[VIEWPOINT]A heritage being lostWhen we sit in a wood-floored hall on a hot summer day, the cool air of the floorboard passes by the knees and the fresh wind blows from the shade under the eaves. The empty courtyard is like a big bowl. When we open wide the back door of the hall, there is the rustling of bamboo trees in the quiet of the back yard. When it rains, raindrops from the trough of tiled roofs sound like refreshing music spreading through the house. How happy would it be if we could live in such a house in a crowded city?
This is not just a dream. In the Bukchon area of Seoul, including Gahoi-dong and Wonseo-dong, where Korean-style houses are concentrated, a movement to preserve them has been going on for many years. Seoul’s municipal government bought a number of Korean houses and began to use them for public purposes. It also made efforts to keep the traditions of the village by giving a great amount of money to residents who tried to preserve Korean houses and live in them. Civic groups such as “Korean House Loving Meeting,” “Korean House Valuing Meeting” and “Bukchon Culture Forum” have taken care of the village and Korean houses with affection, and those efforts have begun to bear fruit now. Some alleys are so neatly and tidily lined with dozens of refurbished Korean houses that we might mistake them for an aristocratic village in the Joseon Dynasty era.
In this age, it is very difficult to live in a Korean house, preserving and looking after it. Even if the bathroom and the kitchen are remodeled in a modern style, there is no wide indoor space because the house cannot be built with more than two stories. Ordinary people cannot dare to live in a Korean house because its construction and maintenance costs are double or triple those of modern buildings. Korean houses have become perhaps the most luxurious and expensive form of housing.
But because they are precious to Koreans, and the only space where the spirit of Korea is alive, concerned people are making every effort to preserve those dwellings. A civic group named Arumjigi, meaning “beauty keepers,” is particular in loving Korean houses to the extent that it has built an elegant Korean house in the Bukchon area for its office.
Word about its love of Korean houses has spread, so that early this year, a supporter donated a Korean house located in Hamyang, South Gyeongsang province, and this group planned to repair and use it as a place for people to experience life in a Korean house. But when the repair work was nearly finished, disaster struck. A fire from an unidentified cause burned the main quarters of the house. While inspection into the cause was under way, more disastrous news was revealed: In addition to the house, three houses in Hamyang county which should have been protected as cultural properties were also burned.
The old house of Jung Yeo-chang, a prominent neo-Confucianism scholar of Joseon Dynasty, was burned down. It was a beautiful house called Nongweoljeong, meaning “a pavillion for playing with the moon,” in the Aneui valley. Hoe Samdul House, a rare house designed to give more emphasis to the lady’s quarters than the master’s quarters, also burned down. We can only assume that someone intentionally set them on fire, because only historic houses were damaged. The police offered a reward for information on arson suspects, but what is the use of catching the culprit once the cultural property have been destroyed?
While Korean houses are being restored splendidly in Bukchon, Seoul, their counterparts in the countryside of Hamyang are being devastated. It is not only in Hamyang. Most Korean houses across the country have already lost their function as residential spaces and are barely clinging to their last life after being designated as cultural properties. Although the government tries hard to revive them with laws and funds, there is no knowing when deserted Korean houses will stop breathing.
Korean houses can last for a thousand years if they are lived in and used carefully, but once they are deserted, they are ruined within a few years. Upon closer inspection, Korean houses in Hamyang met with disastrous fires because no one lived in them. On the other hand, the resurrection of the Korean houses in Bukchon was possible because people began to live in them. By whatever means, whether by having a manager live there, lending them as long-term creative spaces for artists, or by having them used for summer houses, people should be induced to live in the houses. Korean houses have a life that may breathe again, with the people’s affection.
* The writer is a professor of architecture at the Korean National University of Arts. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Bong-ryeol