The Spirit of Kahoidong

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Bukchon (북촌), a genuine old part of Seoul, a haven of peace preserved between the two major palaces. A little bit of old Seoul carefully preserved and nurtured, saved from the twenty-first century metropolis below.

Stroll around the quaint streets of Kahoidong, one of the most protected parts of Bukchon, and if you’re not looking terribly hard you believe the myth. It’s certainly quiet and peaceful, and there are wonderful views down the hill to the skyscrapers of the downtown area or across to the Gyeongbokgung. And those beautiful curved tiled roofs.

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But then look around. The main streets are well paved, walls are of brick, scrubbed clean. All very sanitised frontages. You can see a lot of money has been spent, and continues to be spent.

Look further. It’s a bit of a surprise to find the odd car wedged into some of the alleys, but I suppose we have to move with the times; look up, and you scratch your head that some of the hanoks have two floors; and the styling of some of the roofs doesn’t look terribly authentic. And observe the three satellite dishes on the roof of an ambassadorial hanok (carefully crafted in simulated white Chosun dynasty porcelain).

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Yes, it is a peaceful place because of the lack of traffic, which is part of the appeal. But it’s almost like a theme park. Houses have been demolished and rebuilt again. Understandably with all the mod cons. But one wonders how much of the reconstruction was necessary – it is not beyond a competent architect’s ingenuity to install all the mod cons into an existing house, after all.

The most recent incarnation of Kahoidong was built during the colonial period in the 1920s and 30s. Traditionally a yangban area prior to then, with relatively large plots of land, these estates were broken up as the owners fell on hard times, and small scale housing developed. They built what they knew: traditional hanoks the like of which had been around for centuries. And somehow these small houses survived the major reconstruction of Seoul in the 1960s and beyond.

A two volume detailed survey and planning strategy document was sponsored by the city government at the start of the new millennium, seeking to provide guidelines as to how to preserve the unique spirit of the area. It envisaged restoration, conservation and repair, with public funding to be provided for this (volume 1 is linked to from this page, with an English version to come soon)

But talk to David Kilburn, one-man campaigner to preserve the character of Kahoidong, and you hear of planning policy blatantly flouted: poor supervision by the authorities has enabled the demolition of an increasing number of well preserved old hanoks. And the penalty for breach? Certainly not demolition and reinstatement. More a small fine and being permitted to continue. Given the money to be made in Seoul’s pressured housing market, more a parking fine than a driving ban.

Kilburn’s campaign to save the authentic flavour of the neighbourhood started almost by accident. A boundary dispute with a neighbour made him want to search out what authorities were responsible for planning and development in the area so that he could seek resolution of the dispute. Enquiries were met by stonewalling; and a low-key visit to the local mayor elicited such a paranoid and sensitive reaction that he smelt a whole plague of rats.

His discovery of the above-mentioned survey and his documentation of apparent breaches of its guidance has not made him popular. Building sites are barricaded so that he cannot see in; mysterious heavies occasionally loiter threateningly nearby; and last year he ended up in hospital. His website publicising his campaign to an English-speaking audience as well as to Koreans seemed to catch the authorities on the back foot, and he has plans for publishing further materials there. His site contains many news articles covering his campaign, plus leaked official documents and photographs that chronicle the destruction.

At the end of the day, is his campaign just middle-England style nimbyism? Does it matter that the way Kahoidong is headed is, on one view, towards modern housing but with old-style roofs, a newly constructed Chosun-dynasty theme park? One day, it is to be feared, people may wake up and regret that the only authentic hanoks left are in folk museums.

Keep an eye on Kilburn’s website for campaign updates and more materials supporting his campaign.

Links:

  • David Kilburn’s campaign website
  • Jade Kilburn’s blog (in Korean)
  • David Kilburn’s letter to officers of the Seoul Development Institute
  • Other articles on Bukchon / Kahoidong
  • The Marmot’s post on David Kilburn

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