London Korean Links

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Seoul’s hanoks

Bukchon Hanok village, from website

There was a feature in FT a couple of weeks ago on the Bukchon district of Seoul. It’s a place as far as you can get from Apgujeong in terms of style of living. It’s the sort of place where Kim Ki-duk might be caught filming traditional housing as seen in 3-Iron, and is inhabited by folks such as Anna Fifield, the FT’s Seoul correspondent, Kim Hong-nam, the director of the National Museum, and Brit David Kilburn (whose hanok was in fact the one used in 3-Iron). The Jongno-gu website (the source of the image to the left) offers a walking tour of the district – though it seems to be a little out of date.

Here’s Anna Fifield’s article:

New life for an old way of building

By Anna Fifield

October 6 2006

Walking the streets of Bukchon, it’s hard to believe you’re in the middle of one of the world’s most populous cities. Located only a short walk from Jongno, Seoul’s central drag, where neon competes with carbon monoxide in the pollution stakes, the neighbourhood embodies the Korea of five centuries ago. Rows of hanok, Korea’s traditional houses, with their wooden lattice windows and patterned brick walls, line quiet narrow streets where cats prowl and birds flit across the sloping tiled roofs. One could easily imagine aristocrats being ferried past on carriages held on men’s shoulders.

Such areas are rare in Seoul because construction of new hanok stopped in the 1960s when industrialisation began. Those that already existed were flattened during the Korean war or bulldozed to make way for faceless, functional apartment tower blocks.

Now, however, Korea is a developed country and its citizens are increasingly valuing form as much as function. Many are restoring old hanok or building new ones. And Bukchon, a neighbourhood that is nestled between two of Seoul’s biggest Chosun-era royal palaces, which is said to have the best feng shui in the capital, is a hub for such activity.

“There is definitely a hanok restoration boom going on,” says Lee Moon-ho, an architect who specialises in renovating the old houses. “As soon as [one] is put on sale in this area, it is snatched up. As a hanok architect, I feel very proud of this. As every day goes by, new renovated hanok pop up in this area.”

Although Bukchon lost about 600 hanok when local building restrictions were lifted in the early 1990s, there is now a concerted effort to preserve the remaining 920 and ensure that new construction is in keeping with the traditional aesthetic. Five years ago the Seoul metropolitan government started offering up to Won30m (about $30,000) to any hanok owner wanting to restore his or her home and so far about 250 have been remodelled. Officials have also promoted broader initiatives, burying cables underground and relaying plumbing works, as well as tightening restoration and new construction rules, spending about Won41bn in total.

“Korea developed at breakneck speed after the Korean war,” says Kim Woo-sung, of Seoul’s urban design team. Because of that rapid expansion, the government could not set a long-term city plan like European cities have. But now we are setting out a long-term plan.”

The government’s efforts have been successful in drawing new residents to the area. Lee Myung-bak, the former mayor of Seoul who advanced the “greening” of the capital through projects such as the rebuilt Cheong-gye-cheon stream through the city centre, is just one of the people who recently moved into Bukchon, as did this correspondent.

Park Jong-duck from Daesung Real Estate, an agency that specialises in hanok, reports a steady rise in inquiries since the restoration craze started. And “prices are rising steadily,” he adds. “There are some people who want to buy just an ordinary house near hanok village. The area is developing day by day so they expect the overall house prices in the neighbourhood to go up.”

Hanok prices vary wildly depending on proximity to Bukchon’s main road and the state of repair. A house on a small narrow street can cost only Won9m per pyong (3.3 sq metres) while a renovated property in a convenient area can cost as much as Won50m per pyong. This compares with an average price of Won14m for an ordinary apartment in Seoul. Building a hanok from scratch usually costs Won13m per pyong on top of the Won10m-15m one might pay for the land.

According to Korean tradition, all buildings are regarded as parts of a wider environment, so houses are typically positioned based on the principle of baesan-imsu — having a mountain at the back and a river in the front. Hanok usually face south to expose the living areas to the sun and are built as a series of inter-connecting rooms opening up to a central courtyard — to allow the energy to flow through the house. They are single-storey with stone foundations, wooden frames and soil in the walls and on the roof for insulation.

