Saturday, December 12, 2009

Windows to a Lost Culture

Every other Tuesday night the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) Korea Branch holds a seminar which I strive never to miss. This past Tuesday night I had my first lecture on architecture. Peter Bartholomew is the President of the RAS, has lived in Korea more than 40 years, and is not only well-versed on the Chosun Dynasty architectural structures and their changes but is passionate about others realizing how history is depicted through the architectural lines. His lecture Windows to a Lost Culture: The Structure of Chosun Korea Interpreted Through Its Architecture was phenomenal and now when I see the hanok (traditional houses with tile roofs) and temples with their graceful curves and 90 degree angles, I can more appreciate the symmetry and strength of the nearly lost science of constructing buildings with harmony within its surroundings and reflecting the entire social structure of the age. As Peter puts it, the philosophies of the multi-disciplines of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910) are woven into all aspects of the structures and spatial relations, even in what is selected to go into the building itself. All is in harmony!

Even before a building could be constructed, the environmental surroundings must be taken into consideration as pungsujiri, the affects of wind and water in the geographic area and how that wind and water will affect the building itself is paramount. When this is done carefully, no wind will blow into the open doors chilling the house in the wintertime, no wind will blow rainwater onto the side of the house which is usually of mud or clay construction, and no rain will ever fall on the wooden maru (main floor) or splash on the huge structural beams causing water damage. The soil is tested for proper drainage and for previous flood circumstances and soil content itself. The more distant environment requires that the black turtle mountain (north) must be higher than the other mountains in the area and is a back or windbreak protection to the building site; the white tiger mountain (west) and blue dragon mountain (east) must be in place and offer encircling protection but not be overpowering to the northern slopes; finally, to the south is the very important red phoenix where the water flows. Positioned in the heart of such a portentious arrangement is the 잎수, the spot where the ki energy life force is concentrated. That is where the greatest building site is.

To clarify the major thought in contructing buildings during the Chosun Dynasty, buildings were to first have SIMPLICITY, a very important controling ideological factor of the Chosun Dynasty and Buddhism, although the Chosun Dynasty perhaps ironically (until you understand the history) placed much more emphasis on aestheticism than Buddhism did. This factor relates to MODESTY and the aversion to flaunting wealth. SPATIAL RELATIONSHIPS of buildings were a reflection of status (the patriarch occupying the best position), gender (the Chosun dynasty was patriarchal, patrilocal and patrilineal), generations (age) and function (family, servant, caretaker). Balance of SPACE between open/empty spaces and those filled, obvious inside the house as well as in the courtyards, was how the harmony of the construction was most exemplified within the natural environment it was set.

And therefore, the philosphies of the buildings showed:
architecture - unique floor heating system with flues (the longer the flue, potentially the higher the status of the owner of the house); choice of wood - only the finest with all structural pieces in one room having the same grain, coloration and flawless (without knots); all lines within the building were perpendicular to one another; the roof length and building height were taken into consideration to create an aspect of balance and harmony; the up-turned roof tile angles were a reflection of the graceful up-turned wings of the crane in flight.

furniture craftsmanship - furniture was of the finest design, woods, inlays, and fittings, all of which were chosen to reflect the style of the house or building itself.

art through paintings - the 갑창 (pictures beside the window screens), the window screens (which were carved to depict a Chinese character like 'harmony', 'happiness', 'wealth'); paintings of carp, mountains, scholarly materials to be hung on men's walls and paintings of butterflies, flowers, grapes and birds to be hung on women's walls (the majority of the male symbols were for depicting virility, manhood and erudition while symbols for women were for beckoning fertility). Even the porcelain and its quality, color, glaze translucence and overall shape was a reflection of status.

literature - under the eves were calligraphy paintings of philosophical passages reflecting the focus or attributes of the household; these were painted by the most skilled artists, signed by the artists and by witnessess testifying to the authenticity of the artwork and affirming the literary choice.

The present buildings that are recreations of those from the Chosun dynasty lack the same carefully considered height-length ratio, the up-turned swoop of the roof tiles is not as graceful, and the beams themselves are smaller as the heavy mud to pack up the first roof rafters from the second rafters, which add insulation and proper lift to the building, are no longer used; thus, the demands of straight stout logs are no longer necessary. With economy being a major thrust in building and not being aware of the fundamental harmony of buildings of the yesterage, those structures built to recreate the past fall short of their intent.

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