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The Constancy of Spatial Structure in Traditional Korean Settlements

Pilwon Han
Ph. D., Assistant Professor
Hannam University, Korea


    Today in Korea, having passed through the industrialization era, the settlements only in the rural area have the traditional feature. The Korean settlement (Maul) which has the aggregated village form, has been an important social and economic unit as well as the basic unit of habitation with strong territorial identity. Most socio-economic activities of inhabitants, such as farming-labor exchange, have occurred by the unit of settlement. Based on this territorial and socio-economic background as well as kinship, settlement inhabitants usually have strong multilateral ties.

    Traditional Korean settlements have been the object of studies from various disciplines and standpoints, such as cultural geography, sociology, rural economics, folklore, and cultural anthropology as well as the planning and design field. Especially the planning and design field has dealt with the elements themselves, such as individual houses and community facilities, and the phenomenal features of the settlement, while enough endeavors have not been given to clarify the inner structure of the settlement.

    This paper deals with the typical spatial structure1 of the traditional Korean settlement. Its objective is to clarify and describe the constant core of the spatial structure. Also, the base on which the constancy has been rooted will be argued. This paper is based on vast research of Korean clan villages, located in the rural areas of the Korean Peninsula, by the author and other Korean researchers2. Therefore, though it takes a clan village named Wontuh, located in the southern area of Korea, as a typical example for clear argument and illustration, the issues argued in this paper are general enough to be supported by other typical Korean settlements.



    In Korea, as many other third world countries, the traditional society has been under conspicuous change since the 1960s due to rapid industrialization and urbanization. Considering the built environment, there were other critical moments for change, like the Korean War (1950-1953) and 'the New Village Movement'3 of the 1970s, which was strongly driven by the central government. So the appearances of most Korean settlements have dramatically changed. It seems impossible that the elements of the settlement, such as individual houses, remain unchanged through the era.

    In the structural point of view, however, it could be said that the change of phenomena does not always mean that of structure. Such an idea may apply to traditional Korean settlements. Looking the inside of the settlement analytically not superficially, it is understood that there are both changed and constant aspects, and that the change of the house has been much more active than that of overall settlement structure. Looking the house, the technological or service spaces, like kitchen and toilet, as well as building materials have been changed, and the dwelling space per person has grown by means of various ways4.

    The settlement cannot be said not to be changed at all, either. Also its spatial structure has suffered minor changes often due to the changes of spatial elements such as the house, constituting the spatial structure of the settlement. However the basic frame and characteristics of the settlement are by and large maintained5. Given that the house is one of several spatial elements making up the settlement structure, it is asserted that the structure itself is more constant than the spatial elements. On the other hand, considering the houses-settlement system6, it implies latent conflict between two domains, the house (element) and the settlement (structure).

    The change or the constancy of tradition? Both would have their own meaning. Though the tradition in change often gets footlight, it does not mean the core of tradition is more changeable than constant. Rather, it can be asserted that the tradition gets more meaningful when its underlying principles are sustained over periods. And given that the tradition is conceptually taken as recreated continuously with tempo, the constant aspect may be regarded as the core of tradition. This idea is the premise of this paper aiming at understanding the traditional Korean settlement critically.


    1. The author employs the term, 'the spatial structure', based on the concepts of the Structuralism. The spatial structure consists of relationships among the spatial elements like lots, roads, houses, and community facilities. Colloquially, 'structure' is generally concerned with something sustained, so it is likely more related to the constancy than the change. For more argument, refer to : Han, Pilwon, The spatial structures of traditional settlements - A study of the clan villages in Korean rural area - (Seoul: Ph. D. Diss., Seoul National University, 1991; reprinted in English, 1994).

    2. The author has surveyed Korean rural settlements since 1985, and has participated in publishing a series of field survey reports on more than 20 settlements.

    3. It was a movement to improve the economic and environmental situation of the Korean rural area, which prevailed for about 10 years, from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. The central government especially stresed replacing the old natural materials, such as rice straw, mud, and stone, with the new ones, such as slate and cement products. Along with the Korean War, it was such a strong factor as to change the traditional villagescape.

    4. Han, Pilwon, A study on the change of the spatial use pattern in rural farm houses (Seoul: Master Diss., Seoul National University, 1987)*

    5. Han, Pilwon, The spatial structures of traditional settlements - A study of the clan villages in Korean rural area - (Seoul: Ph. D. Diss., Seoul National University, 1991; reprinted in English, 1994), p.203

    6. About the house-settlement system, refer to: Rapoport, Amos, Human Aspects of Urban Form, (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1977), pp.305-315

* The titles of Korean references have been translated into English by the author.


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