Heating and cooling is achieved through ondol, a system of ducts carrying hot air from the kitchen stove (or more likely a boiler nowadays) to the stone floors of the house in winter, which conversely helps aerate the rooms during the oppressive summers while the stones keep the floor cool. (This is one of the reasons why Koreans habitually sit on the floor.) Hanok also have glorious curved roofs made of tiles with edges that are engraved with patterns, usually of flowers, animals or insects, particularly spiders. They are useful as well as beautiful, further protecting the house from the sun’s heat.

“In this area, the hanok are very old so it is difficult to renovate them partially, so most of the time I rebuild them from scratch,” says Lee, the architect. “The rule that I try to follow is to build in a traditional way. You have to follow certain rules — the house should face south and everything in the bedroom should be low to make sure the energy does not drain from your body. According to Korean beliefs, when your bedroom is low, you sleep very soundly. I use Korean woods and try to make modern facilities, such as heating and air-conditioning systems, inconspicuous.”

Although hanok are widely admired for their quaintness, most Koreans still think consider them to be inconvenient for modern living, especially when compared with standard high-tech apartments. In most restored houses, the walls and roofs are still made of earth and air-conditioning units are embedded into the ceilings so not so as to not be too obtrusive.

But residents of Bukchon — such as restaurateur Choi Mi-kyoung who lives in a newly built hanok on a quiet alley with her Swedish husband and their two teenage sons — are proving that it’s possible to marry traditional character with contemporary comfort. The design of the house, which she worked on with an architect, is traditional; the living room opens out onto the courtyard, complete with wooden shutters that can be hung from the eaves while the doors are open. But the stainless steel kitchen is ultra-modern and downstairs, where the boys’ bedrooms and workroom are located, is all Swedish minimalism. Construction took 11 months.

“My husband has lived here for 20 years and likes Korean-style houses very much,” Choi explains. “Our friends think it would be uncomfortable to live in a hanok but they are envious.”

She acknowledges that life in Bukchon can be slightly inconvenient — there is no parking and few shops — but says the family enjoys their modern-traditional home. “It feels so peaceful and like we are close to nature because we have a garden and there are always birds flying around but actually we are in the middle of Seoul,” she says.

Next door is a hanok that serves as a guest house for visiting suppliers to Casamia, a ritzy Korean furniture company. As in Choi’s house, old blends with new. Interconnecting living rooms circle a garden but also lead to a huge modern kitchen. The minimalist bathroom with its square, inset tub is more boutique hotel than bygone house.

As with any project involving historic buildings, the rejuvenation of Bukchon’s hanok is not without its controversies. Families who have lived in the area for decades complain about noisy development and unwanted trendiness, while traditionalists complain that many new houses are built with modern materials and are not complying with tradition. But Kim argues that the transformation will allow Koreans to pass on an appreciation for indigenous architecture to future generations.

“Because people’s lifestyles have changed, it is inevitable that hanok will change,” he says. “Cultural heritage is not something that should only be protected. Preservation should be protection plus evolution. We live in modern times so we have to accept changes and that’s why we need boilers or air conditioners in hanok.”

Lee, the architect, agrees. “I think reinvigorating this area is much more important than reviving Cheong-gye-cheon [the Won330bn ($330m) stream reconstruction] because there is no culture in Cheong-gye-cheon but there is here,” he says. “You should feel a human, natural and ecological touch. I believe this area will become the Montmartre of Seoul.”

Following Fifield’s article, David Kilburn wrote to the FT to give another side to her story. The letter is here:


In last Saturday’s FT Anna Fifield quite misses the point in her account of the controversy regarding building development work in Seoul’s historic district of Bukchon.

The issue is not whether developers should be allowed to construct modern Korean buildings that reflect historical styles but whether the last two streets in Seoul that were populated entirely with hanoks from early in the last century should survive.

One small enclave of Bukchon, called Kahoi-dong, where I have lived since 1988, remained completely untouched by change. Here, until recently, was a glimpse of how much of Seoul once looked until the economic revival of the 1970s.

