In the Paleolithic the first inhabitants of the Korean peninsula used caves, rockshelters, and portable shelters. The remains of a portable shelter dating to c. 30,000 BC were excavated at the Seokjang-ri site in South Chungcheong Province. The earliest examples of pit-house architecture are from the Jeulmun Pottery Period. Early pit-houses contained basic features such as hearths, storage pits, and space for working and sleeping.
According to Chinese text Sanguo Zhi, it recorded the existence of three types of prehistoric dwellings in Korea: pit houses, log houses and elevated houses. Only the remains of pit houses have been identified, however. Pit houses consisted of a 20–150 cm deep pit and a superstructure of grass and clay supported by a tripod-like frame made of timber to provide protection from the wind and rain. Pit houses of the Neolithic period had circular or oval pits about 5–6 meters in diameter with a hearth at the center. Most of the early ones were located on hills. As these dwellings moved down nearer to rivers, the pits became rectangular in shape as well as larger, with two separated hearths.
Log houses were built by laying logs horizontally one on top of one another. The interstices between the logs were filled with clay to keep the wind out. Similar houses are still found in mountainous areas as like Gangwon-do province.
Elevated houses, which probably originated in the southern regions, are believed to have first been built as storage houses to store grains out of the reach of animals and to keep them cool. This style still survives in the two-story pavilions and lookout stands erected in melon patches and orchards around the countryside.
In the Mumun period buildings were pit dwellings with walls of wattle-and-daub and thatched roofs. Raised-floor architecture first appeared in the Korean peninsula in the Middle Mumun, c. 850-550 BC.
In 108 BCE, the Chinese commanderies was established after the destruction of Gojoseon. Official buildings of this period were built of wood and brick and roofed with tiles having the features of Chinese construction. Chinese architecture influenced Korean architecture at this time.
Reconstruction of the eastern stone pagoda that was built during the Baekje Kingdom era in the Temple Mireuksa
In the Three Kingdoms Period, some people lived in pit-houses while others lived in raised-floor buildings. For example, the Hanseong Baekje settlement of Seongdong-ri in Gyeonggi Province contained only pit-houses, while the Silla settlement of Siji-dong in Greater Daegu contained only raised-floor architecture.
Goguryeo, the largest of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, is renowned for its mountain fortresses built horizontally and vertically along the incline of slopes. One of the well-preserved Goguryeo fortresses is Baekam fortress (白巖城) constructed before 6th century in present-day South-West Manchuria. A Chinese historian noted, “The Koguryo people like to build their palaces well.” Patterned tiles and ornate bracket systems were already in use in many palaces in P’yongyang, the capital, and other town-fortresses in what now is Manchuria.
The construction of Buddhist temples was enthusiastically undertaken after Buddhism was introduced in 372 by way of northern China. A series of excavations in 1936-1938 unearthed the sites of several major temples near P’yongyang, including those in Ch’ongam-ri, Wono-ri and Sango-ri. The excavations disclosed that the temples were built in a Goguryeo style known as “three Halls-one Pagoda,” with each hall in the east, west and north, and an entrance gate in the south. In most cases, the centural pagodas had a octagonal plan. Palace buildings appear to have been arranged in this way as well.
Murals in tombs dating from Koguryo also reveal a great deal about the architecture of that period as many of them depict buildings which have pillars with entasis. Many have capitals on top of them. The murals reveal that the wooden bracket structures and coloring on the timbers, all characteristic of later Korean structures, were already in use at that time.
Baekje was founded in 18 BC and its territory included the west coast of the Korean peninsula. After the fall of Nangnang Kingdom, Baekje established friendships with China and Japan. Great temples were built during this time. The earliest stone pagoda of the Mireuksa Temple in Iksan county is of particular interest because it shows the transitional features from a wooden pagoda to a stone one. Baekje assimilated diverse influences and expressed its derivation from Chinese models. Later, important elements of the architectural style of Baekje were adopted by Japan.
