본문 바로가기

Sonomad의 글쓰기

From the Aristocratic to the Commercial (2010.2)


In Heng C.K. et al. Eds, On Asian Streets and Public Space, Singapore : NUS Press, 2010.

KIM, Sung Hong, University of Seoul


The ingredients of a main street are a microcosm of the larger city. Every major world city seems to have a main street whose mere name instantly conjures images and memories of the city. In Seoul that street is Chongno. With more than six hundred years of history, Chongno is a prominent reference in the urban and architectural history of Seoul. But the relationship between the commercial street and the change of Seoul's urban fabric has not been a rigorously studied subject. The history has generally been the history of the architecture and urban artifacts of the ruling classes: the focus has been on the formal, constructional, and aesthetic aspects of palaces, and the cosmological and symbolic aspects of traditional urban planning. One of the consequences is that the commercial architecture has been understood in economic, legal and technical terms devoid of understanding of the relation between architecture and urbanism. Although colonization, war, and rapid economic development have destroyed most buildings built before the twentieth century, the urban spatial structure has persisted for more than six centuries and it still functions as an underlying logic to generate building morphologies. Today, the old urban layouts are threatened with extinction as the government and developers seek to reformulate them and build high-rise commercial buildings in the Chongno area.


This paper examines and characterizes the spatial transformation of Chongno, the oldest and one of the busiest streets in the historic area in Seoul. The question is to what extent we can understand the complex visual urban landscape in relation to the less complex spatial logic of urbanism. The paper develops a theoretical framework by investigating how the street-commercial space-residential spaces are related in the urban space and how they have been transformed in the process of commercialization and urbanization. The arguments of the paper are based on a comparative analysis of the chosen area in two different periods: between the late fourteenth century and the present. It was in the late fourteenth century that Chongno was for the first time planned as the official commercial street and shops were constructed. The 1980s and 1990s were characterized by the construction of massive high-rise buildings in the traditional urban areas. The studied area is one of the last renewal areas within the city. As the investigation is confined to the spatial aspects, only by theoretical implication will it expand to cover historical issues of the city. Space syntax is used to build a theoretical framework, however, the discussion of space syntax theory will be limited to the use of its basic concepts presented in a simplified form in this paper. The existing historical studies, research reports, maps, and photos also guide the argument to fill out details.


Chongno is the oldest planned commercial street in Seoul. It is an east-west spine at the heart of Seoul, about 40 meters wide and 2.8 kilometers long. In Korean, the word “chong” designates bell tower, and “no” denotes street. From the west end, Chongno begins with one layer of lots on one side, but includes several layers of lots in the middle. To the east end, it extends to several blocks on both sides. To the west, an address refers to a parcel’s location within a consecutive order along the street, like grid plan cities, but to the east, it refers to the lot number assigned to the property according to its date of land subdivision. A high number thus does not necessarily mean a long street, but a densely packed block. In this paper, therefore, Chongno has a double meaning: it refers to a street with adjacent lots on the one hand, and refers to an area behind the street on the other hand. The first property has a “linear” formation: it has a strong sense of direction towards the front because of its collective and street-dependent nature. The second property, by contrast, has a “planar” configuration: it does not have a coherent orientation because of its independence from streets and adjacent lots. The juxtaposition of these two components was the result of the redistricting of Seoul during the Japanese occupation in the 1910s. The Japanese applied the concept of the grid pattern district in very limited urban areas, in the case of Chongno only the peripheries of the old blocks. Liberated after 35 years of Japanese occupation in 1945, the Korean Government changed the names of districts but still maintained the frontal-linear and rear-planar district configuration. However, this topological urban configuration was not a new urban phenomenon during the colonial period; it has been inherent from the foundation of Seoul in the late fourteenth century.


