Four years ago, Lee Byoungcheol was riding the subway to his job at a corporate I.T. firm when he saw an advertisement for a housing development in the foothills of the towering Bukhan Mountain in northern Seoul. Eunpyeong Hanok Village was selling locals hanok, the traditional Korean tile-roofed residences that have, after hundreds of years, increasingly been destroyed and replaced by towering steel structures; indeed, not since the 1930s have hanok been constructed in significant numbers.
The decline of vernacular architecture in the face of global urbanisation is, of course, hardly new, though traditional Korean hanok are a particularly stark contrast to modern city living. Sit inside one and you immediately notice how sound and light travel differently as they’re absorbed into pine wood beams and diffused through pale mulberry-paper windows. When newly built, hanok are redolent with the bright scent of a coniferous forest; as they age, the fragrance softens toward pu-erh tea and damp bark. Their centre of gravity is lower than other homes, creating a cocoon-like sensation; their radiant heating system — the ondol — means that residents sit, work and sleep on the floor.
But while any Korean can describe how a hanok feels, defining what a hanok is has proved elusive. “Hanok” simply translates to “Korean house,” though the term wasn’t used until the late 19th century, which brought the opening of the peninsula’s ports to international trade and, in turn, Western architecture. Before this, the hanok was merely a house. Today’s hanok, with its soot-black scalloped clay tiles laid atop wooden beams, resembles its 15th-century forebears. In 2015, the government legally defined hanok as a “wooden architectural structure built on the basis of the traditional Korean-style framework consisting of columns and purlins and a roof reflecting the Korean traditional architectural style,” leaving acres of room for interpretation.
The main living space inside Lee Byoungcheol’s Nak Nak Heon where, because of the hanok’s radiant heating system, the family often lounges on the floor.
Seoul’s original hanok began their large-scale disappearance in the early 1900s, when colonial rule left swaths of land around the city’s central palaces — then still inhabited by the fading aristocracy of the Joseon dynasty — in ruins. At that point, most hanok were modelled after rural estates, with several buildings on a large property surrounded by a low wall. Jeong Segwon, a Korean entrepreneur and cultural nationalist, saw opportunity in the city’s decrepitude, splitting up formerly grand estates into dozens of lots, then modifying individual homes for smaller footprints, and thus creating the city hanok: compact and tightly packed, with abbreviated eaves.
Jeong’s vision for Seoul was a modern cityscape rooted in Korean identity, but history had other plans: The colonial government confiscated his property, punishment for his involvement in the creation of the modern Korean dictionary. World War II came, then the Korean War, and, after reconstruction began in the 1960s, it was the high-rise apartment complex that would draw Seoul’s growing middle class, not the hanok. While major world capitals like Tokyo and London constructed modern cities over their obliterated terrain after World War II, Seoul didn’t see significant damage until the Korean War; afterward, developers determined to modernise subjected the city to a form of self-cannibalism that only a desperate, hungry nation would, and hanok became entirely expendable. By the early 1980s, the renowned Seoul-based architect Kim Joong-up, a disciple of Le Corbusier and a forefather of Korean Modernism was, despite his expertise, pleading for the preservation of these homes: “The pitch and downward-floating curves of the raised tile roof, gently reminiscent of a thatch roof’s quaint beauty ... is the best in all the world,” he wrote in 1981.
The neighbourhood’s closely clustered houses modernise a 15th-century style, with pine beams and scalloped clay roof tiles.
Today, Seoul is a city of 10 million defined by its modernity: There are five-story brick walk-ups known as “villas,” Corbusier-inspired white concrete apartment complexes and steel-and-glass skyscrapers, which make up 60 percent of the country’s housing stock.
Despite that (or, perhaps, because of it), hanok have maintained their appeal; thousands of tourists and locals visit the old central district every year, where one-third of Seoul’s 11,000 remaining hanok are concentrated. Many have been converted into cafes, shops, guesthouses and, occasionally, pieds-à-terre for residents seeking the sort of authenticity that only a very old home can provide. Before he learned about Eunpyeong on the subway, the 54-year-old Lee used to joke with his wife that they should run a hanok guesthouse once they retired, which has become a fantasy second career in Seoul after receiving coverage on several daytime talk shows. But he never imagined that he’d have an opportunity to build his own, nor that it was something city dwellers desired. Yet, “the built environment always reflects society itself,” says Daniel Tändler, a Korean-German architect who specialises in hanok. “That’s why Eunpyeong was created, because of this longing for cultural identity.”
