Foreign hanok defenders battle obliteration of Seoul's architectural heritage

By Andrew Salmon

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SEOUL, Sept. 3 2010 (Yonhap) -- With the number of hanok, or traditional Korean cottages, dwindling almost daily in Seoul as the modernization of the capital marches onward, two overseas residents in Seoul have emerged as among their most vocal defenders.

“People say, "Why are foreigners fanatical about this?” said Peter Bartholomew, a 50-something Seoul-based American business consultant and hanok dweller.“In the West we see this value and consider it critical that traditional architecture be preserved.”

The American works to educate Koreans on this heritage while fighting a legal battle to save his own 70-year-old-house from the bulldozers.

Briton David Kilburn, a retired reporter, lives in a fairytale cottage at the heart of Bukchon, Seoul's most picturesque district and lobbies against policies and developers who he claims are demolishing tradition and raising ersatz hanok.

Hanok are single-story houses built around enclosed courtyards. In Seoul, most date to the early 20th century. Key features include wood-fired ondol underfloor heating and wooden frames resting on stone foundations. Externally, large bricks at the base of walls and smaller ones at the top draw the eye up to a hanok's most attractive feature: Its tiled roof that, with its long eaves, keep the sun off the house.

But hanok are unpopular homes. With Koreans prizing modernity and convenience over aesthetics and tradition, and with property developers aiming skyward, hanok lack profit potential. Result? The destruction of all but a handful across Seoul.

Kilburn, 69, fell in love with hanok “at first sight” in 1987. Since 1988, he has resided in Bukchon, the only area of Seoul designated a hanok preservation district by Seoul Metropolitan Government.

Bartholomew arrived in Korea in 1968 as a Peace Corps volunteer. Then, there was no question of living in a hanok or not, because it was the only accommodation available. As well as village cottages, he resided in Sunkyojung near Gangneung, a famed stately home, in South Korea's east coast.

"It was so darned beautiful,” he recalls.

In 1974, he purchased his own Seoul hanok, which he has restored, modernized and lived in ever since.

Rural hanok were largely obliterated in modernization drives in the 1960s and 1970s. “There is nothing left in traditional style in the countryside except for government-designated villages,” Bartholomew said. “None of the beauty is there, it’s all gone.”

Meanwhile, in cities, creaky hanok were replaced with space-efficient villas and apartments.

Why are Koreans so dismissive of traditional homes?

While old palaces and temples are preserved, private homes are investments. “The attitude towards buildings is, ‘old - bad; new - good,’” said Bartholomew. “You don't throw money at an old building, you tear it down.”

The American, a fluent Korean speaker, crusades for hanok: He sits on the board of Korea’s National Trust, conducts walking tours, speaks on TV, writes for newspapers and delivers lectures on hanok.

“The reaction from Koreans is, ‘If I’d known this, I would not have demolished my house!’” Bartholomew said. “I’ve had this comment many times.”

Kilburn hosts key influencers -- cultural figures, journalists and educators -- in his hanok, but is more combative. He records the demolition of Bukchon hanok with his camera and remonstrates with bulldozer crews, a tactic that saw him hospitalized after a fight with a foreman in 2006. His Web site,, offers over 1,000 pages of documentation on what is going on.

Both men fume over official preservation policies.

Government moves to preserve the hanok of Bukchon have been, and are, a consistent and total failure,” Kilburn seethes. “What the government claims in its public announcements and press releases bears no relation to what it has allowed to happen.”

There were over 1,500 hanok in Bukchon in 1985; by 2007, they had fallen to 900. While the government promotes Bukchon as a traditional district, visitors will notice how suspiciously new its hanok appear: Most are only 5 to 10 years old.

Kilburn alleges that residents have been forced out by “intimidating behavior” from developers, transforming Bukchon into a museum rather than a living neighborhood. “Now, it is a ghost town, since the new homes are second or third homes, or speculative investments, and empty nearly all the time,” he says

Hanok owners can apply for government grants to preserve or restore their hanok, but these are often used for very different purposes. “In Bukchon, in many cases they do not preserve,” says Bartholomew. “They demolish and build a new hanok.”

Modern hanok lose many practical features. For example, when underfloor water pipes replace wood-fired ondol, humidity results, rotting away hanoks’ wooden superstructure, and creating odors; traditional ondol, dries out the wood.

Yet Bartholomew insists that it is feasible to upgrade hanok with modern comforts -- their bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms -- and still maintain their heritage: “I have lived in the same hanok for 34 years; my house is comfortable while appearing traditional.”

Kilburn questions whether city officials are qualified to oversee preservation policies. In June 2004, he applied for a grant for some restoration work, but was told that he was ineligible: The planned work would destroy “a rare Joseon Dynasty cultural property.” That property was a balcony Kilburn had, in fact, built himself.

Yet Bartholomew sees some hope, ironically due to the high visibility of Bukchon, now a trendy district.

Why only Bukchon?” he asks, referring to an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 hanok remaining citywide. “Why not apply a broader preservation area, and provide assistance to preserve hanok at a reasonable price?”

Meanwhile Bartholomew is fighting for his own home, facing a compulsory purchase order - a prelude to redevelopment. Having challenged Seoul Metropolitan Government's plan in a class-action suit, he won the case.

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