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Hanok, where humans live with nature

Boom in retro and eco-conscious style has hanok in high demand

By Korea Herald

Published : April 12, 2013 - 22:10

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Choi Jung-hoon (left) and Park Hyun-sook (right) and their daughter Jae-a enjoy their spare time at their hanok in Tongui-dong, central Seoul, Wednesday. (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald) Choi Jung-hoon (left) and Park Hyun-sook (right) and their daughter Jae-a enjoy their spare time at their hanok in Tongui-dong, central Seoul, Wednesday. (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)
Sound engineer Choi Jung-hoon and his wife Park Hyun-sook moved into a hanok, or Korean traditional house, in Tongui-dong, central Seoul, in August 2011.

The one-story house, believed to have been built more than 100 years ago, is located in a narrow and crooked alley behind small galleries near Gyeongbokgung Palace. The area is clustered with hanok and old one-story abodes which create a humble, tranquil and peaceful atmosphere.

Choi and Park, with their children, 5-year-old Jae-yul and 9-month-old Jae-a, have been happy ever since their move.

Park said it has changed their lifestyle dramatically.

“Jae-yul constantly talks about what he sees in the sky. If you just sit on the maru, or terrace, you will be surprised how beautiful the sky is. How many of us really see the sky from their home every day?” Park said. 
The hanok, or Korean traditional house, of Choi Jung-hoon in Tongui-dong, Seoul (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald) The hanok, or Korean traditional house, of Choi Jung-hoon in Tongui-dong, Seoul (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)

The family welcomed a group of swallows that nested under the eave of the roof last year. They hatched four eggs and migrated a few months later. “Jae-yul always talks about the swallows. He also loves to look at the garden, watch flowers bloom and talk to animals. He became very playful, curious about nature and caring for things around him, which made him even forget the fact that he does not have television anymore!” Park said.

Most of all, both Choi and Park say they appreciate the sense of community among hanok residents. “Unlike apartments where everything is isolated once you shut the door, hanok are usually attached to one another and share all the information. The walls aren’t thick and the sound passes on through the wood. You can hear the noise from the neighborhood,” Choi said. “But instead of frowning and complaining about it, that brings us closer together. We know each other by names and the neighbors all greet us warmly and offer to babysit our kids ― that’s not something you can get often elsewhere,” he added.

The whole family also picked up walking as a pastime. “We have wonderful cafes and places to hang out, just mingle with neighbors, visit their houses and spend time. We enjoy barbecuing with friends at the terrace and have wine parties where we turn up the music, without inviting the neighbors’ annoyance, and talk about how crisp the air has become. It is heavenly,” Choi said.

Like Choi and Park, a growing number of people are keen to live in hanok. According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, the number of hanok rose to 89,000 in 2012, about a 60 percent rise from 55,000 in 2008.

According to a 2009 study by the government, 41.9 percent of those surveyed hoped to live in hanok and about 35 percent of female respondents in their 20s expressed willingness to live in a traditional house.

The change of public perception ― throughout the massive economic development of the 1960s and 1970s, hanok was subject to “modernization and improvement,” replaced by Western-style housing such as apartments ― perhaps comes from the so-called retro trend and people’s search for “healing” rather than a “speedy and convenient lifestyle.”

“It’s the nostalgia that draws people to hanok. Baby boomers, who spent their younger days in hanok and then lived the rest of the time in Western housing such as apartments, crave to go back now that most of them are retired and have enough time and money to look back on the quality of their lives,” said Kim Kyong-soo, dean of the architecture department at Myongji University.

“It also seems that among young people tired of living in a concrete building surrounded by another concrete building, hanok has become a ‘cool trend,’” he added.

Space for business

It’s not only for living that people are looking to hanok. Many are opening cafes, galleries and other businesses in hanok, adding a special touch to their business.

Rhee In-sik, 34, dramatically renovated a shabby hanok in the now-fashionable district of Samcheong-dong in central Seoul eight years ago and opened caf Yeon with a travel theme.

