee to draft the construction guidelines for these model houses, influenced by entities like the Housing Improvement Association and Daily Life Reform League that sought to have Japanese society modernize.3 The guidelines notably did not dictate style, instead focusing on the houses being “commercial products” that builders could readily begin constructing. Size, cost, function, safety, and sanitation were other key points in the culture house guidelines. The AIJ called for builders, such as the influential Amerika-ya company, to avoid ornamentation of the exterior — and while some culture houses in the real world did become quite ornate, this guideline may have influenced the simplicity of many future culture house examples.4

Figure 1. Top, photographs of the model houses showcasing various examples of the new “culture house” at the 1922 Tokyo Peace Memorial Exhibition. Bottom, a plan of the model village at the exhibition. Sources: “The Tokyo Peace Memorial Photo Album,” [Heiwa kinen Tōkyō hakurankai shashin jō], 1922. National Diet Library of Japan.; “Detailed Building Plans of the Culture Village Houses,” [Bunka mura jūtaku zenbu sekkeizu shōkai], 1922. National Diet Library of Japan.

The model houses at the 1922 exhibition tended to be fusions of the Meiji Japanese clapboard and the American or English Craftsman bungalow. Exposing the wagoya, or “traditional” Japanese post and lintel frame that had much in common with the exposed timber framing of American Arts and Crafts homes, was one way in which Japanese builders blurred the lines between the “traditional” Japanese home and the “modern” Western home. This can be seen, for example, in the Tatsuya Hiroshi model house at the exhibition [Figure 2]. The subsequent acceptance of this method of applying culture house design to the Japanese wagoya frame is reflected in the many remaining examples and building plans that still exist today, the method being a way in which to make the culture house more affordable and less challenging to construct. The inclusion of the culture house in the 1926 edition of Practical Japanese Housing Structure [Jitsuyō Nihon kaoku kōzō], a continuously updated and published trade text by the First Japanese Industrial Society [Dai Nihon kōgyō gakkai], does something to show the normalization of using this “traditional” structural method as well.

Figure 2. Left, the interior of the Tatsuya Hiroshi model house at the 1922 exhibition, demonstrating how the Japanese wagoya frame could resemble the Western timber framing found in Craftsman styled homes, resulting in a purposefully hybrid “traditional”/”modern” interior. Right, the floor plan of the Tatsuya Hiroshi model house. Sources: “New Home Design: Illustrated,” [Shin jūka no sekkei: Zukai honi], 1923. National Diet Library of Japan; “Detailed Building Plans of the Culture Village Houses,” [Bunka mura jūtaku zenbu sekkeizu shōkai], 1922. National Diet Library of Japan.
Figure 3. Left, an illustration depicting “traditional” vernacular Japanese housing structure. Center, a drawing of a culture house using the vernacular Japanese framing method beneath its decorative exterior. Right, an alternate view of the same drawing in the center. Source: “Practical Japanese Housing Structure,” [Jitsuyō Nihon kaoku kōzō], 1926. National Diet Library of Japan.

The floor plans of the model houses at the 1922 exhibition varied, with some making use of walled-off private rooms in a Western fashion and others inspired by the more “traditional” Japanese tsuzukima layout that allowed rooms to be subdivided or completely opened via movable fusuma walls. The Tokyo Zaimoku Monya Dogyo Kumiai model house [Figure 1, bottom left house], was one of the more Japanese-leaning designs that retained the open sightlines of the tsuzukima. The aforementioned Tatsuya Hiroshi model house [Figure 2], which could be read as stylistically Western-leaning, used curtains as room dividers to shape internal space as desired — a departure from the strict walled-in divisions of the Western world.5 As such, even in the model houses, there was quite a bit of variety in how Japanese builders approached culture house design.

Figure 4. A typical Japanese tsuzukima layout, found in what is now the Nakdonggang Chilbaekri restaurant to the west of Busan, Korea. This home is registered cultural heritage property of Busan 2012-5, and is documented as dating to 1926. To be clear, the home has obviously been somewhat renovated over time as it is still in use, but the tsuzukima layout remains the same. Source: Photographed by Nate Kornegay, 2015.

As time went on, the ideas of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Walter Gropius, and others were sometimes added to culture house thought, with architectural styles and materials becoming colors in a palette that could be mixed and matched. The answer to the question of whether to draw from the Tudor Gothic vein of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Viennese Secession, Californian “Spanish” Mission Revivalism, or the American Midwestern Prairie School, for example, would become a reflection of personal identity and lifestyle detached from a given non-Japanese architectural style’s origins. This, too, extended to the lesser examples of culture house design that were more like vernacular Meiji period homes but still featured some characteristics of the culture house. That culture house design was less about following a specific architectural style and more about modern living in general is not only reflected in the wealth of built culture houses that still remain across the former Japanese empire, but also in 1920s print media. For example, in a 1926 publication simply entitled Architectural Photography Collection [Kenchiku shashin ruijū], a Wright design from 1918 that predated the 1922 exhibition culture houses, was brought into one the publication’s series of photographs on culture house design.

The house in question was the villa of Yamamura Tazaemon, completed in 1924 just outside Kobe by Wright’s colleague, Endo Arata, with whom Wright shared design credit for the home. It was specifically in Culture House Vol. 4 [Bunka jūtaku maki yon] that the publication demonstrated how culture house categorization had evolved well past the guiding principles dictated by the AIJ at the 1922 exhibition by the home’s mere inclusion in the volume. To be clear, there is no known evidence indicating that Wright’s 1918 design for the Yamamura house had anything to do with exhibit-defined culture houses, yet it was featured, probably due to the timing of the culture house trend and the popularity of Wright’s Imperial Hotel, in this publication on culture house design. Given the hybrid nature of culture house thought and the fact that tatami floors ended up in the final built form of the house, it becomes easier to understand why the Yamamura home could be dubbed a “culture house” in subsequent years. However, it is important to understand that, in this way, print media retroactively brought peripheral designs, such as the privately commissioned Yamamura house, into culture house thought — helping to account for the stylistically eclectic nature of the culture house in general.

Figure 5. Three Japanese-designed culture house drawings. All three examples demonstrate American Craftsman influence, while the bottom drawing represents what would become the more common “modern” Japanese housing type in later years. Source: “Reformed Houses and Culture Houses,” [Kairyō jūtaku oyobi bunka jūtaku], 1925. National Diet Library of Japan.
Figure 6. Photographs of Frank Lloyd Wright and Endo Arata’s Yamamura villa in Kobe, Japan, taken within a few years of its completion. The home’s design was retroactively brought into the “culture house” sphere by its inclusion in Culture House Vol. 4. Source: “Architectural Photographs Collection. Dai 5ki dai 13. (Culture House Vol. 4)” [Kenchiku shashin ruijū. Dai 5-ki dai 13 (Bunka jūtaku maki 4)], 1926. National Diet Library of Japan.
Figure 7. A Japanese-designed Wrightian-influenced culture house plan. Source: “Reformed Houses and Culture Houses,” [Kairyō jūtaku oyobi bunka jūtaku], 1925. National Diet Library of Japan.
Figure 8. The former Yamamura house in recent years. Source: Photographed by Nate Kornegay.
Figure 9. The former Yamamura house in recent years. Source: Photographed by Nate Kornegay

This example also serves to demonstrate how the term “culture house” progressively defied definition and came to be so freely tossed around, lacking an explicitly clear meaning as it was adopted by the general public. The word “culture” [bunka], in the Japanese language, was increasingly inundated with layers of meaning, and by this time was something of a catch-all for “new”, “modern”, and/or “Western” aspects of Japanese society. To be sure, it was not only used to refer to housing, but was affixed to new foods, clothes, and other aspects of the newfound materialism that grew from 1910s Japan.6 As such, understanding precisely what someone meant when using the word “culture” was, and remains to this day, sometimes challenging. This extended to the discourse in Korea, the term “culture” [munhwa] even being applied, for example, to modern buildings at the leper-cum-prison colony on the island of Sorokdo located along the rural southern coast of Korea — a place far removed from urban modernity and certainly uncivilized in its treatment of patient-inmates.7 However the term was used, or appropriated, “culture” came to simultaneously reflect modern life and, per the prescribed ideals laid out by the 1922 culture village planners at Tokyo, the thought that materialism, and by extension the culture house, could modernize its subscribers.8 In this way, even in the example at Sorokdo, “culture” in all of its many forms and interpretations was something desired across the Japanese world, becoming controversially embedded within Korean society as well.

