Homing in on traditional dwellings


Modern comforts: To make the new Korean traditional houses more liveable in today

SIXTY-three-year-old Kim Sun-dae had planned to move out of Seoul and return to his hometown in the countryside when he retired.

But he changed his mind after a chance visit three years ago to a mountainous region in north-western Seoul, where a small area was earmarked for a cluster of hanok, or traditional Korean homes with tiled roofs, wooden lattice windows and a courtyard.

“My wife loved the environment there so much that we decided to buy land to build our own hanok,” the former head of a bond pricing agency told The Straits Times.

In November 2017, the couple moved into their new house – a modernised two-storey hanok with an attic that doubles as a playroom for their four-year-old grandson.

“Friends always ask me how is it living in a hanok and I say it’s good. The air here is great and it’s quiet; I can sleep very well,” said Kim.

His wife Jun Ok-ja, 59, a gardening enthusiast, raved about how she can grow different flowers in different seasons in their madang (Korean for courtyard).

“You never feel bored because the house is so open and the views are great,” said Jun, who had lived in a hanok as a child.

Hanok were once despised for being notoriously cold in winter and hot in summer. To use the toilet, you had to step out into the courtyard. Many were bulldozed in the post-war era to make way for high-rise apartment blocks. But today, they have gained a new fan base as people rediscover the joy of living in a spruced-up heritage home, or one built in its likeness.

The word hanok, which directly translates to “Korean house”, was coined in the late 19th century to refer to the giwajib (tiled roof houses) that noblemen lived in. The chogajip (straw-roofed houses) occupied by commoners are rarely seen today.

To make them more liveable in today’s world, architects have added modern comforts such as wall insulation, air conditioners, glass windows and indoor toilets. They have also created hidden storage spaces to tuck away possessions that do not gel with the hanok’s minimalist style.

Only about 11,000 original hanok – some dating back to the early 1900s when they first started disappearing during Japanese rule – remain in Seoul.

Most are located within government-designated conservation zones in five main districts, including tourist-packed Bukchon in central Seoul, where many hanok have been turned into guesthouses, restaurants, cafes as well as shops.

In the same way that Singapore and Malaysia preserve shophouses, and China protects courtyard houses, South Korea has been pushing to conserve old hanok. The government dispenses generous subsidies to help owners offset the high cost of remodelling the house’s interior while keeping the exterior intact, as required by law.

Hanok owners in Seoul can get up to 180 million won (RM659,135) to offset renovation costs, and the city government disbursed almost 21.8 billion won (RM79.82mil) worth of subsidies from 2001 to 2016.

New hanok villages are also being built across the country in a bid to encourage a return to Korean roots after decades of Western-influenced development following the 1950-53 Korean War.

German-Korean architect Daniel Taendler, a hanok specialist, said: “When Korea was poor and underdeveloped, things such as having enough to eat were more important. Now people are starting to realise that they have lost an important part of their architectural culture. They’re asking, ‘We’re Korean, but what makes us Korean if everything is Westernised?’”

Eunpyeong Hanok Village, where Kim lives, is the result of a 2010 government initiative to develop a residential area at the foot of Mount Bukhan.

An official from the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) said it decided to devote the land to hanok after noting the pervasiveness of apartment complexes and “rising concerns over Koreans losing our identity and architectural culture from the accelerated destruction of hanok”.

There are also plans to promote the village as a tourist attraction when it is completed. It already draws about 870,000 visitors a year – a spillover effect from nearby temples, a hanok museum and a popular hiking trail.

Altogether, 91 pockets of land have been sold and 67 hanok completed as of last September, said the SMG official. People in their 50s and 60s account for 75.5% of owners, followed by those in their 40s (17.5%) and 30s (3.5%). Their professions vary, including poet and artist.