Indeed, this nostalgia for a simpler form of living is fuelled by the dissatisfaction that many locals have expressed in the face of their country’s breakneck economic growth. Here, digital culture is richer and vaster than anywhere else: South Korea, home to the technology giants Samsung and LG, may have the world’s fastest internet and the highest rate of smartphone use, but amid the country’s accelerated 30-year transition from military state — which it was until the ’80s — to tech superpower, there’s a growing sentiment that somewhere along the road, much of the country’s own culture was lost. The hanok, then, has come to represent a safe vessel for introspection and a reassertion of Korean identity: a romantic return to the national architecture and, therefore, to a mythic, prelapsarian age. Rebuilding these houses is not only a chance to revisit a past that once was, free of influences from globalised monoculture, but also to create a future in Seoul that might have been.
Most Seoul hanok include a madang, or central courtyard.
In 2000, the Seoul metropolitan government began subsidising hanok projects, deeming them a “public good” that would help “preserve and promote traditional Korean culture.” Today, a new hanok in Eunpyeong, which can cost between USD200,000 and USD300,000 to build, not including land and design fees, can acquire about half that in interest-free loans or cash grants, though this municipal funding comes with constraints: Each design submitted for consideration has to be cleared by a review board of professors, researchers and architects selected by the city’s Hanok Development Division. Their guidelines are both specific (no visible steel reinforcements; exposed wooden pillars must have a foundation stone); and poetically open to improvisation (the layout should “reflect harmony with the natural topography and historic resources” and the plan should account for “existing urban structures and resources worthy of preservation”).
In zones like Bukchon, a neighbourhood in the central historic district, standards are stricter: A design might be rejected for using windows that are “too Japanese” (an etched floral pattern, perhaps) or for incorporating red bricks on the outer walls. Though the council’s decisions favour the traditional lines of pre-20th-century hanok, with broad eaves and wooden walls, the standards for the 150 homes in Eunpyeong are looser; the village is viewed as an opportunity to experiment with the form. In order to shape the redevelopment project to which the neighbourhood belongs, the district cobbled together land from the greenbelt, the markets and former shantytowns. The project was criticised for demolishing Hanyang Jutaek, a collection of modest concrete homes that, ironically, were built in the 1970s to demonstrate modernity to a visiting North Korean delegation.
Once these houses were razed, Eunpyeong became one of few Seoul neighbourhoods zoned for low-story homes, so as not to block views of the nearby mountains. But, unusually, the government decided hanok in particular would best complement the landscape and the nearby Buddhist temple. Most Korean architects no longer fully adhere to pungsu-jiri — the geomantic design principles that call for spatial arrangements such as a mountain at your back and a stream to the front — but the connections between hanok and nature remain deeply rooted; if the high-rise apartment is humanity’s attempt to transcend the confines of earth, then the hanok humbly embraces the natural terrain, its rooflines echoing the foothills’ ridges. “For me, the true value in a hanok is the madang,” says the acclaimed hanok architect Cho Junggoo, referring to the building’s central courtyard. “It’s where ground, nature and sky meet in your life. An apartment can’t do that.”
Lee Byoungcheol began working with Cho on his house in 2014 and, like most hanok, it has a name: Nak Nak Heon, which incorporates the characters for music, joy and home. (It’s also a play on words in English: Knock, knock.) At 15 feet tall — five feet higher than a classic hanok — the home is what Cho calls a “tall one-story,” with an elevated first floor rising above a carport and a basement level. Most of the homes in Eunpyeong have a partial or full second story, which is controversial among local architects: Tändler argues that part of the beauty of a hanok rests in its proportions; to maintain the ideal roof-to-frame ratio (one that protects against wind and rain), a two-story hanok would need an enormous roof, which would be too heavy to support.
Tändler designed Lee Eunyoung’s hanok, one of the few one-story buildings in the village. The home is disarmingly simple: a minimally furnished, U-shaped space, encircling a madang. For the four-person family, moving into a hanok wasn’t just an aesthetic choice but an opportunity to atavistically reorient their lives. “We each have five outfits for Monday through Friday, plus one wedding outfit, one funeral outfit and one exercise outfit,” Lee Eunyoung says. The 37-year-old mother doesn’t buy toys for her two young boys, instead giving them paper and crayons or sending them out into the madang to play. This is another way the hanok has made Seoulites reconsider the way they live: By forcing them to decide how much stuff they really need, it inverts the dynamic between the house and the people within it, making the residents accommodate the dwelling, not the other way around. In doing so, they’ve discovered a different, slower way of living. Eventually, Lee Eunyoung’s children will grow up and find their own homes. Maybe they’ll go somewhere modern: a skyscraper, a glass-and-steel penthouse. But Lee says she’ll stay here, in the hanok, for the rest of her life.
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