The paper looks more closely at Chongno and its adjacent urban areas. The studied area forms a trapezoid whose largest dimensions are 540 meters long in the north-south direction and 380 meters long in the east-west direction. It includes a 20-meter deep commercial strip facing Chongno. The area is close to the two major palaces: Kyongbok Palace to the northwest and Ch’angdok Palace to the northeast. When Seoul was founded as the capital of Chosun, the layout of the city, though constructed on the cannons of Chinese cities, did not embody the strict principles. The principles were limited to the main streets, palaces, royal shrines, and governmental buildings: the geometrical regularity and symmetry are only applied to the major buildings in the palaces. The main palace, Kyongbok Palace, lies stretched out facing due south on a plain with Mt. Paegak rising behind it to the north. The ancestral hall of the court, Chongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine, sits on the left, i.e., the east and the altar of the god of the soil and grain, Sajik Altar, on the right, i.e., the west. Thus the disposition of the principal structures followed the Chou li’s prescription. Behind the major streets such as Chongno, the city was not organized as a grid plan. The high-ranking officials built their houses at ideal sites first, most often deep from main streets, and improved the roads connecting them to the main streets. The amount of land partitioned for an official's house was assigned on the basis of an official’s position in the hierarchy. Alleys were produced as other houses were built later to fill remaining areas. The maps published in 1914 and 1929 are known to be the most accurate and oldest preserved maps on record. The 1910s was a transitional time in the history of both Korea and Seoul. The period was punctuated by the Japanese seizure of the Korean peninsula and thus by the turning point of urban transformation. From this standpoint, the remaining urban fabric in the 1910s provides a clue to understand the urban fabric of the aristocratic society of Chosun (1392-1910): it shows large parcels in the middle of the block, where the residences of high-ranking officials were located.


Another characteristic feature of Seoul’s urban planning is the location and form of markets and shops. According to Chou li’s prescription, ‘the center of mercantile activity is given the place of least honor and minimum yang influence by being located in the northern extremity of the city’ (1). The disposition and form of markets established during Chosun were far from this principle. In contrast to the large irregular residential parcels, one layer of shallow-lots is aligned along Chongno. This type of urban parcel is sharply distinguished from the narrow-frontage and deep-lot pattern that is generally found in grid-pattern cities. Even in Islamic towns consisting of irregular parcels, such a configuration cannot easily be found (2). This was the site where the court established chartered shops, called shijon, whose function was limited to the supply of goods to the government and upper classes. The shijon buildings were under the direct control of the government: it was obligatory to seek permission to open a shop. The shop was a one-story timber structure with a tile-roof and its interior was not deeper than 20 meters. The shijon building was also called haeng-lang, the rough equivalent of a portico in Western architecture. The size of buildings was described in terms of a unit called kan, which is the space between supporting columns. In the late fourteenth century, the government built a 1,360-kan haeng-lang along Chongno and the two other major streets. If we assume one kan is about 3 meters, the total length would be about 400 meters. However, not all haeng-lang buildings were used for commercial purpose; the section between Ch’angdok Palace and Chongno was used for government purposes such as storage and lodging. It is suggestive that the structure and layout of haeng-lang were not driven from retail functions, and we may argue that shijon in the early Chosun period was distinct from the retail space in the middle age European cities, which was already differentiated horizontally and vertically to meet retail functions. Shijon dealt with luxury goods, such as Chinese silk, hats, and silver handiwork, for the court and upper classes. Grain, salt, vegetables, and meat were sold in the extramural open markets.