Baekje was heavily influenced by Goguryeo as well as by southern China. As it expanded southward, moving its capital to Ungjin (currently, Kongju) in 475 and to Sabi (currently Buyeo) in 538, its arts became richer and more refined than that of Goguryeo. Also characteristic of Baekje architecture is its use of curvilinear designs. Though no Baekje buildings are extant – in fact, no wooden structure of any of the Three Kingdoms now remains – it is possible to deduce from Horyuji temple in Japan, which Paekche architects and technicians helped to build, that Baekje’s architecture came into full bloom after the introduction of Buddhism in 384. What remains in the building sites, patterned tiles and other relics, as well as the stone pagodas that have survived the ravages of time, testifies to the highly developed culture of Baekje.
Many palaces are recorded as having been built in Baekje. Some traces of them can be found at both Pusosansong, the third palace of this kingdom, and at the site of Kungnamji pond, which is mentioned in the Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms). Kungnamji means “pond in the south of the palace.”
The site of Miruksa temple, the largest in Baekje, was excavated in 1980 at Iksan of Chollabuk-do province. The excavation disclosed many hitherto unknown facts about Paekche architecture. A stone pagoda at Miruksa temple is one of two extant Paekche pagodas. It is also the largest as well as being the oldest of all Korean pagodas. Miruksa temple had an unusual arrangement of three pagodas erected in a straight line going from east to west, each with a hall to its north. Each pagoda and hall appear to have been surrounded by covered corridors, giving the appearance of three separate temples of a style called “one Hall-one Pagoda.” The pagoda at the center was found to have been made of wood, while the other two were made of stone. The sites of a large main hall and a middle gate were unearthed to the north and south of the wooden pagoda.
When the site of Chongnimsa temple was excavated in 1982, which had also been the site of the other existing Baekje pagoda, the remains of a main hall and a lecture hall arranged on the main axis one behind the other were unearthed to the north of the pagoda. The remains of a middle gate, a main gate and a pond arranged on the main axis one in front of the other were also discovered to its south. It was found that the temple was surrounded by corridors from the middle gate to the lecture hall. This “one Pagoda” style was typical of Baekje, as the excavations of the temple site in Kunsu-ri and in Kumgangsa temple in Buyeo in 1964. The building sites of Kumgangsa temple, however, were arranged on the main axis going from east to west rather than from north to south.
Silla was the last of the three kingdoms to develop into a full-fledged kingdom. Buddhist temples were built in Silla. One of the well known examples of Sillan architecture is Cheomseongdae, said to be the first stone observatory in Asia. It was built during the reign of Queen Seondeok (632-646). The structure is known for its unique and elegant form.
Silla came under Buddhist influence after 527. Since its temple was separated from China by Goguryeo or Baekje, China’s cultural influence was much diluted. This probably accounts for the delay in its cultural development compared to the other two kingdoms.
One of the earliest Shilla temples, Hwangnyongsa temple was systematically excavated and studied in 1976, and found to have been of considerable magnitude. It stood in a square walled area, the longest side of which was 288 meters. The area enclosed by corridors alone was about 19,040 square meters. The Samguk Sagi (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) records that there was a nine-story wooden pagoda built here in 645 that was about 80 meters high by today’s scale. A large image of Sakyamuni Buddha is also recorded to have been enshrined in the main hall with the stone pedestal still remaining. Constructed in the middle of the sixth century, Hwangnyongsa temple flourished for more than 680 years during which time the halls were rearranged many times. In its prime, immediately before Silla’s unification of the peninsula in 668, it was arranged in the “three Halls-one Pagoda” style, quite unlike the “one Hall-one Pagoda” style of Baekje’s Miruksa temple.
Another major Silla temple was Bunhwangsa, on the site of which still stands three stories of what is recorded to have been a nine-story pagoda. As the remains show, the pagoda was made of stones cut to look like bricks. A set of stone flagpole pillars in addition to other stone relics also remain.