Expat struggles to save traditional homes

Finds himself in hospital as dispute escalates over restoration project

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by Jane Cooper,
Korea Herald, 29 March 2006

An expat fighting to save traditional homes in a Seoul community was released from hospital last week after an incident with the developer of a controversial construction project left him in need of treatment.

David Kilburn, who owns a "hanok" in Bukchon village - one of Korea`s last treasures where people still live in authentic traditional housing - has been campaigning about the restoration of the area. Kilburn is concerned about the changing face of the neighborhood whose community life extends back to the days of the "yangban" nobility of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). He has long believed that the restoration work is illegal and has claimed that perfectly good hanok have been demolished and replaced with buildings that are not authentic.

The dispute with his neighbors and the construction company became so serious that Kilburn claims he was hospitalized because of an attack by one of the key figures of the renovation project.

After he filed a complaint with the Jongno-gu office about the house opposite his, Kilburn wanted to take photos of the construction site [at Kahoi-dong 31-37]. Kilburn alleges that a manager of Jaho construction company tried to stop him from taking photos and shoved him in the chest. Kiburn, who is in his sixties, said he fell backward, tearing muscles in his back, and hit his head. When his wife came out on the street, she found him lying on the ground. For a brief time, he was unconscious. "It was very shocking," his wife Jade told The Korea Herald. Kilburn was hospitalized for four weeks because of his back injury.

The assailant was taken into police custody but denies that he assaulted Kilburn.

The traditional village in Gahoe-Dong has been the subject of a government cultural renovation project amid a fierce debate in the local community about what comprises restoration. Kilburn believes that the area should be preserved so that one can see what life was like for communities in the past. Others think the area should be revamped and "improved" so that the buildings are made bigger, and business licenses issued so that restaurants or wine bars can operate there.

In a 2001 report by Seoul Metropolitan Government on how to preserve the area, the street where Kilburn lives was noted as particularly beautiful. In his neighborhood, Kilburn is the only owner to resist restoration efforts. Most of the houses on his street have been drastically renovated by the same company, Jaho.

The Korea Herald has previously reported that hanok restoration grants issued by Seoul Metropolitan Government have been used to demolish traditional buildings.

In a previous interview with The Korea Herald, Lee Mun-ho of Jaho said that his company received permits from both the Jongno district office and Seoul Metropolitan Government for the building work.

Speaking from his hospital bed, Kilburn said, "Subsequent events show why he (Lee) had an interest in me not taking photos."

Since the incident, Seoul Metropolitan Government has acknowledged that aspects of the construction on the house that Kilburn was taking photos of are illegal and building work has been stopped.

Kilburn will continue with his battle and is taking action to have the other buildings in the area declared illegal.

"In some countries, being attacked by thieves or gangsters is a normal risk. How remarkable it is that Korea is a country where a professional Korean architect chooses to attack someone who believes the country`s architectural heritage merits preservation," Kilburn said.

Now out of hospital and struggling to walk up the long winding path that leads to the traditional street of houses where he lives, David Kilburn will continue with his battle to save the homes of Gahoe-dong.


By Jane Cooper
Korea Herald

. . . and what did happen next?
Government stop illegal work



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