Saving homes, rescuing culture: a group’s mission

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Saving homes, rescuing culture: a group’s mission

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There was a weariness in the faces of the women who recently got together in the open-air living room of Choi Sun-hee in Gahoe-dong, a neighborhood better known as Bukchon, in central Seoul.
“Bukchon is on the verge of entering a very important phase,” said Hwang Du-jin, one of the six women and an architect who participated in the city government’s restoration project for Bukchon, an urban project aiming to preserve hanok, the traditional style of Korean houses.
Tensions are evaporating now that the city government has stopped bulldozing many of the old houses in the neighborhood. Yet Ms. Hwang is concerned that the city has done little to look after each house, to make sure their original forms haven’t been distorted.
“Bukchon should possess an authentic culture of its own, as a real neighborhood with people living in it, not as an exhibit space for traditional houses,” she said.
Bukchon, which literally means “north village,” is one of the oldest parts of Seoul, and one of the few neighborhoods where hanok have kept their traditional architectural character despite Korea’s rush for modern redevelopment, which has given little thought to historical preservation.
The six women in the meeting are the members of “People Who Value Hanok,” a civic group of residents determined to protect the village from the hands of real estate investors and urban developers, many of whom are eager to turn the village into a tourist draw with over-the-top stylized hanok.
It’s been almost six years since the residents first met. The group was mobilized in 2000 by 30 women who wanted to restore the old village in a way that would fit with modern living.
About 20 houses have as a result been saved from the wrecking ball.
But recently the group is facing a dilemma: Investors have accused the women of being “protectionists,” trying to raise the real estate value of the neighborhood.
“When Kim Hong-nam, the director of the National Folk Museum and Jeong Mi-suk, a director at the Korean Furniture Museum, first started the residents’ movement, we had a sense of desperation that all the hanok in the neighborhood would be swept away by the wind of a redevelopment,” says No Joeng-ran, a visual artist who has been the group’s secretary since its launch. “The sense of urgency was obvious to me, even when I came back to Korea from abroad. There were no places in Seoul to quietly walk around. When I visited areas like Insa-dong or Gaehoe-dong, to feel a sense of warmth, I saw the old hanoks were all being driven away by the commercial buildings.”
Ms. No stressed that the group is not trying to make a profit in the real-estate market. “Bukchon is as it is now only because there were women who were committed to the movement. They convinced all of us by saying that ‘hanok should be kept by women.’”
Still, the preservation of Bukchon is mostly attributed to the efforts of its residents, who have organized to lobby the city government for stricter zoning controls in the area, to keep businesses out and reconstruction to a minimum. The movement has been one of the rare urban projects in Korea in which residents stood up to protect cultural properties.
The group’s efforts are finally paying off, at least in some places. There is now a growing consensus among the neighborhood’s residents that the restoration of hanok should not focus on modernizing the houses or giving them overly stylish architecture.
That ideal is being put into practice by Park Sil, a ceramicist, and Jo Hae-gyeong, the director of Gallery Jo, who are currently restoring an old house in Bukckon.
“The residents think that I’m tearing apart our house,” she says. “But we’re trying our best to revive the house into an original shape.”
Choi Mi-gyeong, who is married to a Swedish man, said, “We had to basically rebuild the house to bring back its original shape, because the old wood beams had rotted after previous restoration attempts, and the metal and concrete that were added needed to be taken out.”
Even since apartments became the most popular forms of residence in Korea, it’s been increasingly difficult to restore old houses, which is one reason the group recently hosted a lecture at the National Museum of Korea last month by Song In-ho, a professor of architecture, titled “Hanok Village in a City: Bukchon.”
In the session, Song talked about the various experiments done by the group to fuse tradition with modern living. “Maybe 10 years from now, people will ask apartment residents in Gangnam, ‘You still live in Gangnam?’” said Park Hee-yang, a senior advisor of Korean Residents Abroad Education Promotion Foundation, who recently moved into the neighborhood.


by Jong Jae-suk, Park Soo-mee
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