[Seoul Lounge] My endless love for hanok

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[Seoul Lounge] My endless love for hanok

Not many foreigners live in a hanok, and not many Koreans either, for that matter. High-rise modern apartment complexes dominate the cities, and even in the villages, villas built of concrete are in the majority. Why, then, would a foreigner like me choose to live in a hanok? Nostalgia? Scorn of modernity? Far off the mark. The reason is experience. During my first stay in Korea some 40 years ago I had to stay in a hanok, because in the village where I lived it was the only house available.

It was then, however, that I realized that there is no better housing in Korea. Which is, of course, no wonder, because hanok is the result of 2,000 years of experimenting with architecture, trying to find the best solution suitable for the climate of the peninsula - warm weather and sunshine from early spring to late autumn.

Admittedly, it can be somewhat uncomfortable and cold to live in a traditional hanok in deep winter, but with some modernization this inconvenience can be overcome easily. Modernization will also have to include a modern kitchen, a 21st century bathroom and electricity in every room.

Three main features of hanok make living in one pleasant: natural material, air flow and shade. Add the beauty of the curved roof and some flowers and trees in the yard and you are living in a paradise.

Hanok are built from materials that allow for natural balancing of humidity and temperature. The walls are made of wood and clay, walls inside and the floors are covered with paper, and so are the doors. Living in a hanok is living under the protection of three natural skins: the body’s skin, clothing (you can choose natural fabrics) and the hanok.

In the winter, however, it is wise to add some glass to the doors to keep the cold out, and in case the walls are too thin, some additional insulation may be necessary. All hanok traditionally are heated with so-called ondol, in which hot smoke from an outdoor fireplace is led below the flooring, always keeping your feet warm and pleasant to sit on. Of course, modernized hanok will have the traditional wood fire and smoke pipes replaced by gas- or oil- heated water pipes under the floor. And in the midst of winter, you may also want to switch on an electric heater for a higher room temperature.

The next important feature is the airflow. All doors open to the yard, which has a wall around it, and there is a small wooden porch along the outside of the house where you can sit, chat with family and friends, or eat and drink. This porch is where people stay most of the time, sheltered from rain and sunshine by a protruding roof. The walls facing the street have only a small window high up: it is not for looking outside, but only for the airflow.

In a way, the yard is the living room of the hanok, and one sort of sits half inside and half outside. There is also a larger “room” with a wooden floor in the middle of the house, which often has no front wall, and if the room can be closed by wall-to-wall doors, you can hang them up under the roof. This room faces south, and so the back is in the shade. The difference in temperature in the yard and in the shady back is minimal, but enough for one or two doors in the back of the open room to allow for a constant breeze. The breeze is normally too slight to feel directly, but the airflow is enough to enable living there without air-conditioning even in the hottest of summers.

Shade is also one of the important features of hanok. In this climate it is wise to avoid the sun in the summer, and so the roof sticks far out. But not too far: in the summer, when the sun is high in the sky, the wooden porch around the house is in the shade, but in the winter, when the sun is low, the porch is in the sun, warming up the wooden floor. Many hanok also have one or two trees in the yard, giving additional shade in the summer.

Man’s body is just like an animal’s body and part of nature. And while we need shelter from the rigor of the climate at times, it is most healthy for body and soul to seek shelter only as much as necessary, while living as close to nature as possible. In other words: it is most healthy to live in a hanok.

*The writer is emeritus professor of Korean Studies at the University of Hamburg/Germany and taught as chair professor in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Hanyang University.

By Werner Sasse
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