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Hanok revival in Bukchon
An old-school architect is staging a minor architectural insurrection in Seoul’s most picturesque residential neighborhood
Bukchon is a small neighborhood with a curious history.
The home of wealthy Yangban during the Joseon era, it fell into neglect during the modern era as people abandoned their old Hanok houses for the cookie-cutter apartment complexes that now clutter the Seoul skyline.
For years, Bukchon was a byword for relative poverty. A throwback Hanok fetish seemed to be the only reason people chose to live there.
Yet today, it is the epicenter of the renaissance of traditional Korean homes, a Hanok revival.
As the city starts to move away from the “modernize at any cost” philosophy that has dominated Seoul for the past fifty years, residents are beginning to question the merits of living in boxes stacked on top of boxes.
A new generation is rediscovering traditional cultural elements, such as Hanok, that were once considered anachronistic.
The fact that the Bukchon Hanok revival and lifestyle have been glamorized by several recent TV drama has reinforced the trend.
Old residents suddenly hip
Those with the ability to afford “modernized Hanok” are piling into Bukchon, driven by generous government subsidies for renovation, which sometimes simply mean “knocking them down and starting again.”
The result is a battle of new residents versus old, and new Hanoks versus old.
Some longtime residents of Bukchon argue that as it is virtually the only neighborhood in Seoul with beautiful, historic homes still standing, a special case ought to be made for careful, traditional preservation.
Outside of this newly gentrified district, however, most see the value of combining the Hanok aesthetic with modern touches, such as basements, fitted kitchens, and, yes, even proper bathrooms.
The Hanok Master
The Hanok, with its long, curved roof, allows light and heat in during winter, when the sun is low in the sky, while providing shade in summer. The design reduces energy consumption.
The use of basic, natural materials in construction -- such as wood, clay, and stone -- further bolsters the Hanok’s green reputation.
“In Korea, we already have eco-friendly, sustainable architecture,” says Hwang Doo-jin, the architect responsible for some of the most well known “new” Hanoks in Bukchon and elsewhere. “We don’t need to look to other countries.”
Hwang sees the modernized Hanok as nothing less than part of a whole new vision of sustainability for the city of Seoul. He’s proposing “multi-story” Hanoks with added basements, with the aim of adapting to the lack of space in urban areas.
He also says that despite the large numbers of skyscrapers, the average story level of Seoul buildings is just two-and-a-half. If all those low-rise places with bunshik restaurants and chicken hofs could be built up a little higher, more space would be freed up, he says. This would mean less need for huge residential carbuncles, the opportunity to add green space and some new uber-Hanoks.
Hwang’s larger hope is to see the land area of Seoul shrink back, making a “Starfish City” in accordance with the surrounding mountains and valleys.
In the middle of that Starfish City would be a network of green spaces, buildings of five stories instead of three, and multi-story Hanoks that would provide homes for dozens of families rather than just one. And fewer gigantic apartment complexes.
It might not prove a popular idea with Hanok purists or the ultra-powerful construction firms that continue to prosper by selling concrete boxes at inflated prices. Anything that might make Seoul a little greener and more interesting to look at, however, is certainly worth considering.