[Viewpoint] The art of hanok living

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[Viewpoint] The art of hanok living

As long-term residents of Korea, former Peace Corps Volunteers and current leaders of the Seoul Branch of the 110-year-old Royal Asiatic Society, we read the JoongAng Daily’s Nov. 10 feature, “The debate over hanok heating up” with great interest.

It was well balanced in that it brought the traditional community residents’ opinions to print. But what they say about discomforts in a hanok is only partially - and narrowly - true.

Living in a hanok can be inconvenient and uncomfortable if the owner neglects fundamental maintenance and does not invest in essential facility upgrade of “creature comforts.”

One of us, for example, has lived in a properly maintained and upgraded hanok in Seoul for over 30 years and would not easily trade it for an apartment or Western-style house.

There is an assumption by most Koreans that hanok are, by nature, uncomfortable and that there is nothing that can be done about it except total demolition and replacement with a new concrete structure.

Another misconception is that a hanok requires constant repair, the roof always leaks and thus the owner is always under stress to maintain his home. There has been no education of Korea’s general public to contradict these misconceptions.

As stated, one of us lives in a well-restored, comfortable hanok and has frequently tried to convince neighboring hanok owners to invest in upgrades and repairs, to which the owners reply, “Why should I spend money on a bad, old building? It’s better just to knock it down and build a nice new [concrete] home!”

This misperception is based on two fundamental mind-sets:

1) A complete lack of understanding of the cultural, aesthetic, historical “heritage” value of hanok.

2) An assumption that there is no technical solution to the problems of winter cold, inconvenient bathroom, outdated kitchen, leaky roof, rot in some wooden areas, etc.

Clearly the solution is to first convince owners that their hanok really can be upgraded to a level of comfort on a par with an apartment or new Western-style home; and second, educate them on the cultural value plus the growing monetary value of well-maintained hanok.

This is a daunting task, but the mind-set is gradually shifting, largely due to the success of Bukchon and frequent media presentations on traditional hanok homes that portray them as beautiful, of cultural value and comfortable for modern living. The skyrocketing prices of hanok in Bukchon have now become an “urban legend” in Seoul.

The next problem is with municipal governments in which the officials and politicians are of the same regrettable mind-set, suffering under the same misconceptions that hanok are old-fashioned, uncomfortable and that there is no value in preserving them.

Municipalities Korea-wide, especially Seoul, have engaged in massive city redevelopment programs that target hanok neighborhoods for total demolition and replacement by “new town” apartment complexes. Fortunately, this is now under severe attack, but the damage is already done. Most of the hanok neighborhoods already have been destroyed or are undergoing the complex procedures for redevelopment that eventually will lead to their total destruction.

Once a “right-thinking” owner - or city government, as in the case of Bukchon - decides to restore a hanok, the problem arises on how to upgrade without destroying the originality or authenticity and intrinsic cultural value of the structure while still making it comfortable.

There is a belief in Korea (and other Asian countries) that total demolition of an old traditional building and new construction of a similar structure in its place is an acceptable procedure for restoration and preservation of old buildings.

This goes against all norms and fundamental criteria for heritage building preservation throughout the world.

Regrettably, this has been the procedure in Bukchon for most of the hanok “restorations.” This is totally unnecessary.

The most important aspect of heritage building restoration is preserving as much of the original structure, in its original form. Europeans are by far the most skilled at this, zealously guarding every piece of original wood, stone, brick and tile in an old structure to preserve its originality and finding a balance between installations of “creature comfort” facilities and preserving the authentic integrity of the original structure.

The battle in Seoul over preservations of hanok neighborhoods versus mass demolition to make way for large, tall building complexes (residential and commercial) has largely been lost, but there remain today slightly over 8,000 hanok (out of more than 800,000 hanok 35 years ago), most of which can be repaired, made beautiful and fitted with modern heating, bathrooms and kitchens for 21st-century living.

Unfortunately, a major percentage of the remaining hanok are scheduled for massive demolition under the redevelopment program promulgated by Seoul City Government in their plans for city development.

There is a new plan now being drafted in Seoul City Hall which will be made public some time in early 2010. It is doubtful that Seoul city government will revise the existing development plans (for 2004?2010) of already “designated” areas to allow for preservation of hanok neighborhoods rather than demolition.

Fortunately, Seoul currently has one of its better mayors who recognizes a need for more balanced city development. Having lived in Bukchon for nine years, one of the authors can appreciate how difficult it is to get that balance right.

Most of the original hanok have been replaced by “villa” apartments. Some are well made and attractive, but most are not.

Rather, the apartments are the products of rushed construction following the removal of the original architectural preservation restrictions placed on the community by the Park Chung Hee government. Given their quality, we doubt many of these concrete apartments will last more than another 30 years.

The balance for city development and preservation need not be old hanok versus modern apartments.

As the Nov. 10 article states, 90 million won ($78,030) of support funding is available to improve the exteriors. But really what is needed is adequate money to also upgrade the heating, kitchens and bathrooms.

While this kind of program has belatedly arrived in Bukchon, in many other traditional communities, for whatever reasons, the original inhabitants are unable to live in the new apartment buildings following the demolition of their hanok homes.

In effect, in most cases redevelopment projects tend to replace the entire close-knit community of neighbors who have lived together for decades and replace them with newcomers in the new apartments who rarely get to know their cohabitants.

The net result, regardless of some officials’ intentions, is what sociologists call the “developing country syndrome” where nations wipe out their cultural legacy, architectural and social, so that they may be “modern.”

What is needed is an adequate and comprehensive government assistance program to upgrade the hanok both inside and outside the structures. No doubt many traditional community denizens wish to live in more comfortable housing conditions.

But if there may be a way to upgrade their hanok, it will be possible to meet the inhabitants’ needs without destroying the architectural and social community integrity of the neighborhoods.

Most important is that city officials need to protect the fabric of close social, human relations that have developed over many years in established communities.

The worse scenario is currently a highly probable one: old communities’ buildings and human relations being decimated by redevelopment schemes - and replaced with soulless apartment building complexes in what once was the essence of Seoul - friendly, “cozy” communities of long-term residents.

Seoulites should be treated similar to the citizens of Europe and the United States who have long benefitted from community preservation programs.

The Republic of Korea is no longer a “developing country” and nor should government allow it to be treated as such.


*It’s perfectly possible to live a comfortable, modern life in a traditional Korean home if more people realize the potential of these culturally rich buildings.

Traditional Korean homes in Bukchon, northern Seoul. [JoongAng Ilbo]


Peter Bartholomew, Tom Coyner

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