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Korea + Japan

Planning, Design, Materials + Cultural Continuity in Tokyo and Seoul
Students will experience contemporary urban life in Tokyo and Seoul, two of the world’s most populated cities, gaining firsthand exposure to non-Western architectural traditions and construction technologies in East Asia. Program participants will see historical sites spanning and representing 4,000 years of cultural development in Japan and the Korean peninsula, including extraordinary examples of Bronze Age, Confucian, Buddhist, and Shinto-inspired architecture, gardens, planning, and sustainable practices.
A group of Penn State students stand together for a picture at the Seoul City Wall.

One of the hallmarks of this early 21st century has been a political, economic, and material shift to the East; and Architecture, with deep modernist ties in Japan and Korea, has been at the forefront to this movement. Another critical movement that is defining the era has been one of people – as rural communities across the globe migrate to cities, Architects have a great deal to learn from the innate densities of well-established mega-cities in Asia, like Tokyo and Seoul. With populations and densities that are 3-4 times that of Manhattan, and city infrastructures/technologies that rival the most imaginative science fiction, time spent in a Japanese or Korean megatropolis offers our students innovative and culturally unique takes on urban planning, tall-building design, housing solutions, materials development, and cultural continuity.

The Korea/Japan Summer Study Abroad Program for design majors consists of three courses over six weeks that address essential architectural studies which are not available on the University Park campus, Students will experience contemporary urban life in two of the world’s most populated cities (Tokyo and Seoul), gaining firsthand exposure to non-Western architectural traditions and construction technologies in East Asia. Program participants will see historical sites spanning and representing 4,000 years of cultural development in Japan and the Korean peninsula, including extraordinary examples of Bronze Age, Confucian, Buddhist, and Shinto-inspired architecture, gardens, planning, and sustainable practices.

The first two weeks of the program are spent traveling extensively throughout Japan, touring seminal Japanese works of architecture, and engaging members of the Japanese Architectural community (3 credits). Then the program shifts to a four-week residency at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, where students work with Penn State faculty in a studio environment that engages the urban context of the city for four weeks (6 credits). This portion of the program is informed by a seminar on the general history and characteristics of Korean architecture (3 credits), and the seminar includes weekend travel throughout the peninsula (Gyeongju and Jeju Island) looking at significant works of architecture and topography – both ancient and modern.

Upon successful completion, the credits from this study abroad program will fulfill the NAAB requirement for non-Western traditions towards the bachelor of architecture degree. The course may be used as a substitute for an elective.

Korea + Japan Program Quick Facts

Program Dates:
No program in Summer 2021

Key Issues + Topics:
Urban Planning + Tall Building Design + Housing Solutions + Materials Development + Cultural Continuity

Marcus Shaffer,
Katsuhiko Muramoto,
Tourists walking in an open space in front of a public landmark in East Asia.
Area of architectural sculptures and rocks surrounded by nature in East Asia.
A group of students and faculty stand in front of an architectural glass structure getting their picture taken.

Program Information

Course Background

Open to both graduate and undergraduate students from the Department of Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Architectural Engineering, Graphic Design, and Fine Arts, this summer program provides students an opportunity to become acquainted with Japanese and Korean history, as well as cultural, aesthetic, and other creative traditions that shape the built environments of each country. The program was initiated in 2015 with an intention of broadening curriculum to promote cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity by drawing on the experience of a non-western culture as a part of the learning process for students majoring in design. Special focus is put on the intriguing integration and co-existence of the traditional and contemporary forms unique to both countries.

Approaches + Outcomes

Designed primarily for architecture students, but open to students from other design majors, this intensive summer program will focus on the contemporary architecture, urbanism, and high-density urban culture in both Japan and Korea. The program will begin with a two-week extensive travel in Japan, followed by a four-week studio and a seminar course on Korean Architecture at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, Korea. In order to further enhance students understanding of Korean culture, several excursions are included in the program while in Korea.

Immersion in the dynamic cities of Seoul (Korea) and Tokyo (Japan) where fast-paced modernity combines with time-honored tradition allows students to experience firsthand a range of non-western canons of cultural traditions, unfamiliar built environments and places that may challenge the way they view things which they may have previously taken for granted. Thus, the program experience provides an opportunity to widen their horizons, and helps students to understand design in a global context, while allowing them to tolerate differences, and recognize and appreciate diversity.

The travel experiences in Japan and Korea attempt to combine critical research and drawing analyses, and to reinforce direct personal observation and experience as a way to study the complex interrelation between architecture, city, culture and history. For the duration of the program, students are required to produce a sketchbook of their reflective experience by recording the design, structure, details, and materials of the buildings, taking notes, and collecting memorabilia as a meaningful record of their experience of the built environment.

The program strives to foster students’ cross-cultural awareness, and promote an appreciation of cultural diversity and global responsibility. More specifically, students will gain an understanding of the culture and history of Korean and Japanese architecture and urbanism. They will become acquainted with contemporary thought and practice in both countries and learn relevant terminology and basic principles behind architecture and gardens.

Expectations + Requirements

Students from the department of architecture must have successfully completed 3rd year design studio prior to this summer program. It is not required, but is recommended to take ARCH 317 – Theory of Modern Japanese Architecture before the program.