Japanese Experimentation with “Traditional” and American Housing Design

The culture house entered the Korean peninsula during a time in which Japan was experiencing its own interest in Korean material culture — an interest that notably went so far as to prevent the total demolition of Gwanghwamun when the 1926 Government-General building was going up in Seoul, but did not extend so far as to save Gyeongbokgung from losing most of its Joseon architecture under Japanese rule.9 Japanese officialdom and academics took to documenting, classifying, and categorizing this culture in an institutionalized manner, mimicking the anthropological, sociological, and ethnographic studies made under Western colonialism at the time. Such study extended to architecture as Kon Wajiro (1888-1973), a Japanese designer and sociologist of sorts, began documenting vernacular Korean housing in the early 1920s.10 Though there had been surveys of Korean architecture by Japanese in the past, Kon’s work is descriptively rich and notable for its timing. This work was continued as Iwatsuki Yoshiyuki, a Government-General architectural engineer, and Park Gil-ryong (1898-1943), a now well-known Korean architect and researcher, took to classifying vernacular Korean housing types (regional layouts of chogajip and giwajip) in 1923. Park would use this information to form his own ideas on how to develop the Korean house for the modern age. However, in the Japanese world, studies like this one were part of a much larger discourse regarding “traditional” architecture and its relation to modern lifestyle and housing reform. For example, in Japan, discussion of minka, or “traditional” Japanese architecture chiefly from the Edo and Meiji periods, bled into the architectural sphere as designers creatively attempted to fuse characteristics of the Japanese minka with the new culture house trend. 

Figure 10. Several Japanese-designed culture house plans demonstrating how the vernacular [“traditional”] minka was used as a stylistic solution to the problem of how to retain “Japaneseness” in a modern home. The interior layouts are quite modern, while the exteriors fuse American/English Craftsman and “traditional” Japanese styles. For more on this particular subject matter, see sukiya zukuri and its modern interpretations. Source: “One Hundred Varieties of Culture House Design,” Vol. 1 [Bunka jūtaku zuan hyaku-shu. Jōkan], 1926. National Diet Library of Japan.

The experimentation with Western-Japanese architectural design extends back to the decade before the opening of Yokohama.11 However, the architectural discourse took a turn towards the culture house in the late 1910s as the ideas that would later inform, for example, the aforementioned experimental minka-influenced culture house plans, began to grow. It is known that various Japanese architects drew from the American architectural sphere, yet the transfer of knowledge and ideas was not one-way. As Japanese designers fused American craftsman styles with the more “traditional” elements of Japanese architecture, so such designers attempted to adapt the “traditional” Japanese home to the American landscape. One early example of a stateside Japanese home internally modified for Western living in the Meiji fashion was the country house of chemist Takamine Jokichi in rural Merriewold Park, New York. Originally one of the exhibition buildings imported from Japan and put on display at the St. Louis World Fair of 1904, it was gifted to Takamine by Emperor Meiji and subsequently reconstructed and altered in New York, the structure however largely retaining its Japanese style with no specific connection to the culture house of the 1920s outside of being part of the greater evolution of hybrid Japanese architecture.

Figure 11. The countryside villa of Takamine Jokichi as it appeared reconstructed in Merriewold Park, New York. Sources: Country Life in America, vol. 30 (1916), 7. HathiTrust Digital Library.; E. Percy Noel, “Men From Nippon: The Misunderstood,” The Far East, vol. 1, no. 10 (July 1908), 476-483. Smithsonian Libraries.

More relevant to the architectural interchange of the 1910s between Japan and the United States was the so-called Yamanaka Competition of 1916, a small design contest for which Takamine was meant to have served as a judge, but was replaced by another Japanese individual. Three Japanese and three Americans sat on the panel, including Henry Killam Murphy, the architect of Seoul’s Chosen Christian College campus and main buildings.12 The competition was planned by Yamanaka & Co., an NYC-based antiquities shop owned by Japanese art dealer Yamanaka Sadajiro, and was only open to architects and draftsmen in Japan. Of the forty-one submissions, the five top designs were published in an architectural trade journal in 1917, offering insight into the various eclectic design ideas swirling around the Japanese architectural world at the time. All of the plans reportedly were to become the property of Yamanaka’s art gallery afterwards.

The rules of the competition demonstrated the desire for solving the same problem that the culture house would continue to struggle with years later — the problem of retaining a familiar Japaneseness at home whilst adapting to the modern lifestyle of the West. The contest called for a basic structural layout consistent with American east coast residential architecture of the time: two stories with attic and space for a basement. American amenities and technology were another component of the guidelines as heating apparatus, ventilation, and “all conveniences” typical of an American home were to be cared for. As a house imagined in the states, floor-living was shunned and tatami mats were disallowed. Yet the rules dictated that “the style must be Japanese, both in exterior and interior.” The resulting designs varied in ornateness and appearance, and while the inclusion of some features such as the engawa (Japanese porch) were controversial to the judges, much of these plans were functionally Western — simultaneously demonstrating the grasp that young Japanese architects had on Western architectural design and the contest’s purpose of adapting Japanese style to America.13 More to the point, the seemingly bizarre nature of the designs suggests just how experimental residential architecture could be at the hands of Japanese architects even before the arrival of the culture house in 1922, the competition itself a part of the wide discourse on housing reform in the Japanese world.

Figure 12. The second winning design in third place (there were three third-place winners) submitted to the Yamanaka Competition by Sugiyama Akashiro. Source: “The Yamanaka Competition,” Architecture, vol. 35, no. 2 (February 1917), 32-37. HathiTrust Digital Library.
Figure 13. Left, an elevation of the first prize design submitted to the Yamanaka Competition by Shimizu Iwao. Right, an elevation of the third design that won third prize at the Yamanaka Competition by Kamiya Kichigoro. Source: “The Yamanaka Competition,” Architecture, vol. 35, no. 2 (February 1917), 32-37. HathiTrust Digital Library.

The Culture House in Colonial Korea

Looking across Seoul today, the effects of culture house thought on the Korean peninsula are not readily apparent. However, its presence was felt in more than just the sphere of colonial Japanese domesticity. It permeated Korean society, touched the Christian missionary work there, and influenced commercial urban development. This is not to say that the culture house defined the standard of living for most of the population, but it did become an ideal that some of those within the better socio-economic classes strived to obtain. Those that weren’t able to achieve this ideal appear to have still been influenced by the ideas behind it.

As in the Japanese metropole, culture house thought came to the Korean peninsula in the 1920s, mostly in the form of private residences, commercial housing developments, and government housing projects. Plans for commercial development began as early as 1925, when, for example, a 3,663 pyeong (12,100 square meter) development dubbed the Hakgang Culture House Design Project (Hakgang munhwajutaek seolgye gongsa) was to be constructed by an individual named Fujita, presumably a builder or businessman, in the Yongsan area.14 (Note Fujita’s name [落札] was also given in Korean as Deungjeon [등전씨], perhaps suggesting he was a Korean builder). In 1927, another commercial plan for forty culture houses was to be constructed on 4,000 pyeong in Yeongdeungpo on the southwestern side of Seoul over the Han River.15 In the spring of 1930, a massive spread of 153 culture houses was reportedly being constructed somewhere near the Han River, but at the time outside of the Seoul city limits, dubbed a 30,000 pyeong “culture village” [bunka mura].16 Such projects may serve as markers indicating the interest, however real or projected, in culture houses felt across urban Korea.

Figure 14. A photograph depicting a neighborhood of culture houses somewhere in Seoul. Source: “Geography and Customs of Japan,” [Nihon chiri fūzoku taikei] (Shinkō-sha: 1930). Seoul History Archive [Seoul yeoksa akaibeu].
Figure 15. A photograph depicting a culture house somewhere in Seoul. Source: Chosun Ilbo, July 7, 1929.

Culture house influence undoubtedly extended to the gwansa [official residences] designed and funded at the institutional level. There is also evidence indicating that some of the personal homes of those in other prominent public positions, such as school headmasters, drew from culture house design. Even railway employee housing developments in Korea may have been touched by culture house thought, perhaps somewhat comparable to the Hankyu Corporation’s suburban projects in the Japanese metropole.17 The missionary-led Chosen Christian College’s model village of just five homes, which meant to function as a live-in learning tool for teaching students the ways of modern civic [American] life, had much in common with culture house thought at the time. Today, remaining private culture house-influenced residences from the colonial period can still be found all across Korea.

