Korean people have developed unique architectural techniques to build housing that is properly adapted to the surrounding natural environment, providing dwellers with better protection. A distinctive feature of the hanok (traditional Korean house) is an underfloor heating system called ondol. Literally meaning “warm stones” and developed during the prehistoric period, ondol refers to the system of channels running beneath the stone floor of a room through which heat is delivered from the fireplace in the kitchen. It is also designed to effectively draw out the smoke through the under-the-floor passages connected to the chimney.
Another important element of the traditional Korean house is the boardfloored room (maru) located at the center and used for multiple purposes. The room is usually larger than other rooms and is raised from the ground to allow air to freely circulate under it, creating a cool living environment during the warm summer season. The smart system combining ondol and maru makes the traditional Korean house a comfortable living space for its residents not only in the harsh winter but also in the scorching summer. The roof is typically covered with either ceramic tiles or thatching. While most of the roof tiles are dark gray, some exhibit more vibrant colors as demonstrated, for example, by the Official Residence of the Korean President Cheongwadae, which literally means “Blue House” because, as the name shows, it is covered by blue roof tiles.
While traditional Korean houses are generally wooden structures, they can survive as long as other buildings made with other materials if properly taken care of. Presumed to have been built in the early 1200s, the Geungnakjeon Hall of Bongjeongsa Temple in Andong, Gyeongsangbukdo Province is Korea’s oldest remaining wooden building. As an ideal location for their house, Korean people preferred a site protected by hills or mountains on three of its sides, with a stream or river passing in front, thus providing easy access to water. Houses built in such a place create a great harmony with the surrounding environment, attracting more and more admirers not just in Korea but outside it as well.
These days, over 60% of Seoul’s population live in modern apartments but, interestingly, these tall, multistoried buildings are almost without exception furbished with a heating system inspired by the age-old ondol system. Similarly, newly built detached houses are also reliant on the legacy of the ondol system of heating the floor, although the traditional heat passages are now replaced by under-floor metal pipes with running water heated either by gas or electricity. This heating system has now begun to be exported to other countries with wide variations in daily temperature.
Changdeokgung Palace, located in Waryong-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, is one of the five Royal Palaces of Joseon (1392-1910), and still contains the original palace structures and other remains intact. It was built in 1405 as a Royal Villa but became the Joseon Dynasty’s official Royal Residence after Gyeongbokgung, the original principal palace, was destroyed by fire in 1592 when Japanese forces invaded Korea. Thereafter it maintained its prestigious position until 1867, when Gyeongbokgung was and renovated and restored to its original status. Changdeokgung was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
Although it was built during the Joseon Period, Changdeokgung shows traces of the influence of the architectural tradition of Goryeo, such as its location at the foot of a mountain. Royal palaces were typically built according to a layout planned to highlight the dignity and authority of its occupant, but the layout of Changdeokgung was planned to make the most of the characteristic geographical features of the skirt of Bugaksan Mountain.
The original palace buildings have been preserved intact, including Donhwamun Gate, its main entrance, Injeongjeon Hall; Seonjeongjeon Hall, and a beautiful traditional garden to the rear of the main buildings.
The palace also contains Nakseonjae, a compound of exquisite traditional buildings set up in the mid-19th century as a residence for members of the royal family.
Located at the foot of Bugaksan, the main mountain overlooking downtown Seoul, Gyeongbokgung was the principal Royal Palace for about 200 years from its construction in 1395, just three years after the foundation of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), until it was burnt down just after the commencement of the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592. Thereafter it remained in ruins for 275 years until 1867 when it was restored; but, less than fifty years later, it fell into the hands of Japanese colonialists who destroyed the front part of the palace to build the Japanese Government-General Building on the site. The latter building, a neo-classical structure, continued to be used to house government offices even after Korea was liberated in 1945 until it was demolished in 1996 as part of an effort to remove the remaining vestiges of the colonial period. Some of the ruins of the building were moved to the Independence Hall of Korea in Cheonan, Korea for public display.
Under a major renovation project to restore the palace starting in 1990, some of its buildings were restored and its main gate, Gwanghwamun, was moved to its original location. Today, the palace features some of the country’s most popular tourist attractions, including the majestic architectural pieces, Geunjeongjeon Hall and Gyeonghoeru Pavilion.
To most Korean people today Deoksugung Palace is largely connected with the desperate struggle of the Joseon Dynasty to survive amid the incursions of the major imperial powers at the turn of the 19th century. It was in 1897 that King Gojong proclaimed the launch of the Korean Empire and designated Deoksugung as the imperial palace after leaving the Russian legation where he had taken refuge one year earlier in a desperate attempt to keep his government free from the interference of Imperial Japan.
With the proclamation of the Korean Empire the palace began to draw attention from foreign diplomats working in the legations of the United States, Russia, Great Britain and France located around it.
Today, the clearest reminder of Deoksugung’s short-lived glory as the only imperial palace in Korean history is the changing of the palace guard ceremony, which takes place three times a day except for Mondays. The promenade along the southern wall of the palace has been particularly popular among young people seeking romantic ambiance.
Source: Korean Culture and Information Service 'Facts about Korea'