During the program all students will take a total of 12 credits from three different sections of ARCH 499 – ARCH 499 (6 credits) The Seoul Studio, ARCH 499 (3 credits) Japanese Studies in Architecture, and ARCH 499 (3 credits) Contemporary Korean Architecture; From Modernist Origins to the Asian Avant Garde.

As part of the curriculum students are required to attend several orientation meetings to help prepare them for the trip. Prior to departure, students must prepare a research paper on an assigned building, and give a brief presentation about it to the class when we visit the place associated with the topic. Each participant is required to keep a comprehensive log and sketchbook of experiences for the duration of the trip in both Korea and Japan. This should include analytical recordings of the design, structure, details, and materials of various buildings we will visit.

In Korea, students are given 24/7 access to a studio facility that includes printers and model-making equipment. The studio work in Seoul requires students to work as mature, independent designers and motivates them to take advantage of a creative environment that is decidedly NOT Central Pennsylvania and/or the Stuckeman Family Building. Past projects have included religious shrines, high-density urban housing, park rejuvenation/urban planning, and the restoration and re-purposing of historically important buildings. Over the course of four weeks in Seoul the studio progresses through Schematic, Design Development, and Final Design phases, and students are required to present five large boards and five essential models to complete the studio requirement. In addition to the sketchbook, each student submits a collection of 15 photographs to the instructor every Friday.

The Korean seminar course includes slide lectures, critical readings that inform students on the history of Korean Architecture and Korean Modernism, studio visits with Korean offices (such as MASSSTUDIES and Nameless Architecture), and travel to important buildings throughout Seoul, and the peninsula. The expectation attached to this course is that students use the seminar to articulate critical differences – aesthetic, historical, social, religious, material – that they are experiencing in Korea/Japan; critical differences that inform the studio work, and have the potential to re-inform the sensibilities of the design student.

All of the collected work from the studio is shipped back to Penn State by the instructor each summer. Students collect their work and sketchbooks in University Park.

Documents + FAQs

Question: Does the Penn State program fee include airfare?

Answer: No. Faculty work with the students, as small groups that travel together, to obtain air tickets at a reasonable price. Students typically arrive in Tokyo on the same day together, the group travels with faculty from Tokyo to Seoul together (everyone on the same flight), and students leave Korea when the program ends, or after extending their stay. Faculty will always meet arriving students at the airport in Japan, and accompany them to the airport when they depart Korea.

Question: Do I need a visa for Korea or Japan?

Answer: All students must have a valid passport. Both Japan and Korea have extensive visa agreements with most countries – including the United States. Foreign students studying at University Park, however, do not enjoy the benefits of agreements with the American government. In the past, students from China, Iraq, The UAE, and Kuwait have had to apply for visas to Japan and/or Korea. In such cases, Faculty work with all students to meet their visa requirements (recommendation letters, syllabi, accommodation information, etc.) and in many cases, accompany students when they apply for visas in New York City.

Question: What do I need to pack?

Answer: As the first two weeks of the program require extensive travel – getting on and off bullet trains, subway trains, buses, etc. – students are heavily encouraged to pack lightly for Japan (a small roll-on or light back pack), and to prepare separate luggage for Korea. All of the larger, Korea-bound luggage is collected and stored securely while we are in Japan, and then retrieved before departure for Seoul. In both Korea and Japan, students have access to a full range of shoe/clothing options – this allows students to pack light and pick up anything they might need during the program.

As the program takes place during the summer monsoon season in Asia, rain gear and small umbrellas are encouraged. Comfortable walking shoes are a must.

We routinely encourage students to shop for supplies – pens, pencils, inks, brushes, paper, sketchbooks, etc. – while in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Seoul. In general, art and design supplies/materials are cheaper in Asia. Students are heavily encouraged to bring their own laptops, cameras, and mobile phones.

Question: What types of crime are common in Japanese and Korean cities?

Answer: There are exceptions to every norm – but in cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Seoul, violent crime is quite rare. Students should still be vigilant and while traveling, but they are unlikely to be pick-pocketed or assaulted in Korea/Japan. In both countries, “white collar crime” is more common; embezzlement, fraud, bribery, etc.

Question: What happens if I get sick while traveling?

Answer: All students are required to sign up for Penn State’s Travel Insurance. The University’s insurance provider maintains agreements with a global network of health-care providers who speak English. In Japan and Korea, any student who falls ill or needs medical attention will be referred to a hospital where doctors who speak English will provide care. Any student who is hospitalized will be accompanied by a faculty member. Students with allergies must be prepared to bring 6+ weeks of medication with them.

Question: Will I have Wi-Fi access?

Answer: Students should bring their own mobile phones. In Japan and Korea students can purchase 2-week and 4-week sim cards for their phones that give them extensive access to the internet, texting, etc. In Japan, during our intensive travels, the program typically rents a mobile Wi-Fi station that students have access to.

Question: What does the Penn State program fee cover?

Answer: the program fee includes tuition for three courses at “in-State’ rates, almost all student travel cost for Japan (train, bus, taxi), hotels in Japan (breakfast included), entrance fees for museums and certain buildings (palaces, temples, etc.), two weekend-long excursions in Korea, 3-4 group meals, and printing costs for the studio course.

Links + Image Galleries

Student Projects + Reports

Views from Afield

Students immerse themselves in East Asian Culture.