When, in 2001, the Seoul Metropolitan Government published plans for the preservation and conservation of Kahoi-dong and other parts of Bukchon, they underpinned these with an elaborate architectural survey of surviving hanoks, including my own, and envisaged restoration work using traditional materials and techniques as far as possible. In their view, at that time, comprehensive restoration was possible, affordable, and desirable.

Instead, nearly all the original hanoks have been demolished, with the help of government funds allocated to preservation work.

Sadly, South Korea does not have the safeguards or protection that old buildings enjoy in the UK via the National Trust, English Heritage, the Listed Buildings Program, and so much more. Nor is there much attention paid to other aspects of conserving the country’s remarkable cultural heritage. There is a hanok exhibit in London’s V&A Museum, courtesy of Samsung. Soon that may be all that remains of an architectural style unique to the Korean peninsula.

David Kilburn

The letter did not get published.

Kilburn also wrote to Fifield with his side of the story. Here’s a particular gem:

My own application for a restoration grant was rejected on the grounds that my plans would damage rare Chosun dynasty architectural features of my house, namely the balcony which I designed and had built about ten years ago, and where you were drinking Chablis a month or so ago. When I pointed this fact out, I was told it was irrelevant, that I was not going to be given a restoration grant under any circumstances, and that was that.

Read the full text of the letter, together with Fifield’s acknowledgement, over at Kilburn’s site here.

Crossroads in Bukcheon

(Above: an image of Bukcheon from Zimmelino’s flickr account)

I have mentioned elsewhere David Kilburn’s campaign to save the hanoks in this area. What I hadn’t realised, until Tom Coyner drew my attention to an article from the South China Morning Post earlier this year, that his campaign landed him in hospital after a tussle with an architect acting for one of the development companies. Here’s the article, which is also available on David’s site here:

South China Morning Post
March 25, 2006

Attempts to preserve some of South Korea’s last traditional homes have met with official stonewalling, and landed one resident in hospital, writes Andrew Salmon

IN A COUNTRY where activists typically wear red headbands and wield steel pipes, tea merchant David Kilburn stands out. But although the 62-year-old English expatriate knew he’d face hostility in his campaign to preserve some of South Korea’s last traditional homes, he didn’t expect to be put into hospital.

Kilburn was photographing construction in his Seoul neighbourhood of Gahoedong last month, when he was involved in a scuffle with an architect for a developer. He claims the man assaulted him, knocking him unconscious. Kilburn was taken to hospital, where he’s still being treated for back injuries. The architect claims Kilburn pushed him first. The incident is being investigated by prosecutors. Meanwhile, local authorities have ruled the construction to be illegal and frozen all activity.

The Briton’s lobbying and agitating through his website, which features photos of construction work, has put him at the frontline of a fight to stop the destruction of hanok, or traditional Korean houses, in Bukcheon district and its ward of Gahoe-dong.

Much of what activists call destruction is regarded by city authorities as restoration. In Bukcheon, hanok owners are eligible for subsidies to renovate old homes. But Kilburn and his allies argue that what passes for restoration is, in fact, demolition and ersatz reconstruction.

In a metropolis notable for its ranks of faceless apartment blocks, the Bukcheon district, nestled between the capital’s two major palaces, has always been a desirable area — valued as much for its favourable fung shui as its prestige. Once inhabited by court officials, Bukcheon is today the last area in Seoul in which a significant cluster of 920 hanok still stand.

Hanok are single-storey, wood-framed houses constructed on stone foundations. Traditionally, the houses face south, so the living areas at the rear enjoy maximum sunlight, and their wide, curved eaves maintain shade in the hot months. The kitchen traditionally faces east, so that ingredients benefit from exposure to the early rays of the sun. A clay-floored attic is customarily set above the kitchen — should a fire break out (a real danger in wooden buildings) it collapses, extinguishing the blaze. Heat is channelled via underfloor flues. The largest stones in the exterior walls are at the bottom, with smaller ones at the top, leading the eye up to the home’s most attractive feature: its curved, tiled roof.

In Gahoe-dong, where Kilburn lives in a hanok with his Korean wife, Choi Keumok, the traditional houses are stacked like rows of theatre seats along winding alleys.

