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[Critique] Engaging with the Rural Landscape

written by
Kang Yerin
photographed by
Roh Kyung (unless otherwise indicated)

Unlike metropolitan districts, which are mostly shaped by the market, rural areas are modified primarily by the government—this is the case commonly found in Korea. The Saemaeul Movement – a political initiative to modernise rural villages in the 1970s – supported the construction of zinc roofs and newly-laid roads. In the mid-1990s, when the rice market opened, thousands of crop collection centres were built all around the provinces, within only two years, in the name of reinforcing competitiveness. In the 2000s, murals were drawn all over countryside villages to strengthen communities, under the community aesthetics policy. On the walls of rural facilities, the respective names of government projects were engraved like signatures. Miscellaneous products, manufactured by both the central and local government, have piled up in the country landscape.

Rural areas are often disrespected by property developers—what they tend to create are holiday lodges. In the mid-1990s, when semi-agricultural zones were introduced, many urban dwellers escaped their cities with a dream of a rustic life. It seems that by ‘rural’, they refer to a pristine space of nature devoid of people. Facing this assumption of rural residency, the three projects of Lee Eunkyung are like a tonic—she expands upon the ‘value of sharing’, innate within a collective residence, to go beyond the realm of moving communities and to reach out to their surrounding rural landscape.


Density of Design from Positioning and Proportion

When Osiri gareum Cooperative Housing (hereinafter Osiri gareum) was going through development at full steam, I was visiting a site on the same Jeju island at Pyoseon-myeon. I often had my lunch in the busy streets of Gasi-ri in Pyoseon-myeon – which was in the vicinities of Osiri gareum – and thus I could observe the way that this project was progressing in its development. Lee Eunkyung was already a part of the project before the site was decided. Instead of a low-priced land in the outskirts, she persuaded the clients to purchase the current plot located in the middle of Gasi-ri. The clients – most of them in their retirement – had decided to live together as a community. Lee proposed an expansion of the range of this ‘togetherness’, which included the nearby region as well. Osiri gareum was developed, avoiding design as a new bloc with clearly-defined district lines, eventually filling up an empty space within the town—the 16 houses are dotted here and there and the landscape of Gasi-ri merged naturally with these houses.

Osiri gareum’s houses were positioned at a slight angle from the main pedestrian axis of the district. With the addition of the mono-pitched gable roof, the various sides of this same house-type have been emphasised. The private gardens and the direction of the first-floor terrace act as appropriate elements to supplement this density. The public library at the town entrance is also placed at about a 45-degree angle from the pedestrian path, in order to adopt an open attitude towards not only the constituent members of the residential district but also its surrounding towns. The surrounding landscape, the cultivation of which was minimised to remain within budget, elucidates the character of a residential miscellany without overstating the fact. Guided by a range of principles suggested by the architect, the private gardens differentiate each housing unit according to its resident’s preferences.

For the projects – Nunmoe gareum Cooperative Housing (hereinafter Nunmoe gareum) and Uiseong Gowoonmaeul – in which the architect could not engage with the site selection, she decided to focus on their density design. Individual houses were designed with a priority towards site positioning in mind, ‘in order to prevent the residential district from being isolated from itself.’

Nunmoe gareum was built on a former townhouse project site, with an inclination of up to 10m difference. The master plan of the earlier was designed around the traffic flow between the main street and the individual houses, but Lee turned it into a terrace-shaped residential sector with a horizontal flow line. Instead of prioritising the connections between the street to individual houses, a town sector as a collective unit which fits with the landscape was created first, and a circulation system where one would walk to one’s house after parking one’s car in the shared parking lot was proposed instead.

In the Nunmoe gareum project, the architect could not arbitrarily adjust the number of households and the area per house; instead, the architect focused on visually realising the optimum density by meticulously designing the positioning and the floor plan. Nunmoe gareum is composed of 28 households, and each home is positioned in a zigzag manner to create a visual density that gives the impression that there are more than 28 households. This irregular positioning blends into the northward-inclined site conditions, draws light into the individual houses, and induces a variety of plane types.

From the position of the local government, the site of Uiseong Gowoonmaeul, a farmland basin, was selected to resolve problems with relative ease, including costs and other related conflicts. Across this empty land, programmes – residence, leisure, and community – are divided and arranged under different scales and densities. First, the residence is located on the northern part of the site where the original rural town meets the town’s high street. As such, in spite of the height difference that divides it from the original town, the landscape enters into everyday life in the district. The community space acts as a buffer area for the residents against the tourist programme, due to its positioning. As it is relatively larger in size, facilities – a Welcome Center, a workroom, and a community hall – have been placed at a distance from one another within the community space to allow these activities to make use of their surroundings.

The residential houses and the camp site’s bungalows are small and may seem somewhat light, but by using oppositely-facing walls, each house was posed to be accountable to its exterior space. The camp site is tied up under a singular collective unit: which is inclusive of the bungalow, parking lot, and the zelkova tree that acts as a parking lot awning. The collective unit becomes increasingly loosely placed as it proceeds from the community space to the parking lot, allowing it become a part of the landscape. The density is deliberately designed to be sporadic in the shared yard of the production space and lively in the residential region, to simulate the wider landscape of this rural village.


