Rescuing Hanok from the Folk Museum

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Rescuing Hanok from the Folk Museum

Modernization in Korea remodeled the face of the country. Preparation for the 1988 Seoul Olympics gave municipal governments an excuse to kick the street merchants off the avenues and force residents of tent houses out onto the street. Villa apartments and other forms of commercial housing equipped with modern in-house bathrooms and new heating systems were introduced. Redevelopment created challenges to the nation's conception of its authenticity and as the social standards shifted to an admiration of Western values, tradition was banished to the National Folk Village. Residing within the cold walls of the museum, culture has become sterilized and reduced to artifacts; instead of a lifestyle, traditional ways of living have became heritage.

The gradual disappearance of hanoks, traditional Korean houses, was no exception to the changes that took place. Despite some architects' attempts to preserve heritage houses, more and more hanoks in Seoul were replaced by high-rise buildings. These days, unless one visits national palaces or special villages designated as national treasures, hanoks are largely something to be found in Korean classic dramas as crumbling stage sets.

The history of the hanok is an unfamiliar subject even to native Koreans. The term, literally meaning "house," is a modern invention devised to differentiate Korean houses from yang-ok, which are western-style houses. Yang-ok usually refers to a house, as opposed to an apartment, which has European features or is simply built in a non-traditional style. The chief characteristics of a hanok are the ondol, the under-floor heating which is usually a feature of the north-facing bedrooms, and daecheong, the hard lacquered floor in the living room which traditionally faces south.

Reflecting the path of the sun, these distinct features of the bedrooms and living rooms allow the house to maintain a comfortable temperature regardless of the weather. Shin Young-hoon, the author of "Things We Should Know About Hanok," notes that such harmonization reflects the conceptual ideals of traditional architecture, which focuses on the unity between north and south.

He goes on to articulate how the new housing culture in Korea influences people's lives. "Western architecture is violently irresponsible to the people living in the building. Buildings without cheoma, protective eaves, such as schools, have disastrous effects on the student's eyes, especially if he or she sits by the window. They experience the bizarre phenomenon of having their books exposed to direct sunlight on one side, and shadowed on the other side. This is why we have so many near-sighted people in contemporary society." Mr. Shin notes that in traditional architecture, all the bedrooms come with two sliding doors, situated on the east and west sides of the rooms. The elaborately designed wooden frames covered with rice paper allow residents to minimize the use of artificial lighting and enable them to read and write in the rooms with a comfortable and safe balance of light.

Maintaining a comfortable room temperature is one of the main considerations of hanok architects, and the use of cheoma reflects this. The particularly long eaves of the hanok block sun rays during the summer and help to keep the house cool. During the winter, the eaves have the opposite effect by keeping the warm air in by preventing the upward dissipation of heat. The elevated vestibules also protect the house from humidity during the summer and generate the reverse result in the winter.

Despite the harmonious nature of the hanok, the public attitude toward building traditional homes in Korea is unfavorable. The chief deterrents constructing a hanok are economic. The high cost of land makes it unattractive for commercial brokers and landowners to build anything other than high-density structures such as office towers or high-rise apartments. The high price of the wood used in building a hanok and the intensity of labor required in the construction process are also important factors. Further, there is a lack of educational facilities offering technical training for the procedure.

None of the official post-secondary institutions or cultural centers in Korea offered a program especially dedicated to traditional architecture until recently, when Mr. Shin opened the Hanok Cultural Center. One of the country's pioneering professionals in traditional architecture, Mr. Shin designed a Korean pavilion at the British Museum and the late Korean-French artist Lee Eung-no's commemorative gallery in France.

The fight to preserve the remaining hanoks continues. Last month, after the long dispute between the building residents and the Hyundai Corporation, the building's owner, a hanok located in Wonseo-dong was finally given a new lease on life. Despite Hyundai's determination to demolish the building, the residents ultimately managed to resist moving. For now, economic considerations have been superseded by a need to preserve an authentically Korean structure.

by Park Soo-mee

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