Figure 16. Gwansa building plan for staff at Keijo Imperial University (Seoul) depicting the “traditional” Japanese wagoya frame beneath a modern, or culture house influenced, exterior. Dated to 1930 by the archive. Source: National Archives of Korea.
Figure 17. Gwansa building plan for a Japanese-leaning residence at Keijo Imperial University (Seoul) depicting modern, or culture house, influence. Dated to 1930 by the archive. Source: National Archives of Korea.
Figure 18. A photo of the so-called “model village” on the Chosen Christian College campus designed to teach modern civic life to students, then located on the outskirts of Seoul. To be clear, the village had very little to do with architectural design and everything to do with lifestyle. Yet the built homes pictured here bear an uncanny resemblance to the Japanese culture house. That the Western missionary’s general desire for locals to become “civilized” happened to have coincided with Japanese officialdom’s desire for Korea to modernize may have had something to do with why the college’s model village turned out this way. It may have also simply been the result of cultural trends at the time. The photo probably dates to the late 1920s to early 1930s. Source: Presbyterian Historical Society.
Figure 19. This Wrightian-influenced Japanese official’s residence in Gyeongju, Korea – perhaps connected to a school or government office – exhibits culture house influence. Probably built in the 1930s-1940s. Photo recorded as being taken on September 3, 1950 when the home was used as the American military’s I Corps Headquarters. Source: Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

Figures 20-46 below depict a variety of culture house-influenced residences in Korea that have been photographed in recent years. Some buildings such as these are well-preserved while others have been renovated almost beyond recognition and are no longer representative of their original appearance. Still more have been demolished since then. These examples partially demonstrate just how far culture house thought had spread through Korea. More information is available in each figure’s caption.



The Culture House at the Joseon Exhibition of 1929

With such examples in mind, the culture house in Korea was perhaps even better defined — in its idealized form — by the three model homes built at the Joseon Exhibition of 1929. These houses were built under the Architectural Association of Chosen [Joseon geonchukhoe] and had much in common with those of the 1922 Tokyo exhibition. Yet there were key differences between the two, the 1929 exhibition serving as a distinct marker in the evolution of culture house design. The model houses at Seoul were decidedly more modern, increasingly minimalist in relation to ornamentation, emphasized building lines, and was devoid of the English craftsman influence seen in some homes from a few years earlier. The shift away from English craftsman design is arguably one of the things that made the home appear more modern as the Craftsman style from England confusingly carried Tudor, Gothic, or Medieval undertones depending on perception.

Figure 47. A plan of the 1929 Joseon Exhibition within Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul. The location of the culture house models are highlighted and labeled. This space is now vacant land within Gyeongbok Palace today. Source: National Archives of Korea.

All three homes featured an ondol room, but were otherwise lacking in Korean architectural influence. Aside from the use of tatami in select areas and the Japanese sangawara pan tiles on the roofs, the homes were quite materially modern. Exterior finishes included tile (or brick), stucco, and stone. Interiors, depending on the house, featured cherry wood flooring, tiles, synthetics like Linoleum, and British-made wallpaper. Even the tatami was noted as being of cork. “Traditional” Japanese elements, like the tokonoma [recessed wall space] and cabinets, were used in addition to Western furnishings, such as sofas and other standalone pieces.*

The floorplans were creative fusions built from the persisting idea that there was a way to combine Western and Japanese lifestyles. For example, the first model house’s engawa [enclosed Japanese porch] takes on the appearance of a Western-style sun room from the exterior, but could still function as a “traditional” engawa within the interior layout. The home had a Western drawing room set apart from the rest of the interior, which was otherwise somewhat more “traditionally” Japanese in layout. The second model house used the engawa along a front-facing section of the home, typical of the “traditional” Japanese home, that then interestingly continued on throughout the house in the form of a hallway dividing up rooms in a more sectional, Western layout. The third model house perhaps featured the most Western influence with regards to the floor plan, yet still contained an engawa that connected to both the drawing room (for receiving guests) and the living room.*

Figure 48. Photographs of the three model houses at the 1929 Joseon Exhibition. All three were decidedly more modern than the model houses at the 1922 exhibition in Tokyo. Source: Joseon Exhibition Commemorative Photo Album [Chōsenhakurankai kinen shashin jō], 1930. National Diet Library of Japan.

Stylistically, the first model house was a low-slung, single-story bungalow with sharp, triangular bay windows contributing to its modernism. Its gently sloping hipped roof was perhaps reminiscent of Midwestern American [Prairie School] design, which had fully entered the Japanese world by this time.18 The second and third model houses were, in a few ways, not only better representative of how the modern Japanese home would evolve over the next few decades, but were what would become relatively common mid-to-upper-class housing varieties in Korea. The Corbusier-esque drawing room of the third house (the chunky white block section against the entryway), however, has not been widely observed in Korea, meaning this kind of stark modernism was seemingly less common. All of the homes oozed a certain suburban American aesthetic featuring pergolas and fenced-in yards. Though these houses demonstrated the direction more progressive architects, builders, or homeowners would go over time, there were still cases of “older” culture houses being built — the kind that invoked the Craftsman influence found at the 1922 exhibition [Figure 1]. As such, culture house thought resided not on a linear spectrum, but a wide, meandering one that called upon a variety of influences throughout the colonial period.

Park Gil-ryong and Korean Perspectives of the Culture House

Taking place within this context, the modernization of the Korean home appears to have been led by Korean individuals rather than Japanese — particularly as the Japanese government had little interest in developing Joseon design outside of appropriating it in certain circumstances.19 Certainly, Korean culture had been actively suppressed and its Joseon-period architecture literally dismantled for years under Japanese rule. The “Korean minka” [vernacular house], as Iwatsuki and Park’s study called them in Japanese, would then get a facelift as individuals like Park sought to simultaneously preserve and modernize Korean domestic life, the push for modernization very much informed by the scientific ideas of the day regarding sanitation and hygiene.

Park’s theories on housing reform are well-known within academia today as he wrote for contemporary newspapers and trade journals in Korea. His ideas in general are perhaps summarily described as rational and utilitarian fusions of Korean, Western, and Japanese thought — his built works ranging from somewhat transitional Korean hanok to large, modernist institutional buildings. With regard to architectural design, including housing, Park was clearly influenced by the Japanese architectural world, graduating from Keijo Technical School (Seoul) and subsequently employed by the Government-General in 1920 as a draftsman.20 Japanese influence seems to be reflected in the way Park wrote of the home as a “container” for life, a theory perhaps indistinguishable from Kon Wajirō’s conception of “architecture as a container of everyday life.”21 Park’s ideas of making the Korean home more sanitary likely also came from the Japanese architectural world.

Despite so much Japanese influence, Park’s writings demonstrate he was a staunch advocate for the preservation of the Korean lifestyle in relation to modern housing reform and, to be sure, the culture house. His personal and professional opinions on the culture house issue are arguably unique and deserve to be meaningfully explored. As a highly educated, societally engaged, non-Japanese architect working within the Japanese architectural world, Park’s voice offers an important alternative view of the idealized housing form that was so sought-after within the Japanese community and, to some degree, Korean society as well.

In the fifth part of a 1930 series of essays he wrote for the Chosun Ilbo entitled “The Epidemic of the So-called Culture House” [Yuhaengseong eui soui munhwa jutaek], Park’s closing paragraphs can be interpreted as an argument for foreign architectural influence to be expressed, according to personal taste, solely in the ornamentation and structure of a house, writing that the form [or layout] of the house should be based on Koreans’ “long-standing lifestyle.”22 In this essay, his ideas regarding the fusion of different cultures (presumably material culture) as being part of an evolutionary process in relation to housing are also made apparent. Park wrote:

“Generally speaking, the creation of a new culture comes when foreign culture is absorbed in contact with traditional culture, which is then digested and cultivated through the power of the traditional culture. The mixing of traditional culture and modern culture is not in itself a newly constructed culture. This is only the first step in an evolutionary process. Our new houses, the culture house [munhwa jutaek], are Western in style [yangsik], but it goes without saying that they are neither a traditional form nor a hybrid with Western style. 

