Hanok: The beauty of empty spaceLe Corbusier, the great Swiss architect who pioneered functional design, defined the concept of a modern house as “a machine for living.” Cho Jeong-gu, a Korean architect who remodels urban hanok, the traditional Korean house, has a different thought. He thinks the notion of a hanok is like “a vessel that contains life.”
If practicality and functionality reflect the concept of Western-style housing, Mr. Cho sees a hanok as an instrument that serves more than its purpose, something “superflous.”
“It has that beauty of empty space,” he says, “which teaches us a lesson about life.”
In Korea, where housing is viewed as an asset, the issue of space aesthetics may seem irrelevant. The luxury of “empty space” is hardly given a second thought because the city is so crowded and every inch of land is so precious. Simply put, the city is crammed with people, and it’s expensive to own a house in Seoul.
But if the cost of living in a hanok is beyond all rational reason as most Koreans believe, why would it be worth a try?
Cho Jeong-gu, a chief architect at Guga, a firm specializing in remodeling traditional hanoks to modern tastes, believes so. Indeed, he’s gone through some bold experiments for his recent remodeling of a client’s house in Okin-dong, just few hundred meters from the Blue House, combining traditional aesthetics with modern living.
He has installed galvanized iron on the eaves to allow a smooth channel for rain drainage from the roof. Bathrooms and kitchens, which are traditionally separated from the main house, were brought inside with modern toilet and kitchen facilities. To prevent cold drafts during the winter, sliding doors have double-glazed windows; the central heating system has also been strengthened.
Daecheong maru, an open floor facing the traditional courtyard, has been turned into a cozy living room with a view. In the front yard, a large jangdokdae, an elevated terrace where Koreans typically place pots to store fermented food, was supplanted by a cobblestone floor and a myrtle tree. Overall, the house has a modern feel with simple, elegant texture in a classic framework.
“It really makes a difference in the quality of living,” says Jo Seong-i, the owner of the house. “I’ve lived in an apartment and a villa house before, but they were nothing like this. You feel healthier. It’s warm; none of us have caught a cold yet. The courtyard is wonderful, especially when it rains. For kids, it’s even better. They run around all day.”
For others, the notion of remodeling is keeping reconstruction to minimum.
Peter Bartholomew, a U.S. businessman who has been living in a hanok in Dongsomun-dong for 30 years, likes to stick to the original shape as closely as possible.
“All there is to remodeling a hanok is basic maintenance and electrical modifications, along with roof and gutter replacement every 25 to 30 years,” Mr. Bartholomew says. “The rest are just partial fixes you do as you go along.”
He’s replaced a main gate and shifted around a few sliding doors in his house, but no major changes have been done to it.
“You can’t really call it a hanok just by the frame without the atmosphere, the aesthetics and the taste of the original shape of the house,” he says.
In the winter, he installs large portable aluminum windows around his front maru and spreads a carpet on the floor to keep the house warm. But once the protections are taken off, the house is back in same shape that he bought it in 30 years ago for less than 12 million won.
Most of the traditional houses in Seoul were remodeled in the 1920s and 30s. These were either homes with Japanese-style influences or traditional hanoks owned by influential nobility (yangban) from Joseon Dynasty.
Urban hanoks are smaller in size and adopt Western and Japanese styles to suit the convenience of modern living.
Though in areas like Bukchon, Seoul’s biggest hanok neighborhood, many homeowners still wrestle with the city government over the area’s preservation or redevelopment, Mr. Cho hints that more people living in the city are opening up to seeing new forms of hanok as a healthy mode of urban regeneration.
Indeed, as real estates prices in Bukchon have slowly risen over the years because of the notable maintenance by homeowners, more people have found potential value in buying hanok as a property.
Buying a hanok, of course, still involves some investment risks compared to purchasing an apartment in, say, Gangnam. But at least the precedence of Bukchon reduced anxiety among many homeowners that buying a hanok meant a chance you couldn’t sell it for half of the purchase price.
For the city government, the revival of hanok hasn’t been an easy task either. Since 2000, the Seoul government contributed 84 billion won ($71 million) to Bukchon, mainly to subsidize the renovation of old hanok and the construction of new, but traditional-style houses.
But current zoning controls in most hanok villages in Seoul don’t completely ban construction of villa houses. The biggest concern for hanok homeowners is their neighborhood might someday be encroached by tall villa houses.
Mr. Bartholomew has planted trees in his front yard to avoid seeing villa houses being built around his house. “I am definitely going to move to another neighborhood if the city continues to allow high buildings like this,” he says. “If more buildings come in, we probably can’t stand each other.”
Despite the setback, more people seem to choose hanok for the pleasure of living with nature.
“In summer the whole family could play in bathtubs in the front yard and see the stars in the sky,” says Mr. Cho, who recently moved into a hanok with two sons. “When it rains, you really appreciate that you have shelter. Seeing kids grow up while living in hanok is a whole different experience.”
Ms. Jo, a resident of a hanok in Okin-dong, shares the same sentiment. “It surprised me how much interest the neighbors showed when we first moved in,” she says. “There is a real sense of community here, maybe because most of them have lived here for more than 50 years.
“Some of them came to us and advised us to turn on our lights and open our front gate so that people could freely come in and out all day. You just don’t get things like that in other parts of the city anymore,” she said.
by Park Soo-mee