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[Op-Ed] Hanok`s American Hero

Posted June. 06, 2009 08:21,   


Westerners who visited Korea in the late years of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) were attracted to the country’s beautiful scenery. The travel logs they wrote often praised Seoul as the most beautiful city they had been to. Carlo Rossetti, an Italian consul to Korea, said in his 1904 book that Korean homes were all single story and that no commoner’s home was two stories high. The small, single-story houses that spread throughout Seoul, except to the royal palace, seemed to have looked strange to foreigners’ eyes.

The myriads of hanok, or traditional Korean houses with tiled roofs, rapidly disappeared under Korea’s industrialization and were replaced by high-rise apartments. Much of Pimatgol, a long and narrow alleyway flanked by hundreds of cozy eateries in Seoul’s downtown Jongno district, is also gone due to major redevelopment over the past several years. Most traditional streets for commoners in the city have suffered a similar fate.

What is encouraging is that the Bukchon hanok village between Changdeok and Gyeongbok palaces is attracting public attention again. The traditional housing area is seeing restoration, as many who are tired of modern concrete architecture have moved into hanoks after renovation. The Seoul Metropolitan Government plans to preserve the Seochon village west of Gyeongbok Palace. Cultural properties experts suggest registration of Gyeongbok Palace and the Bukchon and Seochon villages as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites.

A hero in the fight to preserve this heritage is Peter Bartholomew, an American who has lived in a hanok in Seoul’s Dongsomun district for 35 years. He has won a lawsuit filed jointly with his neighbors to save the old homes from redevelopment. He said a hanok is built with natural materials such as wood, dirt and tiles, calling it not just a home but a piece of art. Owners of Bukchon hanoks have become rich due to rising real estate values. While some residents prefer redevelopment, there could come a time when traditional Korean homes are more valued. The revival of the Bukchon village could set an example for preserving hanok while resolving conflicting interests among residents.

Editorial Writer Hong Chan-sik (chansik@donga.com)