In South Korea, apartment complexes look very simple and undecorated. From the street, they seem to be a series of boxes. Truthfully speaking, every building is slightly different from its neighbor. A building’s height, design, and proportions are regulated to maintain the appropriate density in urban areas. But from the perspective of residents and citizens, it is hard to spot these differences. In Seoul, you might hear descriptive phrases such as, ‘apartments like matchboxes’ or ‘apartments like a folding screen’ to describe the homogeneous and repetitive shape of housing complexes.
What makes the form of apartment?
‘Form follows Function’ Louis H. Sullivan(1856-1924)
The apartment complex is a very honest building. On the outside, there are open green fields and parking lots. This open space is possible because each unit is built vertically, not horizontally. On each floor of an apartment complex there are multiple units. These units share one elevator, stairway, water supply, electricity and internet connection. As you see on the picture on the right above, every apartment concentrates those vertical elements together, which looks like outstanding tower in the middle. On one side, there are the rooms that access water utilities, such as kitchens and toilets, and have less exposure to sunshine.
The final form of an apartment complex is a mere repetition of every unit. While apartment complexes and their layout did not originate in Korea, they have perfectly adjusted to the Korean lifestyle after a long process of adaptation and experimentation. The evolution of apartment complexes means that now only the fittest ones have survived in the fierce jungle of urban Korea. While many factors influence the form of Korean apartments, cultural and institutional factors contribute heavily.
Koreanized Apartment Design
Left: Korean Apartment Plan Right: Japanese Apartment Plan
Every unit is designed for a nuclear family of 4 people. Two bedrooms for children are right in front of the entrance. The master bedroom for the parents is placed in the deepest room and has a separate bathroom. The living room is located in the center of the unit, integrating the other rooms. Balconies, which mostly face the south, provide extra sunshine and outdoor access. There might be little variation from this plan, but it is very rare.
Considering that this is the result of a long period of adaptation, the main characteristic of a Korean apartment is the ‘living room centered plan’. This is a reflection of the ‘madang centered plan’ of hanoks, or Korean traditional houses. Compared to other urban housing, like the Japanese apartment that you see on the right above, the main difference of the plan is the openness of the living room, which makes the house look bigger and brighter. Moreover, it is the place where many family activities take place such as watching TV, ancestral rites, and receiving guests. It is also important to note that in Korean culture the living room plays a role in reinforcing patriarchy. For example, when the whole family watches TV, the person who controls the remote is the one who controls the family. Funny, but it is often quite true.
Policy Determines Volume
The plan you see above is of 85㎡ (25PY), which is the standard size of so-called ‘People’s housing’ (국민주택). This policy of the Korean government has promoted the supply of this type of housing by providing a value-added tax (VAT, 10%) exemption to buyers. Apartments do come in multiple sizes, such as 60㎡ (18PY), 85㎡ (25PY), 102㎡ (30PY) and 135㎡ (40PY), however these 5 sizes are usually the only options available because the government closely regulates apartment purchases through a ‘housing subscription policy’.
The purpose of this policy is to regulate prices and speculation. According to the policy you should open the apartment-application deposit and pay the designated amount of money depending on the size that you choose. As a result, the sizes of apartments are tightly regulated.
These fixed-size apartments are the unexpected side effect of the Korean government’s current housing policy, and apartment layouts are correspondingly limited. Based on the generic nature of apartment design, people usually treat apartments as assets that can be converted into cash. Apartment owners tend to appreciate hearing the news that property value will increase in their neighborhood, or that their complex is slated to undergo redevelopment. Even though high property values mean higher taxes, and redevelopment means relocation, apartment owners see their housing as a cash asset and welcome these changes.
When renovating or enlarging an apartment, it is common to encroach on the balcony area. Living rooms and bedrooms will become extended to the balcony. I remember when I was traveling in Paris, I saw a variety of dwellings that enriched the street with rhythmical elevation and diverse construction materials. But in Seoul, where I live and work, sadly the streets are filled with generic, homogeneous apartment complexes.
The companies who construct these identical buildings, want to make their product unique from others by strengthening their brand name. They attach their brand emblem on the outside of the boxy building and make the gate of the apartment complex elaborate and distinct. Believe it or not, they also provide smartphone applications that allow residents to manipulate the electricity devices and gas valves of their apartment remotely.
After this long history, the Korean apartment complex has become amazingly standardized and automated. Consequently people’s lives reflect this. Despite the complaint of a boring urban landscape, apartment complexes continue to contribute to the housing problem in Seoul. From another perspective, it is the realization of modernism.
This image is Ville Contemporaine (Contemporary City, 1922) that Le Corbusier, a pioneer of modern architecture, drew. I find it similar to Seoul’s landscape. The description is as following.
“The centerpiece of this plan was a group of sixty-story cruciform skyscrapers built on steel frames and encased in curtain walls of glass. The skyscrapers housed both offices and the flats of the wealthiest inhabitants. These skyscrapers were set within large, rectangular park-like green spaces. At the center of the planned city was a transportation hub which housed depots for buses and trains as well as highway intersections and at the top, an airport.”
It is 100 years after Le Courbusier dreamed of this urban landscape. If he was alive, he would say Seoul is the utopia that he had dreamed. But would it be still a utopia? Is the apartment complex still the best option for Seoul’s citizens? There are so many questions behind urban housing, and there are also as many experiments for better housing around the world. However, whether it is good or bad, the apartment complex will not perish in the near future. Instead it will change little by little, adapting to the evolving urban jungle. And hopefully we will see another utopia in the future.
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