The commercial space in fourteenth century Seoul can be compared to the two medieval Chinese cities, Chang’an in the Sui (581-618) and Tang dynasties (618-906) and Kaifeng in the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), whose planning principles had major influences on the foundation of Seoul. While the capital of Chang’an was ‘a controlled, highly disciplined city with restricted commercial activity,' Song Kaifeng established ‘a new urban structure with pluralistic streets.’ In Chang’an, the main streets were devoid of commercial activities, which were restricted to fortress-like grid pattern wards. By contrast, in Kaifeng shops expanded beyond the wards and lined and encroached upon the streets (3). Chosun was dominated by a ruling class of literate officials, educated in the knowledge and virtues of Confucianism, and thus more closely resembling the Sui and Tang dynasties than the Northern Song dynasty. Conversely, the commercial spaces were very different from the markets in Chang’an and more similar to Kaifeng’s streets. The Chosun government implemented the policy of restraining commerce from the dawn of the country. On the one hand the policy allowed and controlled commercial activities of authorized merchants, while on the other hand restrained peasants from being engaged in commercial activities. The merchants of the shijon had to pay a commercial tax and labor for public works. In return they were under protection and support from the state and they were allowed to exclusively operate the shops. By the fifteenth century, unauthorized merchants and traders increased and encroached upon the commercial activities in the capital and provinces. During the two major wars between Japan and China in the sixteenth century, Seoul was devastated. It took more than one hundred years to recover the image of its early period. After the wars, some bureaucrats tried to change the commercial policy from ‘encouraging agriculture and restraining commerce’ to ‘supplementing agriculture by commerce.’ (4) Toward the eighteenth century, commercial activities were no longer restricted to the shijon buildings, and extended to the street inside and outside the city wall. The government’s attempts to crack down on irregular commercial activities were frequently recorded.


No shijon buildings remain in modern Seoul. Furthermore, very few drawings of the old Seoul remain today despite the historical records on commercial policy and its implementations. In the map of 1914, Chongno was more than 20 meters wide and we would not imagine that intimate commercial activities took place there. An aerial photo from the early 1900s shows that the street is so wide that the shop’s interior is almost invisible from the other side. It is presumed that the one-story shijon facades on each side were apart and they were not tall enough to close in the immense boulevard and give an impression of immediate unity. It could be interpreted that the street of Chongno in the early Chosun period was not distinctively “commercial” either from the perspective of medieval European or Chinese cities. It was the setting for stately display. The commoners receded from the main street and took their places as spectators rather than participants in everyday urban life. When the king and his royal entourage passed on sedan chairs carried by man-bearers, commoners knelt along Chongno. A narrow path, pima-gil, was provided behind the shijon to facilitate more convenient pedestrian traffic. The shijon was an architectural façade of the city: it was the only type of architecture that depended on streets, while palaces, royal shrines, government buildings, and residences are positioned according to the cosmological and natural orientation independent to the urban spatial structure. In a painting, Hanyang-do, published in 1770, mountains, creeks, wall, gatehouses, major palaces, Confucian shrines, and shijon haeng-lang were diagrammatically described. Among these city elements, the configuration of palaces and shijon are distinct. While the former is surrounded by rectangular walls, the latter is aligned from the east gate to the west gate. Private houses are completely omitted. Confucian philosophy as the state’s ruling ideology during the Chosun dynasty was closely related to prevalent anti-urbanism. While the vertical combination of commercial-residential use was already developed in the medieval European cities, it was not suitable to the capital of Chosun. Instead, Seoul created the horizontal juxtaposition of commercial and residential use, shijon buildings to the front and houses to the back in the linear and planar configuration. Whether this spatial juxtaposition changes and affects the architecture becomes an all the more intriguing question.


The period from the 1930s until the end of the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1945 was a time when modern urban planning was exercised by Japan. Narrow medieval streets were destroyed and replaced by straight spacious thoroughfares well suited to colonial management and control. Urban transformation continued during the Korean War (1950-53), and the construction booms of the 1970s. Despite the continual development and redevelopment, however, the urban fabric of Chongno remained relatively stable and without significant changes across six centuries until recently. Recent changes in the urban fabric have been subtle but significant. Of the many developments in the area, two stand out as being of particular importance. First, the straight thoroughfare, Taewha-kwan-gil, traverses the east-west direction. Along this new street, four high-rise office buildings have emerged. Second, many of the dead ends were eliminated. The fragmentation of internal streets was not improved, although dead ends were significantly reduced. Several streets were eliminated or privatized by the increased scale of lots. Insadong-gil has become a street with art galleries, art shops, art institutions and traditional gift shops. What is more important is the elimination of the long-narrow grid in the southern front section of the studied area. Pima-gil was interrupted at the west corner by the construction of a commercial tower and thus it merely serves as a detour. The result is that commercial functions have become more concentrated in Chongno. It is important to note that Chongno carries the highest volume of traffic in the northern part of Seoul today.


