Korea Under Japanese Rule
Part 3 – The Inter-War Years
The period between the two World Wars (1918 – 1939) was one of great upheaval and change. The rise of communism and fascism in Europe, along with the global effects of the Great Depression, created for many a time of hardship and uncertainty. This was certainly the case for the citizens of Korea, living at this time under the increasingly harsh rule of the Japanese Empire.
Architectural styles and trends, of course, continued to develop throughout the world, and the Korean built environment was certainly not left devoid of examples from this era. Many buildings, in particular those representative of the occupying power’s administrative and financial institutions, were designed by Japanese architects, creating tangible symbols of oppression. The surviving structures have subsequently been repurposed, or simply rebranded, in the interest of practicality, not to mention the fact that many are actually significant examples of particular styles from the era.
In this third instalment of the ‘Colonial Architecture’ series, I will explore remaining examples of commercial, financial and administrative architecture built during this contentious period.
- Seoul City Hall
Constructed in 1925 by the Chōsen Architectural Association, the building that now forms part of the Seoul City Hall complex was originally built as the headquarters for the Japanese governor-general of Korea. The structure rises from a rusticated stone base to a stripped classical façade, topped by a squat tower stepped back from the central entrance form. The tower’s roof is a four-sided tented form, mimicking those found on Japanese pagodas, and revealing the design as an example of the Imperial Crown Style. This style was greatly utilised by Japanese architects throughout Asia during this period.
When the Japanese occupation ended in 1945 the building was used as Seoul City Hall, a role it served until 2008 when a dramatic new glass structure was built directly behind it. Originally the 1925 building was to be demolished but, after a surprising degree of support to preserve it, the structure was registered as a historic relic by the Cultural Heritage Administration and repurposed as the Seoul Metropolitan Library.
- Shinsegae Department Store
The Mitsukoshi company began in 1683 as a kimono retailer in Tokyo. By the 20th century it had become one of Japans premier department store chains, constructing an outlet in downtown Seoul in 1930. Opening on October 24th of that year, the store introduced Seoulites to a number of modern retail innovations including semi-annual sales, the price tag system and cordial sales staff.
The building itself, sited prominently on a street corner, is an elegantly sober five storey design finished in grey stone. Large display windows at ground level give way to smaller rectangular fenestration, grouped in threes, on upper levels. The main flourish is a fourth-floor balcony sited above the clock which, in turn, sits above the stores nameplate.
In 1945 the store was acquired by Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul and renamed Donghwa Department Store. Used as a PX by the U.S army after the Korean War, it was eventually reopened as Shinsegae Department Store in 1963.
- Chosun Savings Bank
Sited adjacent to the Shinsegae Department Store, the Chosun Savings Bank building was designed by Japanese architect Hirabayashi Kingko in a severe neo-classical style. The façade is composed of four enormous fluted pilasters with Doric order capitals, defining the four window bays in a less than subtle manner. The neo-classical theme extends to a broad entablature form, simply decorated with circular motifs and a dentil line.
The overall effect of robustness and street presence, if somewhat over scaled, was deemed appropriate for contemporary financial institutions, and the building continues to serve its original purpose to this day as a branch of the Standard Chartered banking corporation.
- National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
Located in one of Seoul’s prime cultural precincts, the red brick structure that now serves as part of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art complex was originally constructed in 1928 as the outpatient check-up facility of Gyeongseong Medical School. The building is a stark representation of the Functionalist aesthetic of the Bauhaus school of architecture; flat, unadorned plains punctuated by large factory like windows. The severity of the design is softened somewhat by the curved tower-like form at one end of the building.
Occupied by the Defense Security Command from 1974 to 2008, the structure was renovated as part of the new museum development, reopening in 2013.
- Seoul Metropolitan Council Building
The structure known as the Bumingwan building was initially built as an arts centre, featuring an 1800 seat auditorium and multiple ancillary performance spaces, all equipped with modern heating and air conditioning systems. Completed in 1935, the construction was partially funded by the Gyeongseong Electric Company and designed in a Modernist rectilinear style. The main standout feature is the Art Deco corner tower that soars above the main structure, its verticality emphasized by twin rows of glazing on each side, rising to a textured pinnacle.
On July 24, 1945, as supporters of Japanese rule gathered for a meeting inside the auditorium, two bombs were thrown at the podium by members of the Korean independence movement. Although the explosions failed to injure anybody, fear rippled through the administration, which would soon be ousted with the end of the Second World War. The event is memorialised by a plaque located near the main entrance to what now serves as the offices for the Seoul Metropolitan Council.