The origin of Korean architectural traditions may be traced back to Northeastern Asian culture, namely the Scytho-Siberian origins, which was the cradle of Oriental culture. In primitive ages it was customary to honor the dead with sumptuous burial artifacts. The belief in animistic worship and in the eternity of the soul can still be witnessed in Korea among the remains of dolmens, which are the tombs of primitive people.
Since the introduction of the Chinese culture of the Han Dynasty the basic system of wooden building frames has been passed down to recent years, Such structures coincidentally blended with other indigenous architectural details. Korean architecture has also been affected by a number of Oriental conceptual thoughts: yin and yang, interpretation of the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), geomancy, Taoism and Confucianism either directly or indirectly. Buddhism, introduced to Korea around the fourth century, also exerted great influence on Korean architecture. During the Three Kingdoms Period (lasting about l ,000 years from the first century B. C.), a great number of Buddhist temples were built. Unfortunately, most of them were burned to ashes in a series of wars and invasions,
After the unification of the Three Kingdoms by the Silla Dynasty in 668, the development of Korean architecture outgrew its previous rustic simplicity. Under the cultural influence of the Tang Dynasty of China, Koreans fulfilled their historical task of assimilating the influx of foreign culture with indigenous and innate aspirations. it is significant to note that the cultural heritage of the Unified Silla has been passed dow l to the present. Pulguk Temple in Kyonju reflects the splendid architecture of the Unified Silla dynasty, and the rock cave shrine, Sokkuram, located in the north of the temple on a mountain represents the cultural achievement of the time.
During the Koryo period, artistic expressions were characterized by "contemplative beauty," freed from man's limits imposed on form. The emphasis sifted to the internal mind and self control under the influence of Zen Buddhist thought. Ever since, such "contemplative beauty" has constituted a part of the Korean cultural heritage. A representative temple building of the time is Kungnakjon (Hall of Paradise Enshrining Amitabha), at Pongjong Temple, one of the oldest extant wooden buildings in Korea. The building vividly portrays the architectural style of the early Koryo period.
In the Choson (Yi) Dynasty Period (l?92-1910), Confucianism was upheld as the national ideology. With the decline of Buddhism, Confucian buildings such as Confucian shrines, regional schools, and academies were erected throughout the country. Palatial buildings are representative of the architecture of this age, highlighting the essence of Korean architectural legacy. During this period, foreign cultural influences transformed and modified the existing patterns and formed the distinctive characteristics of Korean architecture. Namdaemun (South Gate), the main access to the downtown area of Seoul, was built in l396 and has been the oldest extant building welcoming visitors to the capital. As the most representative example of traditional Korean architecture it has been designated as National Treasure No. l .
In architectural design, Korean architects took full notice of the surrounding terrain in their effort to create perfect harmony with nature. No Korean building was designed or constructed to manifest a confrontation or challenge of human works against the natural environment, Both in design and in engineering, artificial contrivances were kept subdued, in favor of highlighting the beauty of nature as it is. In the use of building materials, attention was paid to keep natural elements intact.
Throughout the ages, Korean architecture has reflected the human scale, imparting a feeling of intimacy to viewers. Few traditional Korean buildings are grand iu size. Rather, they give an impression of coziness and tidiness, and are from being overpowering or imposing. Korean artisans relied more on the working of nature than on their own craft, exerting their personal ingenuity or wisdom less, thus providing greater room for their instincts to operate. As a result, Korean architecture reflects less of human calculation or craft than of liberal and carefree simplicity.
In order to create visual elegance in external forms several design skills were contrived. The middle portion of columns were shaped convex swelling, namely entasis, The columns on the periphery were slanted slightly inward, while the tops of comer posts were extended slightly higher in relation to the others. All these efforts were made to evoke a feeling of stability and to achieve aesthetic harmony with the delicate and elegant shape of the roof and the eave lines in the appearance of the building.
A variety of decorations and colors were also used in Korean traditional architecture. In China, decorations tended to be extremely elaborate, sometimes to the extent of superfluity or grotesqueness. Japanese decorations are more simple and delightful. The characteristic decorations of Korean architecture might be found in between the two, maintaining the beauty of moderation in the use of color and architectural decoration.
Korean traditional architecture can be aesthetically characterized by moderate elegance in
decoration and humble openness in architectural design. The moderate use of color
might have derived from the country's serene landscape. The humble openness in design
may have grown from the tendency of Korean people to adapt themselves to nature.
These major characteristics may have evolved from ancient times by Korean master
architects. Unlike their Chinese counterparts who were excessively preoccupied with
strict symmetry, or the Japanese who were extremely concerned with the miniature,
tended to give a more comprehensive effort to maintain order and harmony with
nature. The concern manifested both inside and outside architectural space,
which consequently led to its humble openness.