Hanok: Reconfiguring Traditional Architecture in Seoul

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Recent years have seen a boom in renovation and construction of traditional architecture in Korea. Relatively unknown abroad, the traditional Korean house — called hanok — has become widely popular within the country, and the government is now actively trying to promote its century-old building culture, as seen in central Seoul’s trendy Bukchon neighborhood. In the midst of the hanok boom, my colleagues and I at the architecture firm Urban Detail – Seoul have remodeled a hanok in Seoul’s Myeongnyun-dong area as a joint office for the hanok construction cooperative Chamooree and our own firm. In doing so we hope to contribute to a healthy architecture culture in Korea, embracing both modern and traditional elements.

Main view before renovation (photo by Urban Detail - Seoul)
The main view before renovation (Credit: Urban Detail – Seoul)

The hanok shares characteristics with its Chinese and Japanese counterparts but has developed very distinct characteristics due to climatic and cultural circumstances. In premodern Korea, every type of building, regardless of its purpose — residential, official, or religious — was built with basically the same techniques and materials. The materials included stone in the foundation, a wooden frame with walls made of clay and tiles or straw for the roof.

Main view after renovation (photo by Jun Michael Park)
The main view after renovation (Credit: Jun Michael Park)

A traditional hanok consists of a series of bang: rooms papered on all sides — even the floor — and heated through the floor using a system called ondol. Other places worthy of note are the daechong  — the main hall with a wooden floor and visible beams above — and the bueok — the kitchen whose fireplace feeds the heating system for the whole house. Also important in the spatial conception of the hanok is the madang — the courtyard — used as a a semi-private space for both housework and social interaction.

3-floor-plan1

Most of Seoul’s surviving hanok, besides the palaces and temples, date back to the 1950s and early 60s if not to the Japanese colonial period. They are therefore not architectural examples of the Joseon Dynasty nor truly traditional architecture. Nonetheless, the construction method of the hanok basically remained unchanged during the transition to the Republic of Korea; modifications were made mainly to the heating system and interior materials.

The Chamooree & Urban Detail – Seoul office in Myeongnyun-dong is a typical urban Hanok, probably dating back to the 1930s, the height of the Japanese colonial period. When the building came to our attention, it had already undergone several renovations, which left little of the original interior, but the main structure was original and in a relatively good shape. Our preliminary survey determined that the renovation effort should try to preserve the original main structure while reshaping the interior space according to the needs of a shared office.

Daecheong 1 (photo by Jun Michael Park)
The daecheong (Credit: Jun Michael Park)

The main hall, or daecheong, kept its function but was extended by one intercolumn unit. Guests are welcomed here after entering the building through the main gate into the courtyard.

Meeting room (photo by Jun Michael Park)
The meeting room (Credit: Jun Michael Park)

To the left of the daecheong is the meeting room. Here you can see how the original building was enlarged in the past in order to provide more space. We found an iron H-beam that was installed to replace two columns and decided to integrate it into the interior in order to make such past changes visible. The history of the building can still be read through such elements.

View of the work space from the daecheong
A view of the work space from the daecheong (Credit: Jun Michael Park)

The original anbang — the main bedchamber — was transformed into a work space with an L-shaped desk and work stations for 3 people. The room is open towards the kitchen, which remains in its original location. A sliding door between the meeting room and the daecheong, and the traditional Korean deulmun — doors that can be lifted up and hung from the ceiling — between the daecheong and the work space allow the whole interior to be opened up if need be.

Work space
The work space and the kitchen beyond (Credit: Jun Michael Park)

The bathroom remains in its original location, separated from the main interior space by the entryway into the courtyard. While it might be inappropriate to separate the bathroom from the main space at a private dwelling, this struck us as an acceptable solution in an office space. The bathroom and the kitchen are clearly modern in design but fit well with the traditional elements of the house.

The Kitchen (photo by Jun Michael Park)
The kitchen (Credit: Jun Michael Park)

A very important aspect of renovating the space was the integration of traditional design and craftsmanship on the one hand and modern elements and materials on the other hand. For example, windows are modified traditional windows with insulation glass and modern sealing but handcrafted by a traditional carpenter specialising in windows. Traditional Korean wallpaper is used in the meeting room and the work space, but for the flooring we chose cork parquet because the traditional Korean flooring made of waxed paper did not seem resilient enough for office use. The walls outside and in the daecheong are finished with lime plaster.