In short, to make a form based on our traditional long-standing lifestyle, we ought to use scientific Western-style construction methods solely as materials with which we can decorate things in our own way as a kind of hobby; this can be an expression of our lifestyle through the structure of the house, which is the container of our modern lives.”23

There were aspects of the culture house that Park found useful. However, by 1930, he found its spread across Korea to be “not unlike an encounter with cholera or typhoid.”24 This assessment is what led to his calling the culture house spread an “epidemic”, reflected in the title of his aforementioned Chosun Ilbo series.

In his writings, Park deconstructed what he thought were the reasons for the trend towards culture house design, accurately recognizing that Korea’s residential design was, across all communities, in a period of transition. Much of what he wrote is self-explanatory, though his last two points below are more commentary than explanation for the culture house trend. Published on September 22, Park wrote:

“After a number of years, the issue of housing improvement became a social problem, and it seems that the public has finally focused their attention towards it. Due to this influence, the so-called “culture house” [munhwa jutaek] have spread from place to place lately, not unlike an encounter with cholera or typhoid. I will divide the trend into four sections below to summarize my thoughts.

1) Blind obedience to Western styles. 2) Japanese-style additions. 3) A mixture of Western and Chosun styles. 4) Adherence to traditional styles.

1) Blind obedience to Western styles

Of course, Westerners have a higher degree of culture than we do, and so at the same time, their way and means of living will be superior to our own; after all, they have the highest standard of living in the world right now. Thus, while it may be theoretically reasonable for us to learn and imitate the way these people live, our long history and lifestyle which has been shaped by long-standing geographic, social and economic conditions, cannot be properly stored in the living containers [houses] of Western people. This was my first point.

2) Japanese-style additions

As for the Japanese way of life, Japanese people themselves are trying to abandon it. Speaking of their houses, tatami mats are a hive for germs and a place where water droplets permeate and lead to rot, and dust accumulates underneath them; the walls and windows also cannot completely prevent wind and rain from getting in; even the tiny fingers of children can rip them to pieces. The Japanese people have tried to get rid of these things and now many have already disappeared. Therefore, it is not an improvement to pursue these things in spite of any long-standing attachment the Japanese themselves may have; in other words, it is like taking something that others have already found to be useless. This needs to be fixed.

3) A mixture of Western and Joseon styles

An imitation of a hybrid form without harmony, this is a style which does not realize the significance of a house. However, this phenomenon should not be laughed at during a transition period. Rather, this trend can be seen as an important step in the development process, although imitation of this form alone is not a sound method going forward.

4) Adherence to traditional styles

As the culture progresses, our lives become more rationalized, while housing is also improving. Therefore, sticking to traditional forms (which are a relic of a past century unsuitable to modern times) is an obstacle to healthy development. It is a kind of pathology contrary to the way of life. We cannot hope for improvement without eradicating this phenomenon which runs counter to cultural progress. The progress of culture in the face of conventional stubbornness is approaching the day when we will meet strict judgements related to our housing, urban and living problems.”25

To sum up, the above essay demonstrates Park’s view that the culture house’s popularity was the result of locals’ holding Western housing in such high regard that all else was being disregarded — a trend Park found troubling as this mentality did not account for local conditions or consider the home’s inhabitants. He also thought that many people felt the culture house was the answer to the question of what to do with some older Japanese housing features, like unhygienic tatami mats, as Japanese society gravitated towards building more sanitary houses. He considered the fusion of Western and Joseon architecture and wrote that due to its imitative quality, it was without harmony — however recognizing that he lived in a transitional time, that this trend was a natural part of housing evolution, and that it should evolve into a better version of itself. His last comment could be interpreted as the idea that the culture’s continual progress would inevitably lead to “traditional” housing forms coming to some kind of breaking point in not being able to solve housing, urban, and lifestyle problems.

While the culture house ostensibly took on a life of its own outside of the 1922 exhibition at Tokyo, Park appears to have failed to recognize the culture house as a Japanese creation in his work, either focusing on Westernization as its defining characteristic or reading such buildings as being largely Western. His writings also discussed the culture house in a manner that was detached from its origins in Japan. The reason for this remains unclear and is made more confusing since he, as an architect, was aware of the hybrid nature of these homes and had a wide view of the kind of fusion housing found throughout the Korean peninsula. For example, Park wrote that upon his visit to Hamheung (northern Korea) — probably during his research with Iwatsuki in the 1920s — he was surprised to find many of the new houses there contained a hodge-podge of architectural styles and features partially shaped by the region’s cold climate.26 Going so far as to call residents there “progressive” when compared to their southern neighbors, Park wrote:

“When I traveled to the Hannam region many years ago, I was surprised to see some newly renovated houses in the area. At that time, I went to the areas with houses in Hamheung-eup, all of which were separated from one another, and large or medium-sized, but they could not be called standard even though the trend was not an unfamiliar one. In terms of their concept, some of them had a mixture of Japanese and Western styles on the exterior, while some were Joseon-style or had a combination of all three. In the case of one structure, an inner room was used as a modern kitchen of conventional type, while the sarangbang [traditional study] became a Western-style room with chairs on top of ondol heating; there were also built-in jeongjigan [Korean cooking pots surrounded by clay] in a traditional kitchen, while the rest of the rooms were primarily Japanese in style, including the outer appearance of the doors and windows. 

In general, Japanese houses are openly structured with thin walls, wide windows, and they are light-weight buildings due to circumstances of geography. They do not have the same method of heating like the ondol of Joseon, but instead they use a very simple and primitive method of burning charcoal inside the room. It is therefore unreasonable to expect that Japan would imitate Japanese styles of architecture here as they are not suitable for the whole of Joseon due to the colder climate, particularly in the northern part of Joseon.

In the early days, when Japanese residents in Chosun were not able or willing to abandon their traditions at first, they insisted on things being in Japanese style, but gradually they began to change this style to one which differs greatly from traditional Japanese houses in Japan, by mimicking the style of Joseon (including ondol heating), thickening the walls and making the size of the windows relatively small.

Therefore, it can only be said that the people of the northern regions have now begun to imitate the Japanese style again purely as a matter of personal feeling, a change in feeling which emerged out of a curiosity about a time when they preferred something new more than what was their own. The revolutionary and progressive temperament of the northern people, compared to the compromising and conservative people of the southern regions, can be seen as one reason for this type of development process.”27

In a few of his articles for the Chosun Ilbo, Park wrote of Korean individuals he knew who lived in culture houses, citing first and second hand knowledge of his friends’ experiences as evidence for why culture houses did not suit some Koreans. However, the architect appears to have been rational in his assessment of who culture houses were appropriate for. The articles in his 1930 series on the culture house “epidemic” show the issues that Koreans faced living in a culture house, yet, in an earlier article dating to 1926, he found the culture house of another friend wholly appropriate to the family’s lifestyle. These people were all referred to anonymously as Mr. C (more accurately, C-kun in Japanese) and the house locations, if given, were also referred to in a similar anonymous manner.

The article from 1926 was entitled “Reflections on Improving Our Houses” [Urijugagaeryange daehannaeuigochal] and described in detail Park’s friend’s culture house outside Dongdaemun, Seoul.

“This first one was not designed recently, but is currently under construction as a house for my friend Mr. C [C-kun]. The place is located outside Dongdaemun, close to Gyeongseong [Seoul], with a forest of trees behind it and a wide field spread out in front.

The outer walls of this bungalow [sojutaek] are made of bricks, and the exterior is coated with orange stucco and overlaid with crimson tiles. The orange walls and the crimson-colored house are set against the backdrop of a dark green forest of pine trees. The contrasting harmony of hues creates an indescribable impression, and to me, it is appropriate as a form for expressing the lifestyle of C’s new family, a family that is filled with hope and joy and a youthful love whose passion has not yet abated.

Now, speaking in more detail, it is a Western-style house made of bricks, with Joseon-style additions, and 16.5 pyeong [about 587 sq ft] of floorspace. Upon entering through the porch, there is a small space which is the center of traffic in the house. From this floor, you can freely enter into any room. The walls between the reception hall and the bedroom are all removable when necessary, with the door to the bedroom going under the closet and the door to the maid’s room under the floor. The washroom is in the middle with the shower and the toilet to the left and right and the bathroom exiting onto the kitchen making it quite convenient.

