“The year is 1988. It was a time when it was chilly, but our hearts were fiery, and we didn’t have much, but people’s hearts were warm. Of course, if you were to compare it to how things are now, it was clearly the Age of Analog. Even so, we were living cutting edge 18-year-old lives.”
Among the endless sea of Netflix shows, movies and documentaries, exists the hidden gem, Reply 1988. Though it is one of the highest-rated dramas in Korean cable television history, it remains unknown to most who do not keep close tabs on the erratic world of Korean dramas.
The show, set in the year 1988, dives deep into the lives of a set of middle-class families who live on the same street in Seoul. While the drama spotlights fads of the time, from a copious amount of denim clothing to the artists that were most listened to on a student’s Walkman and actors like Jamie Sommers, Joey Wong, and Pierce Brosnan who were known city-wide; it is almost impossible to miss the critical role the architecture represented through the sets plays in fully delivering the vintage feel of your typical alleyway in Ssangmun-dong South Korea.
An Alleyway of the Past
Despite the iconic street on which most of the drama takes place being a set designed specifically for the show, it perfectly captures the essence of typical Korean houses of the 1980s. Most of the houses on the street are independent houses which were mostly constructed with concrete or brick with large compound walls of exposed brick masonry.
The house that we spend the most time in, the main character’s house, is one of the most interesting as it houses two families of contrasting social and economic status. The house is unarguably one of the biggest on the street with a large gate that leads into a large spill-out area. The main wing of the house is what catches the eye first, with a series of steps leading up to the front door and interiors that clearly show that it is owned by someone of a high-middle class standing. The walls and flooring are and completely made of wood and the house is furnished lavishly.
The secondary wing of the house comes in the form of a semi-basement unit underneath the main unit. This concept of a semi-basement or a Banjiha is a product of history. These tiny spaces trace their roots back decades, to the conflict between North and South Korea and agents from the North Korean army would infiltrate South Korea.
In 1970, due to the fear of escalation, the building codes were updated by the South Korean, which required all newly built low-rise apartment buildings to be constructed with basements that would serve as bunkers during a national emergency. During the initial years, these Banjiha spaces were banned from being rented out. However, in the 1980s, South Korea faced a housing crisis and the government was compelled to legalize these underground spaces to live in.
The Banjiha shown in the show is an extremely small space compared to the main house, with a kitchen/workspace at the front of the house, a small living room, and two extremely tiny bedrooms. The interior walls, seemingly made of concrete, are completely exposed.
Large-Scale Projects from the 1980s
Another one of the major plot points of the series focuses on the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, in which the main character Deoksun has been chosen to participate as a picket girl. The 1988 Olympics took place at the Jamsil Olympic Stadium which is now being used as a multi-purpose stadium.
Designed by architect Kim Swoo-Geun, the profile of the stadium showcases lines which are in the form of elegant curves which imitate a Korean Joseon Dynasty porcelain vase. Seats for the spectators have been distributed on two tiers and are covered. Construction of the new stadium began in 1977 intending to stage the Asian Games in 1986. The stadium was built with a capacity of approximately 100,000 people, today it seats 69,950.
As the series takes place during the high school years of the main characters, they inevitably spend as much time in school as at home. The scenes at the two schools in the show, Ssangmun High School and Ssangmun Girl’s High School were shot at two existing high schools – Incheon Health High School and Shinmyung’s Girls’ High School. The high schools were large and rather barren in appearance.
In most schools, there is a large area in front of the school with or without grass that acts as a sports field as well as a space for school-wide assemblies and other meetings. Inside, classrooms line the straight, sparsely furnished halls.
From the quaint little alleyways filled to the brim with typical Korean households to complexes as large and global as Olympic stadiums, Reply 1988 showcases extremely subtly the elements of South Korean architecture in the 1980s and 1990s as the backdrop of a show that goes back in time for a nostalgia-filled celebration of youth and family.
Though these elements may seem insignificant to those without a trained eye, they are almost impossible for someone with a background or interest in architecture and design to miss, and make the experience of watching this excellent show even more enriching.
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Architectuul. Olympic Stadium Seoul [online]. Available at: http://architectuul.com/architecture/olympic-stadium-seoul#:~:text=It%20is%20multi%2Dpurpose%20stadium,100%2C000%2C%20today%20it%20seats%2069%2C950. [Accessed 27 April 2021].
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