A modern place with deep roots in the traditions of Korea’s past

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A modern place with deep roots in the traditions of Korea’s past

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The image of hanok (traditional Korean houses) still goes hand-in-hand with poverty, though with a touch of nostalgia: heating up black charcoal briquettes, crossing the garden in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and shivering in winter as strong winds push their way through the cracks.
But today’s hanok are a different breed, with a dash of fashion sense and a dollop of pragmatism. Hanok that once housed families now serve as wine bars, restaurants, offices and even clinics.

Bukchon Hanok Village in Gahoi-dong, central Seoul, for instance, is home to the “e-Mideum (Trust) Dental Clinic.” The clinic, which opened last autumn, is a remodeled hanok. Its uniqueness has already put it on a must-see list for Japanese tourists.
“The high school that appeared in the popular TV soap opera ‘Winter Sonata’ is in the neighborhood,” said Kim Yeong-ae, a staff member at the clinic. “Almost every morning, Japanese tourists visit the clinic and then go to the school.” Not all the visitors are foreign tourists, however. About 20 to 30 passersby drop by the clinic simply because it’s so beautiful. Not all stay to have their teeth cleaned, however.
Dropping by, incidentally, can be a little tricky ― there are actually two doors back-to-back, an old form of insulation. Under the open rafters of the ceilings sit a few dental chairs. A high school student lying on the chair to have her wisdom tooth pulled out said, “I don’t usually like to go to the dental clinic, you know, because of the fear it evokes. But here, I feel comfortable just looking at the rafters in the ceiling. It’s like I’m being treated at home.”
The waiting room is on the other side of the house. It looks like a teahouse in Insa-dong, complete with teacups on a low table and quiet music.
Some patients waited for their turn sitting on the wooden verandah, taking in the autumn sun. “I enjoy waiting. I’m even a bit sorry if my turn comes faster than I expected,” one patient said.
The operating room is also unusual. A patient can see the backyard even while lying on the table. The sight of the green grass, mud walls and blue sky helps patients relax.
“I like this place because there’s no nasty disinfectant smell here,” said Kim Eun-kyeong, 28, one of the dentists. “The pine scent and the breathing mud walls seem to clean the air.”
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The clinic is run by Kim Yeong-hwan, 51. Mr. Kim, a former minister of science and technology and a former lawmaker, got the idea of building a dental clinic in a hanok after he visited England in 2004.
“I was shocked to see Cambridge University. They were using the same campus buildings from the 1200s. If it were Korea, it would have been demolished and rebuilt,” he said. He learned the value and power of tradition from the school, he said. “When two opposite factors meet, such as tradition and high technology or art and science, it generates the imagination and new impressions.”
The foreign patients who visit the clinic in winter are impressed by the ondol, the Korean traditional heating system. “Ondol can’t be compared to the western air heating system. Ondol is competitive in the world. High technology doesn’t only mean nano technology or biotechnology. When a hanok steps in to a modern space, it becomes high technology,” Mr. Kim said. “The union of high technology and hanok has a great potential.”

Seo Seung-mo, 35, is an architect, but his office is not a futuristic skyscraper: It’s in a hanok in a traditional village in Changseong-dong, central Seoul. He bought the house two years ago and turned it into one large room ― no doors, no interior walls.
“Clients feel awkward when they first step into the office. But later they don’t want to leave. That’s the thing with a hanok,” he said.
Mr. Seo studied architecture at the Tokyo National University of Fine Art and Music for five years. When he decided to open his office in the hanok village, his friends tried to talk him out of it, saying an architect should work in Gangnam, southern Seoul, which is saturated with architects’ firms.
But Mr. Seo had his mind set. Architecture is art, he felt, but it also has to be practical. “I wanted to work in a place where I can smell humanity and nature. Efficiency drops behind hard concrete walls,” he said.
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He also wanted a place with a small-town atmosphere. “I looked for a place that has a foundry, a rice seller and bakery, and where people talk together in groups,” he said. “I don’t see life in apartment complexes or big buildings [as human].”
His office meets all those conditions. He bought the place for 200 million won ($209,205) and remodeled it for 70 million won. He changed the kitchen so he could cook standing up and raised the garden in order to make it easier to come and go between spaces.
Hanok are structured vertically, while modern living spaces are horizontal. “I raised the garden. Changing the living style of our ancestors to fit modern life is part succession, part creation,” Mr. Seo said. “That’s how the hanok will evolve.”
Mr. Seo said that he gets less stressed in the hanok. “I particularly like working in the yard, because I can feel the wind, sunshine and blue sky,” he said. What if it rains? Even better ― the tiles on the roof appear black, and the sound of raindrops and the sight of them falling from the eaves can be remarkably contemplative. “I get recharged just by seeing the rain in the yard.
“At night, I look at the stars, while lying down in the yard. Looking at the glittering star clusters in the night sky through the square hole in the tile roof is the best of the best,” he said.


by Baik Sung-ho

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