“I was inspired during my overseas travels where I encountered people running cafes and restaurants in traditional buildings. It was such a special experience for me,” Rhee said. 
Rhee In-sik drinks tea at his cafe, Yeon, in Samcheong-dong in central Seoul on Tuesday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald) Rhee In-sik drinks tea at his cafe, Yeon, in Samcheong-dong in central Seoul on Tuesday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

In the U-shaped housing, three or four rooms are dedicated for the visitors to enjoy a wide range of beverages, from Yuja mojito and traditional tea to cocktails and wine. Though the guests are required to take off their shoes and sit on the floor, sometimes bearing the chills and sometimes the heat, the place has become one of the main spots in the area. It is now one of the longest-standing cafes in the district, where new stores open and shut down fairly quickly.

“The great thing about hanok is that they grow old with the people living in it. The wood breathes: It shrinks in the winter and expands in the summer. People can feel the slightest breeze in the room,” he said.

“Also it is a very open space: Unlike Western or even Japanese housing where a corridor, living room or kitchen links the other rooms, in hanok once you open your door, you just face the garden, the outdoors. It gives a great sense of emancipation to the soul,” he added. “And for that, hanok has become timeless and trend-free, which makes it even more attractive now,” he said.

Adding industrial value to tradition

The government is keen to revive the hanok boom, declaring it as the basis of the national identity.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2008 announced a set of plans to conserve or develop a total of 4,500 hanok in the capital city by 2018 by creating “hanok villages.” The authorities are also subsidizing the construction or repair of hanok in Bukchon, one of the most popular hanok-clustered neighborhoods in central Seoul. “Encouraging hanok is rediscovering our traditional culture and adding industrial value to it,” said Shin Dong-kwon, an Seoul City official.

One thing that deters people from seeking hanok is the price, which has skyrocketed in recent years as they became fashionable. According to a realtor in Tongui-dong and Bukchon areas in Seoul, an average hanok less than 99 square meters (30 pyeong) large is priced at 1.5 billion won-2 billion won ($1.3 million-$1.8 million). “But demand exceeds supply and transactions don’t take place so often,” he said.

The cost of building one also massive. “It takes around 15 million won per pyeong (3.3 square meters) to build a modest hanok, with experienced carpenters and workers,” said Kim Kyong-soo. Industry insiders say building a decent or a high-level building could easily cost more than 40 million won.

The high cost of building hanok has encouraged people to take the “Do It Yourself” approach or adopt mass production.

Kim runs Damooljangwon, a training center for people who wish to build their own hanok. Kim believes that by making a few adjustments people can easily build their own houses at a lower cost. 
Damooljangwo, run by professor Kim Kyong-soo, teaches ordinary people how to build their own hanok. (Courtesy of Kim Kyong-soo) Damooljangwo, run by professor Kim Kyong-soo, teaches ordinary people how to build their own hanok. (Courtesy of Kim Kyong-soo)

“Standardizing the process -― people can use factory-produced pre-cut wood, metal frames and others and assemble them at the spot -― can reduce the construction period to about 10-21 days and cut the price to around 5 million won per pyeong,” Kim said.

“I don’t think hanok has to stick to the conventional and traditional ways. It could live with the current generation by readjusting a few processes and I don’t think that even hurts the authenticity of hanok,” he added.

Not a fantasy, but reality

People who actually living in hanok warn against fantasizing about hanok living.

The most common complaint is the chill. “In winter the wood shrinks and there’s a gap between the walls and the wooden frames and shafts where the cold air rushes in all the time. Cold is something we have to bear and live with,” Rhee In-sik said.

A hanok is a high-maintenance building. The wooden lattice invites dust, while every nook and cranny needs regular examination and repair.

“We have ants that bite up the wooden pillars while all kinds of insects come and go all the time. Also, a hanok doesn’t really have that much room for storage so we had to leave many things behind when we moved here,” Park Hyun-sook said.

Rhee said people need to understand their lifestyle first and contemplate whether it fits with what a hanok can offer.

“For example, a hanok cannot guarantee a large regular rectangular room like that of a Western building. It doesn’t really go with a sofa and much other modern furniture, either. Because it has no corridor, people will have to get out of the building to go to different rooms or have to pass through a series of rooms in order to get from one spot to another. If such conditions do not suit you, hanok is not your optimal choice,” he said.

But still, once you live in a hanok, it seems that you cannot have enough of it.

“I have become sensitive to the change of season, the change of wind and the sunlight and humidity. Yes, there are some setbacks, but I have come to love nature more in a more relaxed and peaceful way. That’s something that you can’t find often these days,” Rhee said.

By Bae Ji-sook (baejisook@heraldcorp.com)