Couple fight to save historic homes at the heart of Seoul

By Hyun-Sung Khang
South China Morning Post, October 23rd 2006
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A British expatriate and his Korean wife are fighting to save one of Seoul's last remaining districts of traditional

David & Jade Kilburn

David & Jade Kilburn in the court-yard of their house in Kahoi-dong, Seoul.

Korean buildings, which they say is being ruined by insensitive redevelopment.

David and Jade Kilburn, who live in one of the old-style houses known as hanoks, have waged a three-year campaign, accusing authorities of failing to respect the cultural tradition represented by the buildings. Nearly all the original hanoks have been demolished, ironically with the help of government funds allocated for preservation work, the couple claims.

Before the country's rapid economic development, most South Koreans lived with their extended families in these single-storey buildings. Constructed around a small courtyard, they followed a distinctive architectural tradition and were built in accordance with the rules of fung shui.

The buildings are constructed on a wooden cubical framework of interlocking beams that rest on blocks of stone. Long, overhanging eaves protect the natural structure.

The use of natural materials and the building methods employ techniques dating back hundreds of years. The tiled roofs hide a layer of mud and rice straw that created insulation and ventilation - essential to prevent the wooden frame from rotting.

Mr Kilburn fell in love with his home the moment he entered the courtyard almost two decades ago. "There was no hesitation, I thought `this is it'. I had never seen anything as beautiful. The proportions and the curves of the roof are magical."

The Kilburns' hanok, in the district of Kahoi dong, is 1.5km from Seoul's overpopulated and polluted downtown area, but its location in a quiet alley next to similar buildings make it redolent of a former age.

When the Kilburns moved to Kahoi dong, the area was considered undesirable. It was run down and its proximity to the presidential Blue House meant Koreans believed it was an easy target for North Korean bombardment.

While hanoks throughout Seoul were being bulldozed to make way for apartment blocks, as one of the last remaining vestiges of traditional housing, Kahoi Dong was designated as a preservation district.

But property prices started to soar five years ago after the local administrative office set aside money to protect the area. Grants and low-interest loans worth US$50,000 per household were offered so homes could be faithfully renovated. Instead, the funds were often spent on historically insensitive renovations.

The cash also attracted speculators, who bought out many old homeowners whose hanoks had been passed down through generations.

"Land speculation is a national pastime in Korea, and where there is an opportunity to increase family wealth by manipulating land, all other considerations go out the window," Mr Kilburn said.

The destruction of the district prompted the Kilburns to launch their campaign to draw public attention to the situation, and foster appreciation of Korea's architectural heritage.

The couple accuses city authorities of allowing natural building materials to be replaced by concrete and giving the go-ahead for the development of commercial buildings.

Developers skirted a rule which stipulates that buildings in the area must be only one-storey high by building floors below ground level.

"It is in the nature of land speculators to bend the rules. It is not unique to Korea, but why does it happen here? Because there are not the layers of protection, legal barriers, administrative barriers which act as the check and counter-check," said Mr Kilburn, citing as an example Britain's National Trust and English Heritage.

The campaign has drawn the support of key figures from the artistic community but has been met with largely public indifference. But the Kilburns have pledged to fight on.

"Over the last three years we have often felt like selling up. But we will never give up because this area is a temple," Mrs Kilburn said.

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