The Heart of a Hanok
A chance encounter leads an Englishman to discover the joys of living in a traditional hanok, the buildings that were homes for Koreans in the centuries before modern times. by David Kilburn (originally published in KOREA magazine, November 2011)

Today, for many Koreans, it seems exotic, surprising or even eccentric that someone might choose to live in a hanok (Korean traditional house). Yet, little over a generation ago these were the homes for most people. Even in the 1960s, photographs of Seoul showed large areas populated with hanok, a style of building that evolved over many centuries in the agricultural society that preceded the modern Korea we know today.

Simply put, a hanok is created from a framework of interlocking wooden beams supported by wooden pillars resting on blocks of stone. A slow growing red pine, native to Korea, provided wood of enormous strength. Typically, a hanok was built by a master carpenter and his team who would cut the beams to size in situ and fit them together. Lesser beams would support the pitched roof, which was insulated with rice straw and clay, and finally covered with a dense covering of thatch until ceramic tiles became easily affordable. Overhanging eaves added protection from the rain and wind.  Stone floors were heated from below by channeling hot air from the kitchen or an outside furnace. This is the ondol, which literally means "warm stone" and serves as heating. You can easily see the warmest spots because the oiled paper that is typically used to cover the stone floor gradually turns darker tones of brown.

The rich colors of the wood contrast with plain white walls. Before paint came in cans, Korean artisans would boil corn stalks with seaweed. The filtered broth was mixed with lime to create a white warmer than most modern pigments provide. Interiors are also a soft shade of warm white, since walls and windows are covered with handmade mulberry paper. All the materials, wood, straw, clay, stone and paper were readily available and easy to work with using simple tools. Being entirely hand-made by craftsmen, each hanok is so rich in textures that it acquires its own personality as time goes by.

My own hanok adventure began innocently enough in 1988, when I visited Seoul as a journalist to conduct interviews with business leaders. My wife — who is Korean — suggested I should see something other than corporate offices and hotels, and took me to Insa-dong. Wandering in the  historic neighborhood, I suddenly saw a tiled roofline peering over an old wall with a heavy wooden door. Our conversation developed...
"What's that?" "What is what?" "That building." "That's a hanok." "What is a hanok?"
"It is an ordinary Korean house." "I want to live in one. Ask that lady [who was just coming out of the doorway] how much she wants for her hanok."

The lady's house was not for sale, but she knew where there were some available, and the following day took us to Gahoe-dong. There we visited a handful of other hanok but when we came to Gahoe-dong 31-79, the moment I entered the courtyard, I said to my wife: "This is it." Impulsive, intuitive, but that is how my own journey of discovery began.

Our first challenge came a few days later when we tried to find the hanok again in a maze of unnamed, unmapped tiny streets. Luckily, my sense of direction and the position of the sun rose to the occasion.

Our hanok was built in 1929 on part of a large plot of land once owned by the royal family. The former owner had spent much of his life there and made very few alterations. However, some changes were inevitable. We installed a modern kitchen, bathroom and toilet. Electricity was re-wired. We added a gas boiler for hot water and to serve as the under-floor heating, replacing the smoldering coal briquettes that once fulfilled that role. Later came the Internet and satellite TV. We drew drinking water from a nearby mountain spring until the city's sanitation checks proved tap water was a healthier choice. Before town gas arrived, we needed cylinders of LPG for cooking and the boiler. With the modern world comfortably installed within our hanok, I added dragon head tiles to the roof to protect us from evil spirits.

The curves and decorations of a hanok have an instant aesthetic appeal that differentiates them from the traditional wood frame buildings of Europe. More fundamentally, hanok are designed to harmonize with the natural landscape, taking account of the way the winds blow, rain falls and water flows. These geomantic ideas also governed the way villages, towns and Seoul itself were originally designed.

After the weather, Confucius had the most lingering impact on Korean social life and the home. He laid down ethical codes which decreed that male and female shall not sit close after the age of seven. Traditionally, a home was divided into two sections, the sarangchae for men and the anchae for women. In larger homes, these would be different buildings, separated by walls and gates.

The anchae was where wives and elder daughters spent their time, where children grew up, where fabrics were stitched and food prepared. Kitchens, store rooms and the main room which doubled as the master bedroom were in the anchae.

The sarangchae housed the master's den or library, a shrine to the ancestors, and some additional bedrooms. Guests were received here and and the rooms personalized to the owner. For the hospitable, a tea set; for the intellectual, books, scrolls and writing brushes. Our own home houses both anchae and sarangchae. While we no longer observe strict Confucian proprieties, we do enjoy the separation of spaces.

My mother-in-law came to live with us and opened a new world of experience. Not only did she make her own kimchi in the courtyard, she also made her own red pepper paste and soy sauce, which added new dimensions to the enjoyment of food. She had a keen eye for wild plants and would often come home with an armful of sannamul mountain vegetables she had picked on the way back from one of the temples where she liked to meditate. For me, her piece de resistance was always a carefully aged odiju, or mulberry liqueur.

When I began to consider what trees to plant in the garden, she was a ready source of advice. "Never plant a peach tree near the home. It drives away ghosts and spirits. It will even prevent the spirits of our ancestors returning to bless us."

"A sandalwood tree is good to plant near the well. Its leaves never fall into the water, its wood protects from insects, and the roots keep the earth clean. Do not plant a large tree in the middle of the courtyard. It blocks the light and warmth of the sun we need for our very existence. Its roots can undermine the foundations of a building. It can only bring trouble."

I eventually planted maple and cherry to signal the passage of seasons, and lilac because my own ancestors had always planted this in the grounds of their own homes. Not the classical choices, but home is a personal space.

Friends from many countries have come to visit. All have enjoyed our home, especially the children who find giant kimchi pots and crawl spaces under the balcony ideal for hide and seek. Sometimes I discover that visitors have been given complex briefings about hanok life from well-meaning Korean friends. One was instructed to remove his shoes the moment the front door was opened and so trudged through the thick snow of courtyard in his socks. All of them soon discover that a hanok, unlike a lunar module, is warm, comfortable and enjoyable without an instruction manual. As a wooden structure, a hanok
resonates; each room has a different timbre. The movement of the breeze, the fall of feet create a conciliatory language that intercedes between man and nature.

I particularly enjoy listening to the wind in the leaves of our maple tree, the tinkling of the wind chimes in the garden, the patter of rain on the roof, the sight and sound of the magpie that flies down from the roof to drink from the fish tank. I like stepping directly out of my study to prune the roses and trim the vines. In the evening, I enjoy the shadows fading into twilight while the candles in the garden come to life. The constant interplay of light and shadow on the woodwork and paper windows is an endless source of fascination. The wooden beams glow with warmth. There are few perfectly straight lines or flat surfaces, a quality that makes the hanok individual, personal and welcoming. The proximity to a natural world and the surrounding of natural materials, mainly wood and paper, bring a sense of peace that concrete cannot create.

One day, the son of our hanok's former owner came to visit, bringing his own son to see where his grandfather had lived. The father was happy to see he could still recognize his former home. For his son, who had never entered a hanok before, it was an afternoon of mysterious enchantment. One day, I wondered, would the grown child take his own children to visit the apartment complex where he was born, or would he recount memories of a family hanok long ago?

David Kilburn is a British journalist who has made a home in Seoul since 1988, living in a traditional hanok. He is actively involved in issues about hanok preservation.

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