The comparison of the two periods reveals that there has been a complete reversal of locational priority. One is a period that is still influenced by a society controlled by strong aristocratic power with a highly hierarchical social structure, the other period is shaped by a society managed by commercial capital. In Chosun, the retailer was considered the lowest among the four hierarchical professions: literate official, farmer, artisan, and merchant. It is not surprising that the residences of high-ranking officials occupy the most privileged space in the city, whereas the merchants the least privileged one. The residences were close to the royal space, but concealed from the space of the merchants. The horizontal juxtaposition inscribed a division between the upper and the lower ranks of society by commanding the privileged space while consigning merchants to an extremely limited territory adjacent to, but never within the sacred. The unpredictable interactions were in stark opposition to the hierarchy of the aristocratic society. The large-scale houses were consciously and deliberately anti-street: the purposeful negation of street-related architectural values was fundamental to planning and design. Interpersonal relations are unnecessary at the street level; the street was not meant to be a shopping district for the upper class, but for their servants and the mean retailers. Buying and selling at the roadside shops and markets did not make the functioning of the city’s economy a public event yet. From the angle of the upper class, there was no need to articulate or differentiate retail space, since it was merely a visual covering of the city. The architecture of shopping was considered something to be controlled, managed, embellished, and to be seen, but not to be in.


After the collapse of the Chosun dynasty, the Japanese occupation, and the Korean War, Chongno has become the commercial and cultural center with more private capital and with less government control and power. Land has become a commodity that can be bought and sold. The state and other public bodies sold their property, and the land on which public buildings stood passed into the hands of private individuals. The population of Seoul in the 1910s was between 200,000 and 300,000. By 1944, it had increased to one million. Today, approximately one fourth of the total population of Korea, over ten million people, lives in metropolitan Seoul. As far as the problem of urban planning was concerned, however, state intervention has been organized more systematically only during the last two decades. In densely commercialized areas, capital pays much closer attention to relative locational advantages, that is, syntactically integrated urban spaces. At the condition of polarized space pattern, however, the pressure of spatial intensification entails uneven development: it shifts towards vertical spread profiles that reverse the previous tendency towards horizontal juxtaposition. The peripheral verticalization is coupled with the degradation of the inside of the block. A commercial guide map of the 1950s shows how sharply the inside and outside of the area becomes polarized. The phenomenon of a dense periphery and a non-dense inside is still maintained today. Inside there are one-story traditional houses turned into areas of relatively inexpensive inns, drinking places, karaoke shops and other nighttime entertainment facilities. Outside, one-story shops turned into multi-story retail and commercial structures that range in height from two to five-stories dominate. Apparel, accessory, jewelry, and shoe stores, bars and restaurants, bookstores, travel agencies, private educational institutes, lawyer’s offices, and medical clinics reside in the same building complex. Uneven spatial development was also evident in the land prices. The most expensive location was the southwest corner, where the first department store in Korea was built in 1936 and a 36-story tower was completed in 1999. The rates decrease as one goes further inside: the least expensive lots are where the official residences were located and those today occupied by the nighttime entertainment facilities.