‘A’ [나] and ‘B’ [다] are storage rooms and ‘C’ [라] is the porch leading to the outer courtyard.

This bungalow is now under construction at a cost of 1800 won as it is a Western-style structure and has become a relatively expensive house with each part being made with one method. I’ve only heard about a few bungalows until now, but their relatively large size seems to indicate that their house structure is rather complex.”28

Figure 49. Park Gil-ryong’s sketch of C-kun’s culture house outside Dongdaemun, Seoul. Source: Chosun Ilbo, September 19, 1930.

The above article illustrates Park’s view of the culture house as suitable to its inhabitants within a specific context, his title also demonstrating that he thought of it as an improvement over vernacular housing forms. By 1930, however, he had found that the culture house was not appropriate for everyone and wrote of another friend’s experiences with building and living in a very expensive culture house. Referred to again as Mr. C, this Mr. C was not the same Mr. C from the aforementioned 1926 article. Published on September 19, 1930, Park wrote:

“My friend Mr. C [C-kun], who had been in China for a long time before returning home in springtime last year, spent a lot of money – over ten thousand won – to built his own house in W-dong near Seoul and asked me to visit him there in the fall, so I went to Mr. C’s M-shaped mansion a few days after.

At that time, there were three other visitors at Mr. C’s mansion. After a brief discussion between the owner and the four of us in the drawing room, Mr. C led the other three around, explaining each part of the new building in detail, and then returned to the drawing room to give us a report on the construction process among other things, and he asked me my impression as an expert. In the heat of the moment, I hesitated to answer. I realized that he was not really asking me for a professional critique or opinion, but rather he was intending that I praise him and approve of his superior insights in order to impress the people around him.

Mr. C had said not even a word to me as a friend when he was building the house. It was because his sense of superiority prevailed that he implied “you, who have only a narrow range of knowledge gathered from the Japanese, would never be able to reach my level, no matter how professional you are or how widely you are respected in this town”. It was his way of boasting to me, “look how superior my knowledge is compared to you as a so-called professional”, by asking me to look around the building only after it had been finished. It was difficult to respond to this or to give my “impression” of the house. After hesitating for a moment, I retorted, “It’s great, and I appreciate you asking me for my impression now, but I would prefer to hear your impressions after living in this house and actually experiencing the culture and lifestyle firsthand”, avoiding any further comments.

After that, two years passed by until a few days ago this fall, while I was on the Gyeongwon line, I happened to meet another Mr. C who was close with the first Mr. C, and he proceeded to tell me a few stories. According to Mr. C #2, Mr. C #1 was busy improving life on the path towards his home by constructing a Western house, buying appropriate Western furniture for it, building cultural facilities and implementing new lifestyle innovations, but somehow he was not comfortable actually living in a Western-style house, so he was staying in a Joseon-style house next to it instead. In fact he rarely uses the Western house except as a guesthouse when someone happens to visit him.

Now, let me give you an outline of Mr. C’s western-style house.

The structure is made up of brick walls and a slate roof, with other parts made of wood, and is generally close in appearance to German Secession, although it has no consistent style. First, as you pass through the porch, a hall appears in the middle, and inside the hall there is a staircase which leads upstairs. The entrance hall has a reception room to the right and a family room on the left, with the dining room, kitchen and toilet connected to the latter. Upstairs, there are two bedrooms, a study, and a bathroom. Each room is heated by a stove, and all the furniture is Western-style, so you can’t find any of the beauty of Chosun.

Moreover, when it comes to the kitchen, there is a lack of adequate facilities for cooking Korean cuisine.  Of course, there is no jangdokdae, either. I don’t know if Mr. C has eaten any Korean food since he studied abroad, but I certainly feel like I am in a foreigner’s house here. (The drawing is a schematic diagram of the layout of Mr. C’s house).”29

Figure 50. Park Gil-ryong’s sketch of a different C-kun’s culture house, located in the anonymous W-dong neighborhood of Seoul. Source: Chosun Ilbo, September 19, 1930.

In this article, Park’s detailed description of his experiences, and of the home itself, do much to illustrate how the culture house did not fit all lifestyles in colonial Korea, and that in this particular case the home was not specifically tailored to the needs of its occupants, but rather built according to a Western-centric ideal detached from its inhabitants. Furthermore, the problem of the home not fitting the Korean owner’s lifestyle is remarkably analogous to the issues that wealthy Japanese had been struggling with since the opening of Yokohama: how to fuse modernity with the local “traditional” lifestyle. Like Park’s Korean friend, these wealthy individuals often built two completely different buildings next to each other — one Western-influenced and one vernacular — as a compromise for living in the modern world while being able to retain their “traditional” lifestyle. Ironically, this was the issue that the culture house was meant to solve, yet, in Park’s estimate, could not for everyone if not well designed.

As such, this particular case demonstrates that there were both well designed and poorly designed examples of the culture house all over Korea. Good culture house designs catered to the needs of the inhabitants while bad culture house designs were inconsiderately fashioned after generic modern ideals that helped to theatrically present the owner as “cultured” despite such homes being mismatched with their actual way of living. Park’s friend, in the above article, appears to have had a poorly designed culture house.

In an article published the next day, Park wrote again of Mr. C and his issues with his culture house. This Mr. C appears to have been the same Mr. C in the September 19th article.

“Mr. C’s family consisted of five members, including his elderly mother, his wife, and two children; his wife was a woman of some culture, but quickly abandoned her Joseon life which she had learned since childhood, unable to avoid changing her fashion and taste for food to suit a Western-style home, but it must have felt like traveling abroad to her. Everything there is awkward and uncomfortable, and it takes a lot of effort to maintain, so one may feel tired in trying to keep up that kind of lifestyle. Moreover, the old woman who was hardened by conventions was unable to say a word.

Additionally, though their new Western lifestyle will have many points of conflict with the social environment outside their doors, there would be even more conflicts of contradicting customs indoors. And even if one wanted to live in that house with your original lifestyle again, it would be next to impossible. The house in which a person lives is an expression of their way of living. It is their container. There can be no surprise in the fact that Mr. C  would rebuild a Joseon-style house (as though he were wearing socks on his hands).”30

Park’s writing here illustrates how confusing modernity, relative to the realm of domesticity, was becoming for some people in colonial Korea. Lifestyle and identity became thoroughly mixed-up for Mr. C’s family, and as they tried to revert to a more “traditional” Korean lifestyle by residing in the Joseon-style home built next to their culture house, Park felt Mr. C was “wearing socks on his hands” — essentially doing everything backwards or entirely in the wrong way. The architect again referenced his view of the house as a “container” for life, seeming to argue that once the container is built, it is “next to impossible” to live in a way contrary to the form of the container. The case of Mr. C seems to have proven Park’s overarching point that individual lifestyle should define the form of a house, with everything else being “decoration”.

The culture house remained a rather expensive endeavor throughout the colonial period, unobtainable for some Koreans save for those in the middle class and up. Park did address this issue in his writings. However, it is important to first understand how the culture house was viewed by others and the financial problems it posed to its owners. It is also important to bear in mind that, when reading the following primary sources, there may have been for some people little distinction between “culture house” and “modern house”.

