[KS] Traditional Korean houses demolished

Brother Anthony ansonjae at sogang.ac.kr
Sun Sep 4 21:29:44 EDT 2005

The big demolition of a whole swathe of traditional houses up on the north-eastern edge of Gahoi-dong dates 
from 2000-1, I think, when a big area was 're-developed' as 'villas' in response to the demand for 'nice 
modern residences' in the center of Seoul. There is an area designated as a 'Hanok preservation area' known 
as 'Buk-chon' (North village) that is centered on Gahoi-dong and anyone owning a traditional house there 
can get a grant of 50 million Won from Seoul City for the restoration of the outside appearance (mainly the 
roof) but at least half the sum is only forthcoming after the work has been done and a team of 'experts' 
have inspected the result for conformity to tradition. Five minutes after they have approved the result and 
left, you can call the builders back in to do anything you like. The Big Problem is that there is no such 
grant offered if you live in a Hanok outside of the designated area, no matter how pretty it is.

But the biggest problem is, obviously, the fact that (almost?) no one wishes to live in a Real Korean 
House, in which the rooms are often tiny, the paper-lined doors all open onto an inner yard that in winter 
is freezing, the fire used to cook rice in the kitchen has to heat the stone floors, and the toilet is in 
an unheated hut across the yard. Isabella Bird Bishop indicates that there was not room to stand upright in 
the ordinary houses she visited. Obviously the yangban-house was different, but not so very different.

The houses in Gahoi-dong that have been restored are almost always largely remodelled, the central yard is 
often covered; the whole building may be raised higher to get more light; interior walls are removed; the 
stone slabs are scooped out from the floors and the usual hot-water pipes or electric heating panels 
installed. Bathrooms with showers are popular. It is reported that most interiors of the houses that are 
residential have sofas, tables and dining chairs. The few I have seen are mostly just like appartments. One 
popular 'traditional' feature that is usually valued is the pattern formed by the pine-wood roof beams that 
are exposed, scraped and varnished. This too is not really traditional, exposed beams being previously only 
found in the 'maru' (wooden-floored space) and all other rooms being provided in the past with a ceiling of 
paper, across which mice might run noisily.

Given that the average house in Gahoi-dong now costs about 12-15 million Won per pyeong and that anything 
smaller tham 30 p is quite cramped, it is hardly surprising that their owners wish to enjoy comfort; it is 
obviously not going to be the same house as when it was first built, but we should perhaps be grateful that 
anything at all remains. All the beautiful Japanese mansions of Chongpa-dong, south-west of Seoul station, 
have long since been replaced by something modern and ugly. The finest house surviving in Anguk-dong is 
that once used by Yun Bo-song, but I do not believe that any member of the family now lives there.

Brother Anthony
Sogang University, Seoul

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