Kim and his wife are grateful for the 76 million won (RM278,225) subsidy they received from Seoul city to build their hanok on the 200sq m plot they bought. They declined to reveal how much they spent on it, but said it typically costs 4 million to 5 million won (RM14,647 to RM18,305) per pyeong (Korean equivalent of 3.3sq m). This is three times more than a regular house, as hanok construction requires specialised skills from a niche group of workers, including carpenters.

Furnished with wooden furniture reminiscent of a bygone era and designed to allow natural light to cast pretty shadows of the wooden lattice windows – Kim’s home gives him both the benefits of traditional and modern living.

He and his wife can sit on the heated floor sipping tea in front of the window overlooking the courtyard at one moment, then watch TV in the basement living room the next.

His wife enjoys interacting with neighbours.

“We have our own community culture. We meet often, share pots of flowers and go on picnics together. It’s really different from living in an apartment,” she said.

For the younger generation, it is perhaps the pursuit of a unique lifestyle that draws them. A “mini-hanok” boom was sparked in 2007 after local media featured singles and young couples who had moved into 50-60sq m hanok.

“Young people loving old culture – it’s a very strange thing,” said architect Hwang Doo-jin, amused by the trend.

The hanok specialist said he had expected to work mostly with older clients when he ventured into hanok remodelling in 2004, but more than half are in their 30s and 40s.

He figures that these hanok owners have had some kind of overseas exposure.

“They appreciate the past and are willing to invest in a piece of it.”

Software engineer Jung Woo-ram, 37, fell in love with a mini-hanok near the main Gyeongbuk palace in central Seoul when he visited the area with his wife last year.

“It was in a beautiful alley and when we found out it was for sale, we bought it immediately,” he said.

The house is only 59sq m but Jung said he loves how the rooms are inter-connected and linked to the madang in the middle.

“It’s really great to have this outdoor courtyard space.”

Jung declined to reveal how much he paid. But an online check showed that a similar-­sized hanok in the same Jongno district was on sale for 930 million won (RM3.4mil).

To maximise the living space, the couple made the hard decision to demolish the 80-year-old hanok and build anew.

“There’s a beauty to the old house but we couldn’t do remodelling due to a legal issue, so we decided to build a new house,” he said.

Purists like former British journalist David Kilburn, however, will lament the destruction of yet another hanok in his neighbourhood of Gahoe-dong in Bukchon, where two rows of well-preserved hanok draw busloads of tourists every day.

He and his Korean wife live in a hanok built in the 1930s by real estate developer Jeong Se-gwon, who played a key role in creating new enclaves of smaller hanok to counter the rapid erosion of Korean architecture and values under Japanese rule.

Kilburn is of the opinion that owners should preserve a house and its history, not demolish it.

He claimed that “the idea of conservation and preservation does not exist in Korea”, but added that he will keep his own house intact as long as possible.

Taendler, however, noted that the Asian concept of architectural preservation, which can mean building anew in the exact same likeness, differs from that in the West.

He also pointed out that there are very strict laws governing hanok remodelling as compared to rebuilding, which can be easier, as in the case of his client, software engineer Jung.

But there are those who keep trying to push the envelope, like pioneer Hwang whose unconventional designs – like a brick wall facade – upset purists but went on to win awards.

He maintained that government guidelines for hanok are too conservative and restrictive.

“Historical authenticity is important, but so is creativity and innovation,” he said.

More flexible rules for remodelling could also change the public’s mind about hanok living.

Housewife Han Ju-hui, 45, used to think it would be inconvenient to live in a hanok. But after joining a walkabout in Bukchon led by Hwang last October with her nine-year-old daughter, she said: “I think it is nice to renovate a historical house to fit modern life.”

There is, however, also a generation who can never forget the hardships associated with hanok in the past, such as burning coal to heat the floors, and having to deliver food to individual rooms from the courtyard as there is no common dining hall.

Hwang offered to get his mother a hanok but she refused.

“She said she can’t ‘forgive’ hanok – she’s perfectly happy living in an apartment.” — The Straits Times/Asia News Network

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