However, the district in northern Seoul isn’t what it once was. In the past two decades, its character has been eroded by what could be called democracy run amok. Although previous authoritarian governments bulldozed much of old Seoul, they recognised that Bukcheon merited preservation — to the point where hanok owners weren’t even permitted to install modern toilets or kitchens.

After South Korea passed democracy laws in 1988, residents in the district protested about the state of their houses. They wanted modern conveniences and were eager to benefit from the real-estate boom in Seoul, where owners in other areas had been allowed to build higher.

After building restrictions were lifted in 1991, 600 hanok disappeared. It was a decade later before belated moves were made to preserve the remainder.

“The city government supports the preservation of hanok,” says Kim Woo-sung, head of the Historic City Preservation Team, a unit in the city’s Urban Design Division. “We provide 30 million won ($237,000) in subsidies and up to 20 million won in low-interest, 10-year loans. To obtain the funds, owners must register their home as a hanok and keep it as it is for at least five years.”

Although a few narrow hanok-lined alleys still remain, modern villa apartments, shops and houses now dominate in Bukcheon. If tourists didn’t know where to look, they might stroll through without realising it was a historic district.

City Hall has published a glossy photographic book showcasing major restorations. But activists and hanok experts say that many redevelopments are destroying the authentic character of houses: too often, the buildings are torn down and rebuilt.

“I have no objection to modern houses with superficial hanok-style features in other parts of Seoul,” says Kilburn. “But these few streets in Gahoe-dong represent authentic traditional architecture. They’re a living museum of how Koreans used to live.”

But Jaho, the construction company engaged in the dispute with Kilburn, defends the redevelopment. “Many people like well-renovated hanok,” says spokesman Kim Duk-yoon. “Houses in Bukcheon aren’t cultural heritage sites, but homes where people actually live.”

Buttressing that argument is the fact that most hanok in Bukcheon date back no further than the 1920s.

City Hall concedes that restoration can be demolition — so what it describes as traditional homes aren’t necessarily authentic. “Whether demolition, reconstruction or renovation, all plans should be submitted and reviewed by the city’s Hanok Advisory Committee,” says Kim. “But the new buildings should have the features of a hanok — traditional-style tiled roof, rafters, heated floor — and they should be one storey.”

The situation has some academics fuming. “These newly built, so-called hanok have features — the roof, basically — but they’re not really hanok,” says Hyun Young-jo, a professor of architecture and authority on hanok. “They don’t have traditional views and shapes. They’re a distorted form of hanok.”

Kilburn claims that an “unholy alliance” of construction firms and local bureaucrats are profiting by Bukcheon’s redevelopment.

City Hall’s Kim Woo-sung disputes this. “Since the city started the project, the prices of property have gone up from 5,000,000 won to 15,000,000 won per pyeong (35.5 sq ft) — but real estate has also risen elsewhere in Seoul,” he says. “It’s nonsense to say that there is property speculation in this area.”

That’s not the experience of former Bukcheon resident and Kilburn supporter, Jung Tae-bong. “I sold [my hanok] 13 months ago,” he says. “Prices used to be seven million won per pyeong, but I sold at nine million won. Now they’re 15 million won per pyeong.”

Jung, who has since left Bukcheon, says he saw little preservation work by his former neighbours in the district. “The three houses in my area weren’t renovated. They were rebuilt from scratch.”

Despite his raised profile since being taken to hospital, Kilburn isn’t the best known foreign hanok activist. That honour goes to Peter Bartholomew, a former Peace Corps volunteer who arrived in South Korea in 1965. Now a business consultant, his hanok is in an area under threat of redevelopment. Partly on the strength of his fluent Korean, he has become a minor media star. “The problem in Korea and across Asia, is that people see no value in old buildings other than monumental structures like palaces and temples,” says Bartholomew. “New is, de facto, better than old and traditional. There’s a prejudice that old homes are uncomfortable and obsolete.”

However, Bartholomew sees a ray of hope. “A growing sector of society is becoming concerned at the loss of their traditional architectural heritage,” he says. “But it’s almost too late.”

Update 23 October: Hot off the press from today’s South China Morning Post:

A British expatriate and his Korean wife are fighting to save one of Seoul’s last remaining districts of traditional Korean buildings, which they say is being ruined by insensitive redevelopment.

