Traditional Hanoks Face Destruction

by Brenda Koller,
Korea Times, 25 March 2006

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Imagine a place where trees are planted in accordance with ancient rradition, where homes are made of natural materials such as wood and stone in the traditional Korean way and where on a sunny spring afternoon you cab feel rejuvenated after a peaceful stroll. you might be surprised to know that this place is only about 15 minutes walk from downtown Seoul's daily hustle and bustle.

Just north of Anguk subway stattion lies and area called Pukchon that dates back to the Choson dynasty. A small part of Pukchon, called Kahoe-dong, up until recently had the largest concentration of hanoks - traditional Korean-style houses - in Seoul. But this historically important and special place is in grave danger of virtually disappearing.

Despite Seoul City designating the hanoks as "local cultural assets" and designating Gahoe-dong as the "Korean-style House Preservation District," the hanok of British expat David Kilburn and his Korean wife is now the only surviving traditional hanok in the street. [See Korea Times, Oct 12 2005, "Expat fights to save old Korean homes."] All the rest have either been demolished or are now empty awaiting demolition. The old hanoks are being replaced with larger modern buildings with only a superficial resemblance to the original hanoks.

The Kilburn's have been fighting for the preservation of the area for over two years yet their complainhts and persistent efforts have fallen on deaf ears.

"We are witnessing the destruction of the old Pukchon and its replacement with a sanitized, ersatz imitayion," says Kilburn.

"The new buildings have no place in a historic district that the government says it wishes to protect as a cultural asset."

In February, Kilburn was photographing construction work following the demolition of a hanok opposite his own. He alleges he was assaulted by the architect responsible for the project. He spent a month in hospital with back injuries.

The Kilburns are not alone in their fight for the future of Kahoe-dong. Young-Jo Hyun, a professor of architecture who has spent his career studying hanoks has harsh words for what is taking place there.

"Seoul metropolitangovernment researched the area and very clearly stated that it must be authentically preserved and protected. The results are the opposite of the plans because the politicians and government officials are ignorant and careless. Somebody who is in charge of surpervising the project did not do their job."

As a scholar and a builder of hanoks, Dr. Hyun states that he cannot ignore the destruction of these valuable treasures.

"They [government officials] think we are advanced in culture. Bu it's gone backwards," Dr. Hyun laments.

"Korea is not yet an advanced country because ordinary people and politicians do not value Korea's cultural heritage. If Korea wants to consider itself an advanced country, not just economically, we should know the value of our culture."

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Brenda Koller


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