Past, Present and Future landscape in Asia – Interview with Jonghyun Choi

이 글은 네덜란드 델프트 대학 도시과에서 발행하는 ATLANTIS 2012년 2월호에 실렸던 인터뷰입니다.


“Regardless where or when people are from, the fact remains that they struggle to survive in nature.”

“Europe experienced the most flourishing period in history while China was in its most stagnant state…”


Interview with Jonghyun Choi

Jonghyun Choi is the chief of Tongui research center for urban studies, where he focuses on urban history based on his architecture and landscape background. He recently wrote a book on the history of Korean architecture, landscape and city, which is the result of his fieldwork and research for last 40 years. He is also the ex-professor at Hanyang University and ex-chief of the Korean Urban Design Institute.



To broaden our views of the Asian landscape, for this urban landscape issue Atlantis interviewed Professor Jonghyun Choi. In his view, the urbanist should understand how the city relates to human life. We asked him to compare the Asian view of nature with Europe’s and whether Western and Eastern cultures really confront each other in terms of urban landscape. 

Are the Western and Eastern views on nature fundamentally different?

‘People say that there is an obvious difference. The Western view is generally explained as a confrontation with nature while the East prefers harmony with it. However, I think that it stems from a dichotomous way of thinking about these two cultures. People have tried to explain everything in terms of this dualism.’

‘Practically, they both share a common thread in history in that each culture needs to consider how to survive in nature. I can say that the West and the East have similar views on nature and this has brought similar patterns on siting. Regardless where or when people are from, the fact remains that they struggle to survive in nature. This idea is the most common and basic starting point of landscape and urbanism. The only differences are the basic strategies and skills needed to survive in the given situation and context. It is this that causes each culture to diverge and develop its own unique view on landscape, climate, technology, lifestyle and so on. In this context it does not make sense to simply say that Eastern and Western views of nature are totally different or conflicting. This is just a superficial perception.’


So, the West and East have something fundamentally common on their views of nature. How then has Asia developed its own unique, traditional strategies and skills for the city, garden and architecture? 

‘It is not easy to make a definitive answer to this question because the notion of ‘traditional’ varies depending on historical and local context. Generally speaking, many cities throughout the world are located in close proximity to water, not only for drinking, agriculture and fishing, but also for its advantages for trade and transportation. In Asia, especially historical areas, the basic principal for siting a city is to face towards water with hills behind. Another strategy is to manipulate the landscape artificially to create a mound on a site that has no hill. This is a unique aspect of traditional Chinese culture.’

‘However, there are some exceptions. For instance, most Korean cities during the 4th to 7th century were located inland, not close to the water, for defensive reasons against China.

Many Korean cities, except for a few like Pyongyang, are built in a basin surrounded by mountains and hills. Because the nature here is fundamentally different compared to the typical Chinese landscape, there is a unique method to define location in consideration of locality. The location of a city was determined by the imaginary axes connecting the summits of mountains and hills. It seems that this principle was adopted in order for the city to form an existential relationship with its surroundings. Some people insist that Feng Sui is one of the most critical factors to decide the location of a city or building in Chinese culture. However, we as urbanists should try to explain it in terms of physical factors and reason.’

‘For the siting of traditional architecture, the axis of the main building has a repetitive sequence of buildings and yards. It is quite similar with the sequence of ancient Egyptian architecture. But the former is additionally characterised by the involvement of the surroundings into the siting and constitution of the buildings. In the case of ancient Egypt, it seems it was impossible to use their environment as it was just barren desert. In short, traditional architecture in Asia is characterised by the sequential condition and an integration with surrounding nature.’

‘China, Korea and Japan in Chinese culture all have a distinct character in the design of their traditional gardens. Representation of nature is a common issue in both Eastern and Western culture. In China, nature was represented artificially on a huge scale based on their flourishing economic power and workforce. They represented natural elements such as mountains and lakes in huge scales. Typical Japanese traditional gardens were distinct for their speculative awareness and approach.

On the other hand, Korea had a rather weak economical situation and so the scale of work was limited. That is why the surrounding scenery was integrated as an element of garden beyond its territory. This becomes the background of the garden which can be appreciated from small properties. Chinese gardens also occasionally engage with their surroundings, but it is rare.’

‘The interesting point of Chinese gardens is that they are made in a very artificial way and on a huge scale. In other words, it is a challenge against nature and a very artificial intervention.’



Figure 1. painting on the siting of traditional architecture in Korea by author


In comparison between the West and the East, Asia seems to have lost its value of nature rather than Europe nowadays. What made this happen?

‘Let me explain some aspects of the urban history of the world first to clarify what marks the gap between these two cultures. I think that the period from the 13th to 14th century is the crucial turning point in urban world history. During this time, a warming of the climate made agriculture in Northern Europe (the Benelux countries) possible, and it drove population growth and trade. Theocracy and sovereign power were also separated at this time while science and technology progressed at a terrific rate. Based on these advances, Europe experienced the most flourishing period in history while China was in its most stagnant state through the Ming and Qing Dynasty. Even though the Qing Dynasty attempted to change, Asia was already behind Europe when it had passed the period of the Renaissance and in to the Baroque. While the Ming and Qing Dynasty were inward-looking and exclusive (tendencies that caused Asia’s stagnancy), Europe experienced a highly diverse situation. These different attitudes of two world stimulated a huge gap between West and East.’

‘Based on the progress through this period, the West has developed the technology and power to deal with nature step by step. However it seems that Asia has lost their sense of value of the landscape through its rapid urbanisation with little thought of the consequences. In the case of Europe, they are trying to preserve and manage at least their own territory.’


Asia seems not to have advanced its own traditional views on nature. What is necessary for the future Asian landscape? 

‘We need to broaden our view not only in Asia – it is a global issue now. Above all, we should understand our environment in depth by investigation and through scientific research to find a way to work with nature. We need to think and act on a global scale while implementing diverse, specific treatments on the small scale.’



Figure 2. Views of Seoul in 1928 and 2000 (source: Seoul museum of history)

Interview by Sanghyun, lee

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