The transformation of Chongno implies the social logic of space refined by Hiller and Hanson in two social paradigms of space: spatial and transpatial. (5) The ministers and high-ranking officials are more related to the royal family members, court officials and the clan than to their neighbors. Most of them moved to Seoul through the system of official examination and after retirement they returned to their hometowns and enjoyed the lives of recluses and often taught young scholars. They belong to the group that is defined by the abstract bonds of members regardless of spatial proximity, and by the conceptual cohesion rather than spatial contiguity. In this sense, we might call them the transpatial group. The most privileged lands occupied by this transpatial group were surrounded by strong spatial boundaries. The retailers belonged to a similar socio-spatial formation: they depended more on the transpatial group and other retailers, middlemen and traders than the high degree of mutual interactions with casual customers on street. The aristocratic solidarity completely collapsed in the process of colonization, war, and industrialization. The urban center fell into the hands of private speculators, therefore, the system of market values led to the shifts in the spatial configuration of buildings. In the past, groups of private houses would form self-contained quarters or islands, with the building disposed without relation to the public ways outside. But today, it would be the other way about: every building tends to be oriented to the street. Now the space of the transpatial group was degraded into the least preferable land from the perspective of commercial interests. By contrast, the boundaries of the transpatial group became the most profitable retail spaces, as shops capitalized on the street by placing a premium upon intense pedestrian flow. The juxtaposition of the space-depedent daytime architecture and the transpatial nighttime architecture retains and stabilizes the linear-planar duality of an urban landscape.


Let us now move to another aspect of topological reversal: the relationship between global properties of urban structure and land subdivision. Accessibility and visual exposure to the street are critical components to the success of retail and commercial architecture. This in turn develops a trend that tends to maximize frontage. The narrow frontage and deep rental space in the American shopping malls are strong indications of this trend. The opposite tends to be the case in Congno. When syntactic properties of urban space conflict with geometric properties, such as size, shape and ratio of parcels, it seems that architectural space is arranged in a way to overcome the limitation. The shallow lot between Chongno and Pima-gil, not deeper than 20 meters, does not allow a spatial differentiation in the longitudinal direction. One way to meet the growing needs of the provision of commercial space is to expand a building in the latitudinal direction and create a wide frontage and shallow interior space. This unusual configuration of commercial architecture facing Chongno is a by-product of the shift from an aristocratic and hierarchical society to a capitalist society. Since the 1980s, Chongno has been competing with other urban areas and losing its fame as the commercial and cultural center. While other commercial areas provide opportunities for architects to perform formal experimentations through medium-size commercial buildings, Chongno has been the subject of a dichotomic debate between preservation and massive redevelopment of high-rise buildings. It has been regarded that the dense visual characteristics are chaotic and they are the result of a lack of systematic building regulations and ordinances and a lack of government control. But the fact that Chongno's unique character is deeply rooted on more global properties of urban spatial structure has not been scrutinized. What is of particular concern to us is that Chongno’s decline as a commercial center is also closely related to the spatial pattern: the extreme polarization of inside and outside. The street of Chongno is no longer a line of communication for pedestrians, and their utility for motor transport becomes primary. Without reducing the number of motor vehicles, there will be very little potential for improving the urban quality. With these global and local pictures of Chongno, it is not too difficult to understand why the old commercial street does not maintain a cohesive pedestrian-oriented environment. The problem is more on abuse and mal-use of space than under-use and non-use in this hyper-density city. The main commercial street not only provides a field of potential encounter and co-presence but also provides space that is extremely sensitive to private capital.


Though a fuller analysis of the social, cultural, political processes which shape and are themselves shaped by spaces would complement this study, this description of the characteristics of the urban and architectural spaces in the chosen area in Chongno, Seoul, has demonstrated that the particular aspects of architecture are closely related to the interaction between traditional urban spatial structure and commercial capital today. First, Chongno originally consisted of the juxtaposition between the inside-planar and the outside-linear morphologies: the former was constructed in a hierarchical order because it was related to the residential function of the aristocratic society, whereas the latter was constructed in an egalitarian basis because it was related to commercial function. Second, in the process of transformation from the aristocratic center to the commercial hub, there has been a reversal in the pattern of land use: the most privileged residential area with the inside-planar configuration was overpowered by the commercial area with the outside-linear configuration. Being threatened by other urban areas, however, it seems that the older Chongno could not survive without changes. The Seoul metropolitan government has recently forced innovation to make the old urban areas more attractive as cultural centers. Under this circumstance, one may argue that architecture and urban space must be preserved to guard its cultural values. Another could argue that a complete remedy would be possible only through the redevelopment of the entire area with a completely new land-use pattern. The dilemmas could not be resolved by any single urban paradigm or ideology. What is of significance is, however, the extent to which we can describe the spatio-formal aspects of architecture in the broader context, which could be a starting point for further debate.



