A foreigner's battle to preserve South Korea's hanok houses

British-born David Kilburn is battling the systematic destruction of the traditional dwellings, which are disappearing despite the creation of a preservation zone.

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By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times October 17, 2010
Reporting from Seoul —

David Kilburn

He's known as the feisty foreigner, the outsider waging a one-man fight for "the district where beauty gathers." David Kilburn remembers the first time he wandered Kahoi Dong, a hilly enclave in the heart of the Seoul where clusters of traditional buildings known as hanok houses dot winding, narrow streets.

It was 22 years ago, but the British-born Kilburn can't forget the serenity he felt when he set foot inside one of the historic one-story homes. It was like stepping back in time, to a quainter Seoul of a century ago. He marveled at the aged pine ceiling beams, the graceful curve of the black-tiled roof, the high walls that encircled the courtyard like a cocoon, the wooden doorway that seemed designed to protect inhabitants from the sterile high-rise apartments that loomed in the near distance.

"It was a place of magical beauty," Kilburn said. "I wanted to live in one of these homes. I wanted to own one."

A former journalist, Kilburn was in Seoul to cover the 1988 Olympics but fell so much in love with the traditional architecture that he decided to stay. He and his Korean wife, Jade, soon bought a hanok house.

But life there has been anything but serene.

For six years, Kilburn has been battling city officials over what he calls the systematic destruction of hanok homes in the area. Despite the creation of a preservation zone there decades ago, hundreds of hanoks have been demolished by developers and speculators who use loopholes to cash in on rising land values, he says.

The battle has shaped the 67-year-old tea merchant into an unlikely activist: a foreigner who insists that South Korea is not doing enough to halt the demise of its own heritage.

He's called the "Guardian of Hanok Housing," waging a passionate one-man campaign to protect the architecture he loves. With his graying hair, he's a grandfatherly figure who enjoys reading in the quiet of his home office. But mention the fate of the hanoks, and a spark of mischief lights his eyes.

City officials acknowledge that not all preservation efforts have worked. "We're trying to preserve the hanoks," said Han Hyo-dong, director of the city's Hanok Culture Division. "But we have no legal power. We cannot stop [the destruction]. We're trying to pass laws to enforce our protection efforts."

That's not enough for Kilburn, who in 2005 launched a website to chronicle demolitions in the protection zone, where he says the number of hanoks has fallen to fewer than 900 from about 1,600 in 1985.

He says he has sued in court and badgered police and city officials, including President Lee Myung-bak, when he was mayor of Seoul mayor from 2002 to '06.

Armed with a camera, Kilburn documents the demolitions, inspiring a wave of activism among South Koreans. Many have contacted city officials to express their displeasure over the destruction of the hanoks and suggest the construction of a computer database to monitor the future of every hanok house in Seoul.

Using a map posted on Kilburn's website, http://www.kahoidong.com, others drop by Kilburn's hanok unannounced, saying they want to go on camera and do their part to protest the teardowns. So Kilburn gets out his video camera and tapes them talking about the homes they remember from their childhood and how they should be beloved, not bulldozed. Kilburn has collected scores of the video statements on his website.

"It's because of him these houses continue to exist," said Jung In, a nearby shopowner. "To me, he's not a foreigner. He's more Korean than many Koreans."

Not everyone is enthusiastic. Although many city officials publicly welcome Kilburn's interest in the hanoks, many privately dismiss him as a pest.

In 2006, the tensions over his protests turned physical. In 2006, while videotaping an illegal demolition, Kilburn says, he was assaulted by a construction architect who knocked him to the ground. But it was Kilburn who was later charged with assault.

He left South Korea for two years but returned in March, prepared to start his fight anew. "They thought my departure meant they'd gotten rid of me," he said with a smile. "But I came back."

The battle started in 2004 when a neighbor rebuilt his hanok, causing damage to Kilburn's home. He soon discovered that many homeowners were using city grants and low-interest loans to demolish traditional houses to make way for more modern structures, adding small flourishes to make them look like original hanoks.

Kilburn says the teardowns gave the district "all the authenticity of a movie set."

Still, some Seoul residents say it's impractical to insist on preserving the original structures, many of which have fallen into such disrepair that they're porous to winter's rain and cold.

Many older residents say they would gladly trade their hanok for a warm apartment in a modern high-rise. Others don't see the wisdom of slavishly restoring homes that were built relatively recently— in the 1920s and '30s — not centuries ago.

Such attitudes prevail in other nations. Especially in Asia, which is experiencing an unprecedented building boom, cities have begun to erase their pasts. Beijing is tearing down traditional hutongs, or alleyways, that have stood for centuries. Bulldozers have also been busy in Hong Kong.

But Kilburn remains steadfast.

"In every country, there are issues about what should be preserved from the past and what should be discarded. Every country tends to preserve its palaces, castles and stately homes," Kilburn writes. But the traditional homes of common people also deserve care, he says.

His gospel seems to be spreading. Kilburn recently was approached by several college students who wanted to join the preservation cause.

"David told me that Korean culture is not just for Korea, but for the world," said Haam Ye-rim. "If we don't appreciate hanok houses, who will?"


Ethan Kim of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

You can see more of the photographs Matthew Douma took for the LA Times here

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