Cultural Laboratory Seoul

Cultural Laboratory Seoul

Research on Culture-Specific Landscape Design in South Korea

Susann Ahn

Ongoing dissertation
Advisor: Prof. Christophe Girot
Project timeframe: 2016–2019
Project funding through the Swiss National Science Foundation, SNF

The doctoral thesis aims to decode culturally-rooted design concepts in parks
and open spaces in Seoul. It seeks to examine the perception and meaning of these concepts, and explores its translation into contemporary landscape design.

In the second half of the 20th century a radical economic and social change took place in South Korea, which stamped all areas of life: The transformation from an agrarian to an export oriented industrial state occurred within a few decades and demanded a huge political, economic and social engagement. After the Korean War (1950-1953) quick urbanization, modernization as well as an opening to international markets brought an economic uplift. At the same time, South Korean architects and landscape architects were seeking their inspiration in American and European design theories, techniques and style elements. As a result numerous buildings and landscape projects emerged imitating „western“ design styles. In many cases historical knowledge of Korean architecture and garden art vanished, for instance Pungsu-jiri, a geomantic concept that determines the spatial arrangement, orientation and use of specific places for human benefit. This concept has not only influenced the built environment, but also the belief and understanding of space and nature in Korea.

The dwindling of these traditional features has led to a debate about identity and culture in Korean architecture and landscape architecture. However from the 1990s onwards, politicians have increasingly supported the return to Korean culture, history and nature. Seoul became in a way a laboratory, where several landscape architecture projects are dealing with the question, how traditional design concepts can be sensitively linked to contemporary planning methods and international design approaches. The doctoral thesis investigates this paradigm shift as well as the strategies, perceptions and meanings of culturally-rooted design concepts.

The thesis argues for a culture-specific landscape architecture within the current design practice. These days, many Asian countries are facing the challenge to combine traditional and international design approaches. However, the constitutions of space and nature are culturally diverse and have to be negotiated within these projects. Thus in the course of growing interrelationships, it is crucial to implement a deeper knowledge of historical and cultural layers in order to enhance the quality of landscape architecture projects and create a better understanding of a place.