The Chosun Ilbo published a number of articles demonstrating mixed opinions on the culture house phenomenon. In the Rumors or Local Talk section [Humunje] published on January 1, 1933, one individual named Kim Hyeong-won asked, “Culture houses [munhwa jutaek] vs. traditional houses [jushik jutaek] – which one is the best to live in?” Another Korean by the name of Son Byeol-nam took the stance that the old Korean house was better, perhaps hinting at his sentiment that the traditional Korean house may sadly and inevitably disappear. Son wrote, “Culture houses [munhwa jutaek] look nice but they can’t compare to traditional houses [gushikjip]. I hope the old-fashioned feeling of a traditional house will stick around for a while longer.” Kim Jeong-sun implied that vernacular housing forms were unsanitary and uneconomical in comparison to culture houses, writing “Culture houses [munhwa jutaek] are cozy. Traditional houses [gushikjip] are inconvenient! If you use a stove in a culture house, it is more economical and hygienic than ondol [traditional Korean under-floor heating system] and it also creates heat.”31

Another writer, going by the name of Seok-yeong, held an extremely disdainful attitude towards the culture house and its inhabitants. The author felt the occupants of a culture house were actually rather uncultured due to her/his own experiences with such people and mocked the appearance of these homes. Published on November 28, 1930, Seok-yeong wrote:

“The enthusiasm for culture houses [munhwa jutaek] began to intensify in 1931. Thanks to my mother, somehow I was able to enter a Western-style university [gumieui daehak] as a student by spending our whole family’s small fortune which had been accumulated a long time ago [from back in the days when tigers used to smoke]. After sleepily taking a corner seat in the classroom, I heard one classmate talking loudly with some others who had only been to Japan’s Ginza district about culture houses — culture houses for people who have just married women that barely know their ABCs! A culture house costs a lot of money, and I can’t understand why people like it just because it has two storeys, even though it looks like a Western-style cowshed! If being a tall house makes it a ‘culture house,’ then why not build a primitive house on tall trees, give it a name like ‘Sweet Home’ [originally transliterated: 스웟홈], and live on top of nicely-stacked bird dung!”32

Seok-yeong took issue with these classmates considering living in a culture house when the only place they had traveled was the Ginza district of Tokyo, the implication being that these classmates were not cultured or experienced enough to live in something dubbed a culture house. The sentence regarding their wives barely knowing their ABCs serves to amplify Seok-yeong’s argument of these people being uncultured. Lastly, the author used the relatively tall height of the culture house’s gables as its defining characteristic in order to mock and equate it to something like a crude treehouse, bearing the anthemic American “Home, Sweet Home” ideal, and constructed on (or as) a pile of crap.

In contrast to Seok-yeong’s opinion of who should occupy a culture house, the families of such classmates were exactly who the culture house was available to and in many cases meant for. What appears to be a fictional narrative of a Min Byeong-cheon and his daughter’s return to Korea from studying abroad demonstrates this perspective well. The relevant portion of this story follows below, published by the Chosun Ilbo on October 7, 1929:

“A small feast was held at Min Byeong-cheon’s house this evening for his first daughter who returned from Japan yesterday. As Byeong-cheon was originally a student in America and Suk-myeong [the first daughter] was from a church school [gyohoe hakgyo, or Western missionary school], the lives of the people in their family are Western in style. The construction of a new culture house next to the house where Suk-myeong and her daughter live today was desperately desired, and as Gyeong-ok [Byeong-cheon’s wife] was raised Westernized, the culture house was hurriedly constructed with the intention of leaving half of it to the returning daughter. Although it has not been completed yet, today’s banquet was held in the Western hall [culture house] anyway. Aside from a few alumni from Gyeong-ok’s school and two or three unrelated friends of Suk-myeong, Ju Jeong-bang and his secretary Kim Eung-gyu were the only guests invited to the party.”33

Figure 51. The illustration accompanying the story of Min Byeong-cheon’s family’s culture house. Source: Chosun Ilbo, October 7, 1929.

The high cost and inaccessibility of the culture house for the average Korean is something that the previous author, Seok-yeong, elaborated on in another article dating to April 14, 1930. Seok-yeong vividly depicted the culture house as enormously harmful to its owners in the sense that it drained them of both their lifestyle dreams and their finances as they took out bank loans and then ran out of money and lost their houses. In this article, entitled “Culture house, or mosquito house? [Bunka jūtaku? Kaka jūtaku?]”, Seok-yeong compares the culture house to a mosquito sucking owners’ of their life’s dreams and, in a metaphorical sense, their lifeblood, perhaps implying the fantasy of living in a culture house is in reality a nightmare for the unwealthy.

“These days, like when a woman sees a newly married man [and feels she too would like to get married without considering the consequences], we say it would be fun to live in a culture house [munhwa jutaek] without the slightest hesitation, so the ignorant Korean people build one of these so-called “culture houses” in the countryside or in other places to live better lives, but they end up being stuck in a cage named ‘Sweet Home’ due to all the bank loans they have to take out to pay for it. 

However, within a few months of being built, the money borrowed from the bank can be all used up and the house transferred into the hands of foreigners; thus, the image [or fantasy] of Korean people living in culture houses disappears like a mirage. This is why a culture house is really a mosquito house.”34

Figure 52. Two powerful satirical images by the aforementioned Seok-yeong. Left, the drawing accompanying Seok-yeong’s November 28 article depicting culture houses as crude treehouses. The dark matter might be the bird dung described in the article. Right, the drawing accompanying Seok-yeong’s April 14 article depicting banks as having a hold on culture house owners. The Japanese text written on the culture house translates to “Mosquito House.” Sources: Chosun Ilbo, November 28, 1930.; Chosun Ilbo, April 14, 1930.

It is challenging to quantify the demand for culture houses from the Korean community, but it is quite clear that the issue existed within the public discourse and was being discussed in relation to housing reform and affordability in general. That the culture house was synonymous with wealth is also reflected, for example, in a section of a poem by one Ham Chun-ha, published in 1929.

“My dear comrades who walk hopelessly on the street, how slow your march is

Do you envy them…

Those who are sitting peacefully and laughing joyously in that culture house [munhwa-jutaek]?

Do not sigh”35

On May 16, 1929, the Chosun Ilbo published an article by Park exploring the issue of the high cost of the culture house. The article was the first part in a short series entitled “To live well, we must start by fixing the home [Jalsalryameon jipbuteogochipsida]”. In this first part, Park focused on “Several ways to spend less money on our current fantasy of culture houses”, arguing for practicality in addressing Korean housing concerns. Interestingly, he called for the culture house to be redefined not as Western or Japanese, but as something that reflected the culture it was placed in. Then, perhaps like Seok-yeong, money was Park’s greatest concern with regard to housing for Koreans.

“Haven’t we always talked about re-ordering our ways of living? Even though our life is poor or empty, we want to hold on to it because it is ours, we want to protect it like we would a damaged vessel or a grave. How can we make a new one? And how should we make it if we decide to do so? We can improve our lives. But how should we go about making it beautiful? This is where we should start thinking from. I’ve been trying to see things as they are by being in the thick of it, but though our lives have been broken and smashed, they haven’t been repaired at all, much less re-built anew.

The Chosun Ilbo has been studying architecture for a long time because it is a movement that will greatly influence the future of our people. Although I have just started working here and had never thought seriously about our housing problem before (which can be called a one-size-fits-all problem) [meaning housing is a problem all people must deal with], I am grateful to be given the opportunity to speak on this issue as it is so important to the life-reform movement.

These days, it’s all about culture houses [munhwa jutaek].

But ‘culture houses’ should mean houses which reflect the culture. Therefore, I don’t think culture houses are simply Western or Japanese in style.

First of all, the emotions of the country’s people, including the city and the countryside, and the unified and special spirit of that country must be revealed in them. And when it comes to culture houses, they need not necessarily be decorated well, but for poor Koreans, they should consume less money while also being more useful and beautiful. Rather than being too concerned with what is or is put into not a culture house, I think the amount of money put into them is the most important thing.

However, since this is nothing more than a fantasy for people like us, culture houses are just a joke to many people. They will likely disappear just like the forgotten pen names of Joseon. If we [as Korean people] become rich, we can discuss the issue of culture houses in more depth. But for now, we should talk about how to clean the thatched houses and tile-roofed houses that we live in, and how to make them more hygienic and elegant.”36

One example of Park attempting to reconcile the culture house phenomenon with “traditional” Korean life is reflected in a design his office drew as the grand prize for a lottery held by Donga Department Store in June 1932.37 The home was very small, presumably to keep costs down, but retained popular features such as pop-out bay windows and a centralized ground-level entrance. The Korean lifestyle was sustained by the inclusion of a jeongjigan kitchen and a maru [Korean porch], though it appears the maru was enclosed like a modern engawa [Japanese porch]. The home was also practical in that the entrance, bathroom, and kitchen were all at ground level, while the living spaces were structurally raised. This probably helped lower the cost of the building, but also drew from vernacular Joseon and Meiji Japanese kitchens, which were built at the ground. The elevated living area, which was comparable to both vernacular Korean and Japanese housing structures, may have also been Park’s way of paying homage to the hanok. From the exterior, this elevated portion of the house is concealed by a decorative base of stone.

Figure 53. Park Gil-ryong’s office’s culture house plan for the winner of the Donga Department Store lottery of 1932. Source: Donga Ilbo, June 26, 1932.