1. Wright, A. F., The Cosmology of the Chinese City, In W. Skinner, Ed. The City in Late Imperial China, Stanford University Press, 1977, p.49.

2. Benevolo, L., The History of the City, The MIT Press, 1980.

3. Heng, C.K., Kaifeng and Yangzhou: the Birth of Commercial Street, In Celik, Z., Favro, D., Ingersoll, R. Eds., Streets: Critical perspectives on Public Space. University of California Press, 1994, pp.45-56.

4. Park, Pyeong-Sik, Studies on the Commercial History of Early Choson Dynasty, Seoul: Jisik Sanupsa, 1999.

5. Hillier, B. & Hanson, J., The Social Logic of Space, Cambridge University Press, 1984




Benevolo, L. (1980). The History of the City. The MIT Press.

Braudel, Fernand. (1979). The Wheels of Commerce, Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Vol.2. Perennial Library, Harper & Row, Publishers.

Heng, C.K. (1994). Kaifeng and Yangzhou: the Birth of Commercial Street. In Celik, Z., Favro, D., Ingersoll, R. Eds. (1994). Streets: Critical perspectives on Public Space. University of California Press, pp.45-56.

Hillier, B. & Hanson, J. (1984). The Social Logic of Space. Cambridge University Press.

Korea Database Research Institute (1997). CD-ROM Chosun Wangjo-Sillok. (The History of Chosun Dynasty)

Park, Pyeong-Sik (1999). Studies on the Commercial History of Early Choson Dynasty. Seoul: Jisik Sanupsa.

Peponis, J. (1989). Space, culture and urban design in late modernism and after. In Ekistics, n334-335, Jan/Apr., Athens, pp93-108.

Seoul Metropolitan Government (1977, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1996) Seoul Yuk-baek-nyon-sa (The Six Hundred Year History of Seoul), Vol.1-6.

Wright A. F. (1977). The Cosmology of the Chinese City. In W. Skinner, Ed. The City in Late Imperial China. Stanford University Press. pp.33-73.

Yi, Taejin et al. (1998). Seoul Sang-up-sa Yonku (The Commercial History of Seoul). University of Seoul: The Institute of Seoul Studies.


The paper was originally published at the proceedings of the Space Syntax 3rd International Symposium, with the title “The Linear and the Planar: The Spatial Logic of Chongno and the Morphology of its Commercial Architecture,” by Georgia Institute of Technology, 2001, pp.33.1-33.12. The Korean version of the paper was published in “Chongno: Time, Place, and People” with the tile “Chongno ui Sangeop Geonchuk gwa Gonggan Nonli” by the Institute of Seoul Studies, University of Seoul, 2002. pp.221-266.


A modified version was published at the proceedings of the 2002 Seoul International Conference on East Asian Architectural History, Seoul National University, with the title “The Spatial and the Transpatial: Two Spatial Paradigms of Chongno Street,” pp.639-648, and published in Journal of Southeast Asian Architecture, Vols. 5 & 6. November 2003. MITA(P) 191/03/2004, pp.23-31, with the title “From the Aristocratic to the Commercial: Chongno Street in Seoul.” The paper was finally included in In Heng C.K. et al. Eds, On Asian Streets and Public Space, Singapore : NUS Press, 2010.