A view of Uiseong Gowoonmaeulⓒtexture on texture


Architectural Repertoire and Participatory Design

To succeed with housing cooperatives as a means of property development in Korea, two tactics have been introduced: affordable housing and participatory design. This was the case for Osiri gareum and Nunmoe gareum. Due to tight budgets, the external materials for both projects were already selected as the most economically viable. The types of individual houses also were pre-determined due to the peculiar nature of the housing cooperative development, in which the design and construction were fully integrated. However, via participatory design, requests made by numerous residents ultimately have to be reflected.

In this situation, with finite choices in materials and area size, Lee performed the design strategically; conducting a study on volume, she drew in the limiting conditions as part of the design. She held workshops and surveys, analysing each household’s characteristics, dividing the residential types, and interpreting the relationship between community architecture and communal space. In the survey were some of the eyecatching questions: ‘the space within the house that you can stay for the longest period of time’, ‘most prioritised space’, and ‘space that you can afford to reduce’. These questions seem to bring the indefinite demands of the users on their residential space down to manageable realms for the design process—invisible guidelines.

The survey results can be interpreted in various ways; but she decided upon a general direction of filling up the ground floor and partially emptying out the second floor space, letting the residence blend in with the surroundings while allowing for variations in the house design. The houses of Osiri gareum, of a rectangular plan, are positioned so that their lengthier sides lie parallel to the inner pedestrian path. From the pedestrian path, the density of the buildings seems high, and the residence plan is shallow enough to place up to four layers when viewed from a standpoint perpendicular from the pedestrian path. Architectural elements – plan proportion, a vacated second floor, and the gable roof – create a familiar but new kind of a landscape. The types of households in Nunmoe gareum are generally more diverse – which called for different residential areas of 27, 30, and 35-pyong respectively – while a harmony of volumes was brought about in this shared district by dividing up the relatively large domiciles into rectangular planes. Thirteen different variations were generated from the five original types in Nunmoe gareum; sixteen variations were generated from the two original types in Osiri gareum.

Lee’s uniquely sensual positioning brings about a diverse scenery—which would be difficult to observe from just looking at a floor plan or a master plan. This diversity, never too showy, is emphasised through the use of various colours and residential responses with regards to their new communal space. During our interview, she calmly explained the long process covering design and public architecture, but upon visiting the site, it is not the narrative and the logic behind the process but her wide design repertoire that captures the eye.


Silent Language and Community Design

Lee has multiple experiences of designing shared residences. Before establishing her office, she was on the administrative staff for the Bogumjari Housing Complex project in Gangnam and also worked as a designer of collective housing projects in Malli-dong, Gayang-dong, Namgajwa-dong, and Goduk-Gangil. Executing these collective housing projects on a range of scales, from around twenty to hundreds of households, she must have developed a certain architectural language and standard practice with regards to the theme of ‘collective living’.

The standard meanings of ‘common’, ‘shared’, and ‘co-existence’ exceed the ontological justification of living together and possess multiple cultural levels. For those who decide to move in together but never had learn how to live together, Lee gently proposes the mutual benefits behind the ‘meaning of sharing’; and to those who are already eager to adopt a shared living lifestyle, she earnestly informs them of the ‘method of co-existence’—these proposals are not merely one-directional. 

All three projects underwent a formative stage of user participatory design: the architect and users come to share views, creating governing principles for community and communal spaces, and this architectural order gains linguistic force in return. Not all residents may find the decisions made in the participatory design process agreeable, but once construction is complete they will learn the language of the community through lived experience—the power of architecture lies here. As Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist, argues, in his description of time and space as a ‘silent language’, there is ‘a function of communication’ within space. This spatial language, which exists in different modes across different cultures, is a language that is picked up by the body of one who lives in that culture.

Going beyond the urban setting, which encourages residents to focus only on their house interior and shutting themselves behind the gates of a ‘district’, these three projects – Osiri gareum, Nunmoe Gareum, and Uiseong Gowoonmaeul – elucidate a communal space to which every resident contributes in order to better establish the principles for coexistence. Conflict, however, is innate to the design process of any community space. In the case of Nunmoe gareum, the parking rules proposed by the architect – not the individual parking spaces in front of the houses but the shared parking lot at the district entrance – is still dealing with public discussions. While households with children readily express agreement, households with elderly people or those who have physical difficulties are displeased.

In the introduction to Miracle Library, Do Jeong-il writes: ‘For architecture to be able to contribute to rural communities in a post-industrial society, it should not simply subsume everything into functions, spaces and tempt people liberally; but try to look to the realities of life that influence the actual experience and the laws of proximity. Experience is not something purely imagined in the mind but something that requires bodily involvement. All “proximate things” – including conflict, love, peace, and care – begin from proximities. How can there be a relationship between things that are physically distant from one another?’

I think that the architect’s intention – to avoid subsuming all space into design and to propose only those aspects that form the rudiments – will continue to develop in variations offered by the differing languages found in the lived experiences of the everyday.​

Kang Yerin
Kang Yerin is a professor at Seoul National University and currently practices in Seoul. As a co-principal of SoA, she designed Living and Thinking in Architecture, Paju Book City, Studio M, Space So, Yoonseul. She was a co-curator for Production City at the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2017.