In contrast, another remaining culture house design of Park Gil-ryong’s can still be seen today in the Okin-dong neighborhood west of Gyeongbok Palace. Built in 1937-1938 next to the massive Yun Deok-yeong estate, it later became the home of painter Park No-soo (1927-2013). This residence is stylistically challenging to read, an unclear mingling of various architectural features that still generally retains the form of the Japanese culture house. Consistent with his other works, Park appears to have again designed the home with the occupant in mind in that the floorplan was functionally quite Western with strict room divisions – a floorplan that the once-wealthy Yun family was accustomed to living in.

Figure 54. Park Gil-ryong’s design for the home of Yun Deok-yeong’s daughter, built in 1938, exhibits culture house influence. It is now a museum. Source: Photographed by Nate Kornegay.

A clearer remaining example of Korean [hanok] architecture demonstrating culture house thought is the former residence of statesman and educator Chang Myon. Built in 1937, it features an impressive tiled jeongjidan kitchen with sink, as well as living space with tokonoma-like alcove. The house notably excludes both the engawa [Japanese porch] and the toenmaru [Korean porch], favoring a stone and cement step-up to the living space. The hierarchical ambiguity of the “traditional” Korean home was retained in that there is no central entrance. At the same time, rather than exposing the roof timbers within the house, a distinctly modern (and somewhat Japanese) flat ceiling was used. The home is remarkable for being a rare extant example of a modern colonial residence that remains aesthetically and functionally Korean while successfully fusing “traditional” and “modern” lifestyles in a way that would have been in line with Park Gil-ryong’s housing ideas.

Figure 55. The exterior of the main building of Chang Myon’s former residence, built in in 1937, retains a very “traditional” Korean aesthetic. Source: Photographed by Nate Kornegay.
Figure 56. The jeongjidan kitchen of Chang Myon’s former home retains its Koreanness while adopting modern (hygenic) tile surfaces and a built-in sink. Source: Photographed by Nate Kornegay.
Figure 57. A hybrid living space within Chang Myon’s former home demonstrating Korean, Japanese, and Western influence. This is also the entry. Source: Photographed by Nate Kornegay.
Figure 58. Another hybrid living space within Chang Myon’s former home featuring a tokonoma-like alcove. Source: Photographed by Nate Kornegay.


In closing, it’s important to note that Park wasn’t the only Korean engaged in the housing reform discussion, and others contributed in one way or another to the public conversation. For example, the built work of developer Jeong Se-gwon (1888-1965) and his construction company, Geonyangsa, show a different approach to modern Korean life under Japanese imperialism, adapting the Joseon-style home to a dense urban grid made up of shared boundary walls and very narrow roads in what has been termed “city hanok” and the “Geonyang home” [Geonyangjutaek].38 Such ideas were, in a way, a reaction to modern trends informed by culture house thought. While Jeong’s city hanok appear to have been a practical alternative to, or even rejection of, Japanese-led modern housing in favor of more wholly (and affordably) preserving the Joseon lifestyle, Park’s approach to modern housing entertained the idea of bringing culture house thought into the lives of certain Korean individuals when deemed appropriate and even redefining it. Affecting either case, the culture house undoubtedly had a significant physical and ideological presence in Korea.

Figure 59. Various housing plans by architect Lee Yun-sun depicting different modern housing sizes and layouts. People such as Lee were undoubtedly affected by the culture house phenomenon in way one or another. Source: Chosun Ilbo, January 4, 1937.

While examples of the culture house remained fine modern “containers” for life for decades after Korea’s liberation (Park Chung-hee and other officials lived in such remaining homes), the culture house as an ideal fell out of fashion in Korea almost as quickly as it arrived. The harsh realities of post-war Korea and its subsequent reconstruction allowed for modern mid-century Korean housing to evolve, and be redefined, on its own terms relatively free from colonial Japanese influence. Today, the culture house generally remains categorically lumped in with a wide variety of other colonial Japanese architectural examples in Korea, obscuring its unique historical arc from public view and seemingly “otherizing” the house type as being detached from Korean cultural history. Yet history shows even Koreans engaged with, and reacted to, the culture house phenomenon. This architectural history, though steadily disappearing as urban development continues, is still visible across Korea today.

Author’s Note: If you are interested in visiting any of the remaining homes mentioned in this essay, remember that some of them are not tourist sites nor designated heritage sites, but the private residences of people living their lives. Their lives and property should be respected.

I would also like to recognize that qualifying and identifying culture house influence in specific architectural examples is debatable, particularly due to the way culture house thought was somewhat nebulous and challenging to define even during its heyday. This means some readers may disagree with how some examples have been presented in this essay. To be sure, classifying a home such as Chang Myon’s as a “culture house”, for example, would be controversial. However, we can look at such homes and say with certain confidence that they were affected by “culture house thought” and related modern housing reform ideas of the time. These things were, to be clear, all interconnected. Rather than definitively categorize each example here as being only one thing or another, this essay seeks to bring a more nuanced understanding of how the ideas that formed the culture house also affected life in Korea.

I’m grateful for Jihoon Suk and the walking tours that introduced me to some of the examples presented in this essay. I also offer my sincere thanks to Timothy Holm for his indispensable translations of the Chosun Ilbo articles featured here. Ryan Berkebile and Robert Koehler allowed their photos to be posted here, for which I am thankful.

For more on this topic, Jordan Sand’s “House and Home in Modern Japan: Architecture, Domestic Space, and Bourgeois Culture, 1880-1930″ is a wonderfully detailed English-language text demonstrating just how influential the culture house became, and how other housing ideas of the time informed and shaped Japanese society.

