An endangered architectural species

In recent years when fall rolls around, I find myself staring out the window of my office, growing homesick for the old days and the Korean countryside. I've identified the cause of this homesickness: it's the unbelievably ugly apartment complexes and the concrete slab buildings that are staring back at me.

When I first moved to Donam-dong (돈암동) about four decades ago, I thought the neighborhood had a lot of character compared to most of the more modernized sections of the city. Viewed from above, the area looked like a sea of black-tiled roofs except for the most commercialized parts that lay along the main road, where the signs of creeping concretitis were already beginning to show.

A traditional Korean house

This traditional hanok, located in Changpyeong, South Jeolla Province, is used as an inn for visiting tourists.

In those days it was quite common to be asked the question "Do you live in a hanok (한옥) or a yangok (양옥)?" The word hanok is a 20th-century invention, brought into being by the need to distinguish traditional Korean-style housing from the newly introduced quasi-Western-style dwellings, called yangok. I say "quasi" because a yangok is not exactly like the houses you see in any Western country but combines certain features of the traditional Korean home, such as the ondol (온돌) floors, with features of modern Western houses.

Nowadays, people are much more likely to ask you if you live in a separate house or an apartment, because today there is very little likelihood that a city dweller actually resides in a hanok any more. Almost all hanoks have been razed and replaced with yangoks, "villa" apartments, or multistory commercial structures. Even most of those few that remain have been modified in ways that spoil their original architectural appeal. To increase floor space, for example, walls have in many cases been moved out to the very edges of the eaves, ruining both the building's proportions and the functionality of the eaves. To make this humiliation complete, the external walls are often surfaced with what can only be described as bathroom tiles.

The hanok is an endangered species. Although there are a few exceptions here and there — that is, hanoks that are still lived in and maintained — for the most part, just as you have to go to a zoo to see many endangered animal species, today you have to go to a "folk village" or certain country homes officially designated as treasures in order to get to appreciate a hanok in all its former glory.

The special characteristics of traditional Korean dwellings

A hanok has a special atmosphere that is very different from the sort of houses we're used to living in in the West, at least in English-speaking countries. Such Western houses are oriented toward the outside world. They sit facing the street, surrounded by open yards into which the neighbors and passers-by can easily see. A hanok, on the other hand, is oriented toward the inside. It "hugs" an inner courtyard, and the compound is separated from the outside world by a wall with a gate in it. The gate has to have a little roof over it; otherwise, the proper feeling of stepping from the public world into the world of the family is lacking. In a country where privacy is a commodity that's pretty hard to come by, the configuration of the hanok provides the family that lives in it with a little enclave of coziness and seeming inviolability.

Korean house gate

A typical gate to a hanok

In a traditional house, the courtyard was a multifunctional space. It served as a playground for the kids, a workplace for doing the laundry or preparing foods, and a place where the family could gather on woven mats spread out beneath the sky in the cool of a summer's evening. To one side of the courtyard, usually near the wall, there would be a raised platform on which stood a crowd of rotund earthenware jars containing red pepper sauce, bean paste, and other condiments essential to Korean cuisine. In some other carefully chosen spot, there would be another big jar or two buried in the ground to store kimchi for the winter.

Korean courtyard

The courtyard of a small traditional Korean house

Landscaping was rarely done with a purpose, although there might be a carefully tended tree in one corner, an unusual rock placed just right to look as if nature had put it there, or a favorite flowering plant that got some special attention. Other than that, nature was allowed to take its course. For their garden the family would be content with the little grasses and wild flowers that grew of their own accord beside the gate or along the bottom edges of the wall.

A properly built hanok was energy-efficient. The eaves were just the right breadth to shade the house from the hot, high sun of summer but to let in the low sun of winter to warm the walls and doors. The kitchen fires served both for cooking and for heating the floor of the anbang (안방, pronounced 안빵), or main room, of the house.

With a modern kitchen and bath and with hot-water ondol floors heated by boiler or solar enegy, a hanok would make an ideal place to live. So why don't more Koreans build and live in them today? Economics is the main reason: they're extremely expensive to build because of the materials and craftsmanship needed, and land in Korea's cities is so high-priced that to make the land pay for itself it seems there is no way to build but up—and that means concrete and steel high-rises rule the day.

Let's hope that someday soon more Koreans will have the leeway to live in and enjoy their traditional-style dwellings again.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Korea Herald on 25 October 1999.