This old houseWhat does a German aerospace engineer know about building a hanok, a traditional Korean house?
That it all comes down to the basics, says Frank Gilles.
“I'm a mechanical engineer by training and that’s the foundation of all construction,” says Mr. Gilles, 41. But it took more than just a knowledge of the fundamentals to fully restore a small, 89-square-meter, U-shaped hanok ― including a courtyard ― in Bukcheon, an area of northern Seoul replete with traditional Korean houses.
After seven months of full-time effort, Gilles and a Korean colleague who researched hanok architecture have now completed the restoration.
"We tore down everything except for the foundation stones," says Mr. Gilles. He refers to any sort of construction activity using “we,” referring either to his collaboration with his colleague and friend, Soh Kwi-young, or to his team of workers. “Actually, Ms. Soh was responsible for the designs, while I was in charge of the implementation,” says Mr. Gilles. “When it comes to traditional Korean architecture, you cannot find comprehensive, detailed books written in English. Since I can’t speak Korean, Ms. Soh takes care of research, contacting experts, and gathering detailed information on hanok-building. On your own as a foreigner, it’s virtually impossible to build a hanok.”
With the detail that goes into a project such as this, it seems an impossible task, even with considerable help. The window isolations hold three-layered sliding doors, each having a function of its own: the outer layer for external protection, the middle to protect from insects. The innermost layer is covered with detailed woodwork and hanji, traditional white paper, to add beauty to the sources of natural light. Mr. Gilles took care to reconstruct his hanok properly by attending seminars at the Hanok Culture Center with Ms. Soh, and through her efforts of contacting hanok craftsmen. “We tried to go back to the roots, the old traditions of how carpenters went about building a hanok,” says Mr. Gilles. The door and cabinet handlers are made from brass, with intricate designs just like the ones you’d see at traditional homes.
As Mr. Gilles gives a guided tour of his new home, his enthusiasm is evident: “Hanok is a modular structure which uses poles and beams, so the layout of the house takes into account the function of each of the rooms,” he says.
Mr. Gilles plans to live in this humble but exotic abode when he visits Korea from time to time. Or if work does not bring him to stay in Korea on a semi-permanent basis, he plans to rent it out.
The hanok is divided into an L-shaped main building and a guesthouse, which is a separate one-room building. As one enters the main building, the modern-looking bathroom and kitchen, with their marble floors, contrast sharply with the room’s traditional walls, wooden doors, and ceiling.
“We tried to include the comforts of a modern home while doing our best to preserve the traditional aspects of the hanok,” says Mr. Gilles. Indeed, all rooms have ondol heating and electricity. The pine wood construction of the window panes, doors and floors provide a warm timelessness to the interior.
Every detail of the house was carefully planned out and meticulously applied, says Mr. Gilles. “Here we built the [sliding wooden] doors so that everything would fit perfectly, and no small amount of wind can penetrate.”
He points to the floor and says, “This is an example of umulmaru, or traditional Korean floor woodwork. You can rarely find this kind of design in today’s hanok.” Mr Gilles has also added an ingenious design to the floor: a ventilation hole in a flowery design that allows heated air to circulate through the room. Ms. Soh adds, “Shim Yong-sik, the venerable master of remodeling hanok, helped us with the design, including incorporating little touches like this one.”
The main room gives a breathtaking view of the Bukcheon hanok village and two mountains, Inwang to the front and Bukhan to the right. Because it is situated on top of a hill, says Mr. Gilles, “You can see the prime minister’s residence and the Blue House from here.”
After all the work involved, Mr. Gilles still has his favorite architectural detail: “What I love most about hanok is the arch of the roof: it’s so graceful.”
A esthetics aside, Mr. Gilles is serious when it comes to building a hanok. He resents the ppali-ppali (quick-quick) mentality of Koreans. “I’ve seen some of the renovations that they’ve done at neighboring hanok. The local people seem to opt for simplified renovations to cut time and cost.” Mr. Gilles did not go for fast-and-cheap, but neither did he waste time nor cost. He and Ms. Soh applied for a special grant from the Seoul Metropolitan government, which has been subsidizing the rebuilding of hanok among owners in the Bukcheon area. “The government granted us 30 million won [$25,000 won],which helped,” she says. While renovation costs can vary widely, they can run about 2.5 million for each square meter. “But because of our adherence to detail, it has taken a bit more.”
The original structure, built around 1910, was in severe disrepair for many years before Mr. Gilles bought the house from a female monk last February. So the story goes, the monk, who had been living there for two decades, felt the house was better suited for a foreigner than a Korean because of a certain kind of gi, or energy, that she felt. When Mr. Gilles came along, the monk was very eager to sell her property, thinking the house had found its master. He bought the hanok with the specific idea of remodeling and reconstructing it.
Ms. Soh went about choosing the best contractor for the job, and construction work began July 1. They expected to finish in September, but it took an additional five months of work to bring closure to the project.
“Even the contractors were impressed by our self-acquired knowledge that we displayed in the restoration process,” says Ms. Soh. The two often clashed with the contractors several times when it came to details. Mr. Gilles laments the way construction seems to go on here. “They [contractors of hanok] seem to have lost the virtue of attention to detail. Also, most contractors are more familiar with colonial-period architecture, whereas I was more interested in building an older style of hanok.”
The past year of restorations has been a journey into traditional home building for Mr. Gilles, who now considers himself quite the handyman. “At first, I didn’t know anything about Korean homes or the effort that went into it. Now I know quite a lot,” says Mr. Gilles. “My father also built his own house, keeping a workshop in the cellar. I grew up watching him, so I had no fear of building a house.” Mr. Gilles senior was proud of his son’s initiative, but gave him a maxim to remember: “Building a house is never-ending. There’s always something to fix or add.”
Ms. Soh says her friend has a genuine attachment to his hanok. “I guess it comes from his German persistence. He’s so dedicated that not a single part of the house was left untouched by his hand,” says Ms. Soh.
A native of Frankfurt, Germany, Mr. Gilles came to Korea in 2000 and has been residing here on and off ever since. He is the deputy project manager of Astrium, a German aerospace industry company, which is under contract with the Korea Aerospace Research Institute in Daejeon. Currently, he provides engineering support for KOMPSAT-2, a Korean satellite. He met Ms. Soh, who works at the institute, during his stay in Daejeon. When he first came, Mr. Gilles anticipated his stay would last until the end of 2004, but he is now spending most of his time in Europe.
“Travelling around Korea, visiting temples and monuments made me see the difference between traditional houses and ugly apartments. I think the latter is not a favorable way of living,” says Mr. Gilles. About a year into his stay, Ms. Soh, recommended that he consider buying an old hanok. “I didn’t think it was such a big risk because we could receive a government subsidy for the remodeling process.”
Except for the electricity that needs to be connected and some extra work such as smoothing out the edges on the windowpanes, the house is complete. With the gas connected and hot water running, Mr. Gilles plans to move furniture and personal belongings in soon. Then it will be home, sweet home.
“It’s quite an experience to build your own home,” says Mr. Gilles. Especially if it’s a hanok.
by Choi Jie-ho