Footnotes and Citations

1 Marjorie Barstow Greenbie, In The Eyes Of The East (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1921), 151-152.
2 It was around the late 1910s that more modernist architecture began to meaningfully enter the Japanese world. Some Japanese architects were studying abroad, or reading materials from abroad, and were influenced by new styles that were departures from the neoclassical designs that older architects like Tatsuno Kingo subscribed to. This is around the time that architecture began to shift again in Japan. This shift is perhaps reflected, for example, in the Japanese architects that would become “disciples” under Frank Lloyd Wright, and the formation of groups like Bunriha Kenchiku Kai [Japanese Secessionist Architectural Group] that were diverging from the ideas of Tatsuno and Conder. The culture house became part of this shift in a way.; Scholar Sarah Teasley has pinpointed the housing shortage as being one of the influencing factors for the culture house. See Sarah Teasley, “Nation, Modernity and Interior Decoration: Uncanny Designs in the 1922 Peace Commemoration Tōkyō Exposition Culture Village Houses,” Japanstudien: Jahrbuch des Deutschen Instituts für Japanstudien der Philipp Franz von Siebold Stiftung, Vol. 13 (München: Iudicium Verlag, 2001), 55.
3 Sarah Teasley, “Nation, Modernity and Interior Decoration: Uncanny Designs in the 1922 Peace Commemoration Tōkyō Exposition Culture Village Houses,” Japanstudien: Jahrbuch des Deutschen Instituts für Japanstudien der Philipp Franz von Siebold Stiftung, Vol. 13 (München: Iudicium Verlag, 2001), 56-57.
4 Sarah Teasley, “Nation, Modernity and Interior Decoration: Uncanny Designs in the 1922 Peace Commemoration Tōkyō Exposition Culture Village Houses,” Japanstudien: Jahrbuch des Deutschen Instituts für Japanstudien der Philipp Franz von Siebold Stiftung, Vol. 13 (München: Iudicium Verlag, 2001), 57-58.
5 Again, Teasley’s remarkable work on this topic, from which this information is derived, offers a detailed explanation and analysis of the variety of floor plans in the model houses. Sarah Teasley, “Nation, Modernity and Interior Decoration: Uncanny Designs in the 1922 Peace Commemoration Tōkyō Exposition Culture Village Houses,” Japanstudien: Jahrbuch des Deutschen Instituts für Japanstudien der Philipp Franz von Siebold Stiftung 13 (München: Iudicium Verlag, 2001).
6 Richard Calichman, Overcoming Modernity: Cultural Identity in Wartime Japan (New York City: Columbia University Press, 2008), 26.
7 Sorokdo is known for being the location of significant cruelty under Japanese rule. “Patients” were subject to inhumane treatment, such as forced sterilizations, and essentially imprisoned here away from society. See the travel photo essay I wrote in 2015.
8 Researcher Sarah Teasley proposed this idea that it was the Culture Village planners at the 1922 Tokyo exhibition that were the tastemakers directly, and somewhat authoritatively, dictating the ideals of the modern house that would modernize its occupants. This idea can arguably be extended to the Japanese materialism/consumerism born from the 1910s as the culture house seems to be related to this.
9 Kuitert Wybe. 2017. “From Gyeongbok Royal Palace to the Chosun Exposition: A Transformation in Space.” Paper presented at International Symposium Expo and Human History: International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Kyoto, Japan, November 2017.; Also see the work of E. Taylor Atkins on Koreana for more regarding Japanese interest in Korean material culture.
10 Yoonchun Jung, “Inventing the Identity of Modern Korean Architecture, 1904-1929,” (PhD diss., McGill University, 2014): 93-130.
11 For information on how such architecture affected early modern Korea, see giyofu architecture essay.
12 See the essay “Chosen Christian College”.
13 “The Yamanaka Competition,” Architecture 35, no. 2 (February 1917): 32-37. HathiTrust Digital Library.
14 “Commencement of Chosun Land Construction: Bid Won by Mr. Fujita,” Chosun Ilbo, June 4, 1925. Translated by Timothy Holm. [“조선토지공사착수(朝鮮土地工事着手) 등전씨(藤田氏)에낙찰(落札),” 조선일보 1925.06.04]
15 “ITO Corporation plans cultural housing to be built in Yeongdeung-po,” Chosun Ilbo, October 30, 1927. Translated by Timothy Holm. [“영등포(永登浦)에 문화주택건축(文化住宅建築) 이등상행계획(伊藤商行計劃),” 조선일보 1927.10.30]
16 “Construction of a “Cultural Village” near the Han River with hopes to be incorporated into urban planning,” Chosun Ilbo, April 29, 1930. Translated by Timothy Holm. [“한강부근(漢江附近)에 문화촌건설(文化村建設) 도시게획에 편입을희망,” 조선일보 1930.04.29]
17 See the work of Nozawa and Lintonbon. Shuntaro Nozawa and Jo Lintonbon, “Suburban Taste: Hankyu Corporation and its housing development in Japan, 1910-1939,” Home Cultures 13, 2 (2016). Accessed repository copy of article in White Rose Research Online, University of Sheffield.
* Suh Kuee-sook, “The Research on the Process and Floor Plan of Model Houses for The Chosun Exhibition in 1929,” Journal of the Korean Housing Association 16, no. 3 (2005). [서귀숙, 1929년 조선박람회 출품주택 개최경위 및 평면 고찰].
18 Wright’s influence came after the success of his Imperial Hotel. The Prairie Style and Midwestern design was adopted by Japanese architects afterwards, the style still present in new Japanese architecture today. For more on Wright’s influence in Japan, see the work of Karen Severns.
19 There are instances of Joseon architecture being appropriate in the colonial public sphere, such as for railway stations and at expos and exhibitions.
20 Yoonchun Jung, “Inventing the Identity of Modern Korean Architecture, 1904-1929,” (PhD diss., McGill University, 2014): 164.
21 To understand the parallels between Kon Wajiro’s theory and Park Gil-ryong’s theory, there are a few sources to compare. The latter half of this essay shows some of Park’s writings on the matter.; The work of scholar Yoonchun Jung also discusses Park’s theory as the home being a “container”, choosing to use the term “vessel” instead. See Yoonchun Jung, “Inventing the Identity of Modern Korean Architecture, 1904-1929,” (PhD diss., McGill University, 2014).; The work of Izumi Kuroishi discusses Kon Wajirō’s theory of the home as a “container” as well. See Izumi Kuroishi, “Kon Wajirō: A Quest for the Architecture as a Container of Everyday Life,” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1998).
22 Park Gil-ryong, “The Epidemic of the So-called Culture House,” Chosun Ilbo, September 22, 1930. Translated by Timothy Holm. [박길룡 “유행성(流行性)의 소위문화주택(所謂文化住宅),” 조선일보 1930.09.22]
23 Park Gil-ryong, “The Epidemic of the So-called Culture House,” Chosun Ilbo, September 22, 1930. Translated by Timothy Holm. [박길룡 “유행성(流行性)의 소위문화주택(所謂文化住宅),” 조선일보 1930.09.22]
24 Park Gil-ryong, “The Epidemic of the So-called Culture House,” Chosun Ilbo, September 22, 1930. Translated by Timothy Holm. [박길룡 “유행성(流行性)의 소위문화주택(所謂文化住宅),” 조선일보 1930.09.22]
25 Park Gil-ryong, “The Epidemic of the So-called Culture House,” Chosun Ilbo, September 22, 1930. Translated by Timothy Holm. [박길룡 “유행성(流行性)의 소위문화주택(所謂文化住宅),” 조선일보 1930.09.22]
26 Park Gil-ryong, “The Epidemic of the So-Called Culture House, Part 2,” Chosun Ilbo, September 20, 1930. Translated by Timothy Holm. [박길룡 “유행성(流行性)의 소위문화주택㈡(所謂文化住宅㈡),” 조선일보 1930.09.20]
27 Park Gil-ryong, “The Epidemic of the So-Called Culture House, Part 2,” Chosun Ilbo, September 20, 1930. Translated by Timothy Holm. [박길룡 “유행성(流行性)의 소위문화주택㈡(所謂文化住宅㈡),” 조선일보 1930.09.20]
28 Park Gil-ryong, ‘Reflections on Improving Our Houses, 2-5,” Chosun Ilbo, November 10, 1926. Translated by Timothy Holm. [박길룡 “우리주가개량(住家改良)에 대(對)한나의고찰(考察) (이(二))(오(五)),” 조선일보 1926.11.10]
29 Park Gil-ryong, “The Epidemic of the So-Called Culture House, Part 1,” Chosun Ilbo, September 19, 1930. Translated by Timothy Holm. [박길룡 “유행성(流行性)의 소위문화주택(所謂文化住宅)(일(一)),” 조선일보 1930.09.19]
30 Park Gil-ryong, “The Epidemic of the So-Called Culture House, Part 2,” Chosun Ilbo, September 20, 1930. Translated by Timothy Holm. [박길룡 “유행성(流行性)의 소위문화주택㈡(所謂文化住宅㈡),” 조선일보 1930.09.20]
31 Humunje Section, Chosun Ilbo, January 1, 1933. Translated by Timothy Holm. [후문제, 조선일보, 1933.01.01]
32 Seok-yeong, “The Coming of 1931,” Chosun Ilbo, November 28, 1930. Translated by Timothy Holm. [석영, “일구삼일(一九三一)년이오면,” 조선일보, 1930.11.28]
33 “Gwangbun (Kyōhon),” Chosun Ilbo, October 7, 1929. Translated by Timothy Holm. [“광분(狂奔),” 조선일보, 1929.10.07]
34 Seok-yeong, “Culture house or mosquito house?” Chosun Ilbo, April 14, 1930. Translated by Timothy Holm. [석영, “文化住宅? 蚊禍住宅?” 조선일보, 1930.4.14]
35 Ham Chun-ha, “On the Street,” Chosun Ilbo, July 7, 1929. Translated by Timothy Holm. [함춘하, “가두(街頭)에서”, 조선일보, 1930.7.7]
36 Park Gil-ryong, “To live well, we must start by fixing the home, Part 1,” Chosun Ilbo, May 16, 1929. Translated by Timothy Holm. [박길룡 “잘살랴면 집부터고칩시다 (일(一)),” 조선일보 1929.05.16]
37 Advertisement Page. Dong-a Ilbo, June 26, 1932: 6.
38 See Kim Gyeong-min’s 2017 work, in Korean, on Jeong Se-gwon entitled “The King of Architecture: Building Gyeongseong” [건축왕, 경성을 만들다].


The ideas, articles, and images featured here are, unless otherwise noted, the intellectual property and copyright of Nate Kornegay, 2020. All rights reserved. Some images have been used according to standard rules of Fair Use, while others are open-access materials or have been licensed or otherwise permitted to be published on this website. Images from the Nate Kornegay Collection and photographs made by the author may not be reproduced without permission.

0 comments on “Culture House Thought in Colonial Korea (1920s-1940s)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: