Seoul’s endangered suburb fights back

Increased tourism has convinced Seoul there is value in saving their traditional architecture
Increased tourism has convinced Seoul there is value in saving their traditional architecture

BUKCHON is a small Korean village frozen in time. Surrounded by the inevitable march for affordable housing in the northern part of Seoul, it struggles bravely for breathing space from an ever-encroaching phalanx of skyscrapers.

Sadly, Bukchon is the last remaining traditional suburb in the nation’s capital. Thirty years ago there were about 800,000 Hanok homes in Seoul. Today, only 12,000 remain with 800 in Bukchon Hanok Village.

Belatedly, the city fathers realized the tourism potential of preserving traditional architecture in what is the world’s 2nd largest metropolis after Tokyo in Japan. Since 2000, a number of projects have pumped millions of dollars into revitalization of the suburb… with mixed results. Initial attempts were frustrated by developers ignoring or circumventing the intent of lawmakers by actually demolishing hanoks and building unsightly four-story multi-family dwellings.

However, the city’s efforts may now be bearing fruit. By 2007, 200 hanoks had been renovated. There is also growing interest in hanoks as a viable and increasingly sought-after accommodation option and it appears new hanoks are being built.

Hanok are environmentally sound single-story dwellings made of stone, timber and clay.

Bukchon is situated between Gyeongbok and Changdeok palaces and was originally occupied as large villas by high ranking royal officials. The Japanese annexation of 1910 ended the Joseon Dynasty and the villas were subdivided into smaller quarters.

Bukchon is the last remaining hanok suburb in the nation's capital
Bukchon is the last remaining hanok suburb in the nation’s capital

Hanok are environmentally sound single-story dwellings made of stone, timber and clay. To survive sweltering summers and bitterly cold winters, they devised a dual temperature control system: ondol heated floors for winter and a cool timber hall away from the sun in summer. The hanok’s curved tile roof is called a giwa. The roof’s edge, known as cheoma, is adjustable to control the amount of sunlight entering the house. Some windows are covered with hanji, a traditional Korean paper waterproofed with bean oil.

Hanok architecture is sensitive to the location of buildings, very similar to Chinese orientation of structures in accordance with feng shui principles. Known as baesanimsu, Bukchon’s location is auspicious as it sits on the slope of a mountain with a stream at the front.

Caution: Bukchon is a residential neighbourhood, not a controlled tourist attraction. Please be socially aware and responsible when visiting. Residents have in the past lodged complaints about excessive noise, littering, large groups of people walking through the suburb and photographers invading the privacy of residents.

Bukchon is a prime example of how heritage may be preserved to benefit modern society and generations to come.

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