A view of the courtyard (photo by Jun Michael Park)
A view of the courtyard after renovation (Credit: Jun Michael Park)

It turned out that a modern-traditional hanok is an excellent space for smaller creative firms like ours. Our interaction is vigorous, and during summer time the courtyard offers many opportunities to organize meetings and events, with outside and inside seamlessly coming together thanks to the transparent facade of the hanok made up of sliding windows. The use of floor heating and natural climate-regulating materials means that the climate within the office is noticeably more pleasant than inside most modern offices.

This project did not have the intention of preserving a historical building with a high proportion of original materials. Such a situation would require a different approach to renovation. But for many of the remaining hanok in Seoul and around the country that retain their original structures but have lost the original interiors, our project could be an example of how to maintain their authentic character and still turn them into attractive and promising spaces.

A version of this essay first appeared in IMPAKTER on 25 February 2015. It has been edited and reprinted here with the author’s permission. Jun Michael Park contributed photography.

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Daniel Tändler studied architecture and urban planning at RWTH Aachen University, Germany. After graduating, he worked at Guga Urban Architecture in South Korea for several years before founding with his two South Korean partners Urban Detail - Seoul, a firm for traditional and modern Korean architecture and design. He has also helped found Chamooree Co-op, a construction company that specialises in traditional Korean architecture and shares the office with Urban Detail - Seoul.

  • kilburnda

    Until comparatively recently, Korean architects learned relatively little of their country’s architectural traditions and history. It is certainly good news that these traditions are now finding an expression suited to the modern world.

    However, I also feel that the role of the Bukchon hanoks in carrying these traditions through a very difficult time should be recognised.

    For most of its history, Bukchon was home to many of the nobles and scholars attached to the Royal Court. Old maps show the area had relatively few buildings in a natural, forested landscape that descended from the mountains.

    During the 1920’s the character of Bukchon began to change. With the Japanese occupation, the role of the aristocracy and yangban diminished. Eventually, the once privileged residents of Bukchon began to sell their land and move out. At this time, the Japanese were redeveloping much of Seoul by erecting Japanese-style homes, commercial, and public buildings as part of their assault on Korean culture and values.

    While many Koreans were swept along with the wishes of their new, Japanese rulers many also sought ways to resist and preserve the ideas and values they considered important in Korea’s heritage. One of these was a wealthy builder from the Busan area, Chung Sea Kwon (정세권) who owned one of the largest construction companies of his day. Chung felt that if ordinary people could have the opportunity to live in traditional Korean hanoks, it would help preserve Korean values in the face of increasing pressure to adopt a Japanese way of life.

    Chung seized the opportunity to buy up land in Gahoe-dong and elsewhere and began to build small hanoks for ordinary people. Since most Koreans had little money, Chung also provided financial help to buy them. It was Chung who built my hanok in 1929 and lived in it before selling to the family from whom we bought it in 1987.

    All of Chung’s houses were well built and intended as an expression of uniquely Korean ideas as well as family homes. The idea caught on, and Bukchon became a hanok village for ordinary people.

    Following, the Japanese occupation and the Korean War, Western-style housing began replacing Korean-style houses and apartments became the dominant forms of housing in Seoul.

    Seoul City eventually came to designate the hanoks of Bukchon as Local Cultural Assets on March 17, 1977, in an effort to protect them and preserve the area. In 1973, Gahoe-dong was designated as a Korean-style House Preservation District and put under the special care of the City.

    Despite this apparent protection, the Government permitted Hyundai, Daewoo, Hanwha, and other chaebol to demolish large tracts of hanoks to build offices, and modern residential units.

    Nearly all the hanoks Chung built were demolished as part of the Seoul government’s “Bukchon Plan,” despite the fact that the architectural survey that preceded the plan had endorsed their quality, good state of repair, and historical importance. In their places stand newer buildings, mostly dating from 2004.

    When I came to Seoul in 1987, there remained three streets in Bukchon populated entirely by hanoks built almost a century ago, all in Gahoe-dong. Now there are none. My own and a handful of other isolated hanoks are all that remain of this legacy.

    Unlike other economically advanced countries, South Korea does not yet appreciate the heritage values of the homes of ordinary people and sees no reason to preserve them.

    You can read more on my website. http://www.kahoidong.com

    David Kilburn

    • Kloe

      Agreed, and feel so sad that the government made such a blind and ironic decision.

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