Colonial Architecture

Preserving architecture associated with an era of foreign occupation is understandably a source of great contention in any nation that has experienced such a period in its history. While one side may argue that buildings constructed during these times (especially those related to the administration and control of the occupied state) stand as humiliating reminders of an oppressive period, others see the importance of preserving an uncomfortable built history so that past acts, however traumatic to recall, are never forgotten or repeated. Another, more objective, view is that maintaining a historical continuity of built heritage adds to the richness and overall depth of a nation’s urban environment, serving as a physical record of its trajectory over the centuries, warts and all.

This series, beginning with Korea, aims to highlight urban areas throughout Asia where built evidence of past occupation and rule by foreign powers can still be seen. Whether the reader holds a particular opinion one way or the other, these posts are intended purely as objective examinations of the architecture itself from an urban environmental point of view.

Korea Under Japanese Rule:

Part 1 -Incheon

The annexation of Korea in 1910 was the final stage in a process of aggressive Japanese imperialism towards the nation that had begun in the late 19th century. Rapidly developing into a modern military and industrial state under the Meiji Restoration, Japan was eager to expand its fledgling empire to counter the increasing influence of Western powers in the region. Conclusive military victories over China (the First Sino-Japanese War, 1895), and then Russia (the Russo-Japanese War, 1905), not only gained Japan dominance over Korea but dramatically increased the nation’s prestige both domestically and internationally. Over the same period a series of vastly unequal treaties gradually diminished the sovereign powers of Korea, culminating in the Japan-Korea treaty of 1910 via which the weakened nation was formally annexed and absorbed into the Japanese Empire.

korea-tight-place1200*a contemporary cartoon depicting Japan and Russia fighting for dominance over Korea.

Japanese influence had been permeating aspects of Korean politics, culture and society for years before the annexation. The most obvious physical manifestation was, of course, in the form of residential, commercial and administrative buildings that gradually appeared throughout the country. Often designed in a fusion of contemporary European and traditional Japanese architectural styles, such buildings included banks, government department offices, warehouses and domestic houses. Although much has been lost to war and urban development, there remain pockets of preserved colonial era architecture throughout South Korea.

For many people visiting South Korea, Incheon is simply the name of the vast international airport that serves as the country’s main gateway. Most don’t realise that the City of Incheon is not only the third largest after Seoul and Busan but also an increasingly worthy cultural destination. In addition to Korea’s largest Chinatown, and sites related to the Korean War era amphibious landings, the city has preserved a district of colonial era administrative and commercial architecture.

Chemulpo 1

*Incheon port around 1904

Opened to international trade in 1883, the port city has ever since been considered a crucial part of Korea’s development infrastructure.  Japanese merchants and traders had been doing business in Incheon for decades before the official 1910 annexation, after which their activities and commercial impact on the city naturally increased greatly. Built evidence of this activity can be seen in the former Japanese concession located near Chinatown in the Jung-gu district. Some of the best architectural examples exist in the form of three late 19th century bank buildings situated on what is known as Gwandong Modern Architecture Street. Originally identified by a numbering system developed by the National Bank of Japan, they are (if heading west along the street) the former 58th, 18th and 1st Banks of Japan, Incheon branches.


The 58th Bank (1892) is a two-storey structure styled in a French Second Empire manner with a mansard roof incorporating a clock. The chamfered entrance is flanked with square pilasters and topped by an arch with rusticated voussoirs.  Windows are symmetrically placed on both floors and feature corbelled entablatures. The building is currently occupied by the Korea Foodservice Industry Association.

Constructed in 1890, the 18th Bank of Japan building is a rather squat, single storey structure exhibiting an understated late Regency style.  Faced in contrasting grey and cream stone, the facades are punctuated with tall rectangular windows topped with simple corbelled entablatures. The offset entrance is flanked by square pilasters, above which sits an entablature decorated with dentils and crowned by a small scroll pediment. The building now houses a Modern Architecture Museum related to new structures in and around the historical Incheon area.


The 1st Bank of Japan building was completed in 1888 and is arguably the most elaborate of the three. Faced in rusticated stone with an enclosed portico and barred windows, the building presents itself as a small fortress, albeit a decorative one. A simple entablature with dentils runs along the roofline, above which is a parapet punctuated with circular apertures. The roof itself is of a shallow mansard style with a single cupola highlighting the entrance portico. The building now serves as the Incheon Open Port Museum, which is well worth a visit just to view the beautifully preserved interior.

Apart from the bank buildings there are a few other structures of interest scattered around the area including a large red brick warehouse complex that dates from the 1930s. As part of a plan to preserve early 20th century buildings in the area by re-purposing them, the complex was refurbished and transformed into the Incheon Art Platform which seeks to develop artistic collaborations between both local and international artists.

Although these buildings represent a difficult time for the Korean nation, the local government has obviously understood the value of preserving them for both cultural interest and historical rumination. The fact that many of the structures have been re purposed for educational and cultural activities can be observed as a form of considered consolation with the past, a process which is far more useful and valuable than an act of demolishing all links to a traumatic period in history.



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