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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Free World, Cheap Buildings: U.S. Hegemony and the Origins of Modern Architecture in South Korea, 1953-1960

  • Author(s): Park, Dongmin
  • Advisor(s): Shanken, Andrew
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the role of U.S.-aided construction projects as an instrument of power and legitimacy in the rebuilding of South Korea after the Korean War through the Eisenhower years, by situating them in the socio-political context of the Cold War. It specifically addresses two intertwined historical questions: (1) How did the United States, portraying its image as an anti-imperialist nation, quickly establish a powerful hegemony in South Korea? (2) What influence did those construction projects have on the development of modern architecture in South Korea? This study argues that, in a war-ravaged Korea, construction projects were America’s core hegemonic projects in the making of a democratic, capitalist society. Through numerous construction projects in South Korea, the U.S nurtured democratic citizenship, established a private enterprise system, spread Christianity, instilled democratic governance, and offered the “American way of life” to Koreans. In addition, they provided a unique opportunity for the U.S. to fashion, with humanitarianism, America’s image and presence in Korea. Both in Korea and globally, images of the U.S. sponsorship of South Korean rehabilitation and peaceful co-existence between the Koreans and Americans became a powerful propaganda tool that promoted an image of American’s benevolence and leadership.

Grandiose and high-style architecture is not the focus of this dissertation; instead, the majority of buildings this study examines are simple and utilitarian structures. After the war, a great number of buildings had to be built in a short period of time using a limited amount of construction materials. A lack of building technicians also necessitated simple construction. Simple buildings provided an easier model for Korean architects and builders to learn American building technologies and the tenets of modern architecture. This dissertation examines the socio-political context of these construction projects, their ideological uses, the self-help approach employed by the United States, and the compromises made to accommodate Korean local conditions and customs. I analyze the diplomatic and governmental sources as well as construction documents. I also investigate the reception of the architectural projects from Korean journals, magazines, and newspapers. Using a variety of different sources from both the U.S. and Korea, this dissertation specifically focuses on the tensions and paradoxes between the promises and the reality of these construction projects as they took form in the process. In addition, by examining North Korean newspaper articles and other publications as well as archival sources from the former communist world, it compares South Korean reconstruction projects with North Korean counterparts.

Unlike the visual spectacle of North Korea’s monumental buildings, large squares, and wide boulevards, U.S.-assisted construction projects in South Korea were mostly small, utilitarian structure and mainly targeted the everyday life of the Korean populace (Chapter 1). For U.S. officials, the question of how to conceptualize their assistance was an important concern. Specifically, the United States called for international collaboration, rather than using the nameplate of the U.S. government (Chapter 2); construction projects were actively used as a propaganda tool (Chapter 3); and U.S. officials urged private sector entrepreneurs to participate in South Korea’s rebuilding (Chapter 4). Most importantly, the reconstruction had to be done by the Koreans. America’s primary role was to provide knowledge and materials with which Koreans could build their own cities and towns. Koreans actively participated in U.S.-sponsored construction projects, and through educational exchange programs, the U.S. government trained pro-American Korean elites in American universities and institutions (Chapter 5).

By examining architecture as a lens through which to address the social, political, and cultural dimensions of the U.S. influence on South Korea in its reconstruction period, this study fills the lacuna of the unexamined relationship, one that linked the political contexts of the Cold War in East Asia, the foreign policies of the United States, post-war nation-building in North and South Korea, and the development of modern architecture in South Korea.

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