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Notes on the Geography of South Korea: Hanok

Wedged between palaces, Bukchon or "North Village" was once the site of the mansions of government officials. In the Japanese period, that came to a halt. The Japanese themselves lived in Namchon or "South Village," and they sold the old Bukchon mansions to realtors who converted them to small houses for the Korean middle class. That group in turn began moving out with the expansion of Seoul and the growth of apartment living in the 1970s. Half the population is said to have left Bukchon before gentrification converted the neighborhood to a prime tourist attraction.

See Hwang Doo Jin's short essay in Kim Sung Hong and Peter Cachola Schmal, eds., Contemporary Korean Architecture, 2007, p. 109-113.

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South Korea: Hanok picture 1

We've climbed up to the rooftop of an enterprising property owner who's created his own for-profit hanok observatory. We're looking south toward Gwanghwamun Plaza. The building with the large, blue wall hanging is the Foreign Ministry. Between it and the trees are the Twin Trees office buildings. The contrast with the hanoks could hardly be greater.

Surprisingly, the word hanok entered Korean dictionaries only in the 1970s to signify what had not until then needed a word: traditional Korean housing. Jieheerah Yun writes that the appeal of this traditional housing rose in tandem with "mounting criticism of the monotonous urban landscape of Seoul, or 'apartment forests', consisting of endless rows of rectangular concrete boxes."

See her Globalizing Seoul: The City's Cultural and Urban Change, 2017, p. 51.

South Korea: Hanok picture 2

The view north. Layouts had customarily conformed to Confucian dictates, with separate spaces not only for men, women, and servants, but also for ancestor worship. Not much is visible of the old pattern, but courtyard layouts are apparent.

The neighborhood's edges have stabilized since the 1980s, when government policy set out to save the remaining hanoks. In practice this at first meant such tight regulation that the buildings could hardly be maintained. Later, subsidies were increased and regulations relaxed, but this only drew in piles of investment money mocking the pitifully small subsidies on offer.

South Korea: Hanok picture 3

Tiny bits of greenery survive.

South Korea: Hanok picture 4

Lots of charm.

South Korea: Hanok picture 5

Latticed windows.

South Korea: Hanok picture 6

A new-old home.

South Korea: Hanok picture 7

Nods to the traditional esthetic.

South Korea: Hanok picture 8

Western shape; Eastern decor.

South Korea: Hanok picture 9

A traditional garden atop a concrete fortress.

South Korea: Hanok picture 10

Room for the Land Rover.

South Korea: Hanok picture 11

Don't have to walk far to see construction.

South Korea: Hanok picture 12

Bang, bang, bang inside.

South Korea: Hanok picture 13

How much do you think this place will cost?

South Korea: Hanok picture 14

Think security is a problem?

South Korea: Hanok picture 15

'fraid so.

South Korea: Hanok picture 16

The tourist business is a little slow.

South Korea: Hanok picture 17

Good news: it's maybe 10 in the morning, and the first customers are coming.

South Korea: Hanok picture 18

Their manners leave something to be desired.

South Korea: Hanok picture 19

Shops serve the visitors.

South Korea: Hanok picture 20

We've come south a mile and a bit to the Namsangol Hanok Village, where five hanoks--big and small--were put on display in 1998.

South Korea: Hanok picture 21

The woodwork is beautiful.

South Korea: Hanok picture 22

See any nails?

South Korea: Hanok picture 23

Easy on the eye, hard on the forest.

South Korea: Hanok picture 24

Kitchen storage.

South Korea: Hanok picture 25

The classic articles of furniture were chests and low tables.

South Korea: Hanok picture 26


South Korea: Hanok picture 27

Servants did the cooking, so painful knees didn't matter.

South Korea: Hanok picture 28

Puzzled? It's a chimney for an ondol or underfloor heating system; the fireplace is on the opposite side of the house.

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