Cha-Gyeong, A Brief Reading on Traditional Korean Design

Ho-Am Art Museum

A Brief Reading on Traditional Korean Design Aesthetics

Each culture has its own unique design aesthetics embedded into their culture and history. 

Korea is a land of narrow valleys and winding rivers set within seemingly never-ending layers of mountains. The imagery is so prominently recognized as uniquely Korean, that it is often the focal point of drawings, fabric patterns and murals. The beauty of the land was so stunning, in fact, it inspired traditional Korean architecture and landscaping in profound ways.

The concept of Cha-Gyeong (차경) is a complex, but meaningful word. It expresses the desire of the built environment to exist as part of the entire scenery, where no individual part takes any more importance from one or the other, existing in perfect harmony as if it always was and will be. In this design philosophy, the structure is meant to add beauty to the grand picture, where the subject itself becomes a part of the view rather than the object of attention. The background is just as important as the foreground and both are even more important than the actual subject. This design philosophy even influenced traditional architecture in Korea originally intended for structures to be built from the available natural materials in the surroundings so that if it were to be abandoned or lay to ruins, it would return to the earth what it took from it. Simply put, it’s the kind of design that makes you appreciate the beauty that exists all around the built environment because the built environment was itself designed to frame it beautifully.

Modern day Korean architecture may have veered completely off course from these concepts, but there are a handful of optimists that are trying to preserve and even build modern facilities while applying the principles of Cha-Gyeong. The Ho-Am Art Museum, located in the mountains approximately 40km south of Seoul, is one of the more prominent examples. Founded in 1982, the museum is home to a substantial collection of Korean traditional works of art. In 1997, a large garden (Hee-won) was added to the facility to create a more authentic and suitable home for the historically significant national treasures housed on the premises. Ho-Am Art Museum is quietly nestled in a mostly undisturbed landscape where you can experience the qualities of Cha-Gyeong firsthand as you stroll through the gardens on your way up to the museum. The tranquility achieved is co-dependent on the harmonious blending of that which is behind and before; each stone arranged, each flower blossomed, and every tree branch which frames the sky. Even the signage installed on the premises were designed specifically to preserve and enhance Cha-Gyeong as they exist at ground-level in a dark earth toned finish to blend into the most prevalent colors of the area throughout the drastically changing seasons of the year.

The design qualities of Cha-Gyeong have been an essential part of Korean history, culture and education. Although modern day Korean cities have seen tremendous development and transformation in the past 70 years, there is a growing movement and desire among both young and old to reflect on the beauty of Cha-Gyeong and discover the ways in which we can reinvent and reincorporate these principles into the modern context.

Are there similar design principles in your country? SEGD is a global community of people who love culture, diversity, art, design and each other! I’d love to hear about how your country does ‘Cha-Gyeong’.  Please DO take my invitation to share your knowledge of local design principles that shape and shift your culture wherever you are. You can find a local SEGD chapter and ask them to publish a blog entry on the topic, or you can use the link under the article introduction on our chapter page to ‘Email this page’


Sherwood Choe

Manager at YiEUM Partners, Inc.

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