David and Jade Kilburn, who live in one of the old-style houses known as hanoks, have waged a three-year campaign, accusing authorities of failing to respect the cultural tradition represented by the buildings. Nearly all the original hanoks have been demolished, ironically with the help of government funds allocated for preservation work, the couple claims.

Before the country’s rapid economic development, most South Koreans lived with their extended families in these single-storey buildings. Constructed around a small courtyard, they followed a distinctive architectural tradition and were built in accordance with the rules of fung shui.

The buildings are constructed on a wooden cubical framework of interlocking beams that rest on blocks of stone. Long, overhanging eaves protect the natural structure.

The use of natural materials and the building methods employ techniques dating back hundreds of years. The tiled roofs hide a layer of mud and rice straw that created insulation and ventilation – essential to prevent the wooden frame from rotting.

Mr Kilburn fell in love with his home the moment he entered the courtyard almost two decades ago. “There was no hesitation, I thought `this is it’. I had never seen anything as beautiful. The proportions and the curves of the roof are magical.”

The Kilburns’ hanok, in the district of Kahoi dong, is 1.5km from Seoul’s overpopulated and polluted downtown area, but its location in a quiet alley next to similar buildings make it redolent of a former age.

When the Kilburns moved to Kahoi dong, the area was considered undesirable. It was run down and its proximity to the presidential Blue House meant Koreans believed it was an easy target for North Korean bombardment.

While hanoks throughout Seoul were being bulldozed to make way for apartment blocks, as one of the last remaining vestiges of traditional housing, Kahoi dong was designated as a preservation district.

But property prices started to soar five years ago after the local administrative office set aside money to protect the area. Grants and low-interest loans worth US$50,000 per household were offered so homes could be faithfully renovated. Instead, the funds were often spent on historically insensitive renovations.

The cash also attracted speculators, who bought out many old homeowners whose hanoks had been passed down through generations.

“Land speculation is a national pastime in Korea, and where there is an opportunity to increase family wealth by manipulating land, all other considerations go out the window,” Mr Kilburn said.

The destruction of the district prompted the Kilburns to launch their campaign to draw public attention to the situation, and foster appreciation of Korea’s architectural heritage.

The couple accuses city authorities of allowing natural building materials to be replaced by concrete and giving the go-ahead for the development of commercial buildings.

Developers skirted a rule which stipulates that buildings in the area must be only one-storey high by building floors below ground level.

“It is in the nature of land speculators to bend the rules. It is not unique to Korea, but why does it happen here? Because there are not the layers of protection, legal barriers, administrative barriers which act as the check and counter-check,” said Mr Kilburn, citing as an example Britain’s National Trust and English Heritage.

The campaign has drawn the support of key figures from the artistic community but has been met with largely public indifference. But the Kilburns have pledged to fight on.

“Over the last three years we have often felt like selling up. But we will never give up because this area is a temple,” Mrs Kilburn said.

Thanks to David K for letting me know about this article.

4 thoughts on “Seoul’s hanoks

  1. I wish a craze for Hanok style buildings would take off here in the UK. I often vowed to myself when I was in Korea that if I ever made a lot of money and subsequently went insane, I would build one somewhere in Oxfordshire and spend the rest of my days pretending to be a Korean aristocrat who had foresaken a career in the Royal court for a life of study and self-improvement. For the moment I’m contenting myself with sleeping on the floor.
    Seriously, I heard that hanoks are a poor investment in Korea, because the intensity of hurricanes is going up and they stand a pretty good chance of getting blown down.

  2. The articles about Bukcheon are super interesting. It’s good to read about what’s happening behind the scenes. When I visited Seoul I was amazed by the sheer number of the down-to-earth hanok houses in that quarter. I’d be happy to see this part of Seoul developing into the “Montmartre of Seoul” as mentioned in the article.

  3. Thanks again for the use of your photo Michael. Sorry it’s taken me so long to approve your comment. I’ve been away on holiday the last couple of weeks and out of touch with the site.

  4. It’s really an useful information for me to take as reference as I am now doing research for the Korean architecture. Thanks the one who posted the article to this website. 🙂

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