Saving a Korean District

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 MARK McDONALD, New York Times, Published: December 13, 2010
Reporting from Seoul —

David and Jade Kilburn
Jade and David Kilburn in front of their traditional hanok, at left, in the Bukchon neighborhood of Seoul, South Korea.

SEOUL — The leafy hillside neighborhood is called Bukchon, a district in central Seoul that constitutes the city’s last remaining collection of traditional courtyard houses.

For all its outward calm and quietly elegant architecture, Bukchon is also a place of anger and suspicion. The preservationists, you see, are at each other’s throats.

“They want to kill my husband and drive us out,” said one resident, Jade Kilburn, a Korean entrepreneur, who, alongside her British husband, David, has battled their neighbors, the police, the courts and a range of city technocrats in an effort to protect Bukchon’s traditional houses from being tarted up or demolished outright.

One of the Kilburns’ rivals is Kim Hong-nam, a Yale-educated art historian and the former director of both the National Folk Museum and the National Museum of Korea. She lives nearby and finds Mr. Kilburn to be “overly righteous.”

“He’s a complainer,” said Ms. Kim, sipping at a coffee and smoking a cigarette in her sun-filled home on a recent afternoon. “The people here don’t like him.”

Ms. Kim and the Kilburns live — and proudly so — in hanok, the one-story, tile-roofed, traditional Korean houses.

Seoul’s hanok suffered badly under the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, when courtyard homes were divided and rebuilt as smaller dwellings; the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, when many were destroyed; and a building frenzy that started in Seoul in the 1970s. While they are not exactly ancient structures, Bukchon’s refashioned hanok from the 1920s and ’30s are what pass for historic residential architecture here.

Not so long ago, Bukchon had 2,500 hanok. Now there are barely 800, and only one street in the whole neighborhood remains untouched. Preservationists believe the original hanok are now as endangered as any whale or panda. Bukchon, for them, is the last rain forest in a city of chainsaws.

Mr. Kilburn, who has a gentle and courtly manner, said he was photographing the demolition of a hanok in 2006 when he was struck in the chest by the project’s supervising architect. He fell back into the street, cracked his head and spent a month in the hospital. In the end, he himself was convicted of assaulting the architect.

Feuds between neighbors are mostly banal, whether they occur in Seoul or Paris or New York. But the enmity in Bukchon also speaks to larger themes, like whether Koreans are so smitten with the new that they have ignored or debased their own architectural heritage. The parallel, perhaps, is Beijing’s wholesale destruction of its own traditional courtyard houses.

“People here would willingly destroy these houses to build up, higher and higher, to increase their floor space and get higher rents,” said Doo Jin Hwang, a noted architect in Seoul who has restored hanok, written a book about them and developed an iPhone application about the Bukchon houses.

A national obsession with modernity and a mania for fancier buildings, Mr. Hwang said, has led to the destruction of thousands of hanok. Seoul has too eagerly razed the old and raised the new.

“You can lose your history,” he said.

Even Seoul’s mayor, Oh Se-hoon, is aware of the hostilities in the tiny wedge of Bukchon.

In an interview, Mr. Oh dismissed as “quite exaggerated” the Kilburns’ view that a conspiracy among municipal officials, property developers and a well-connected circle of wealthy women (including Ms. Kim) led to many old homes being snapped up through deception and intimidation about 10 years ago.

In the Kilburns’ view, this campaign has turned Bukchon — once a residential area for courtesans and royal hangers-on at two adjoining 15th-century Chosun dynasty palaces — into a Potemkin-like enclave of third or fourth homes for the rich. Postage-stamp lots with 900-square-foot, or about 85-square-meter, houses can go for $2 million or more.

Architects say there is no precise or accepted definition of a hanok. But there are common design elements. The homes are L- or U-shaped, with high exterior walls that create private interior courtyards. They have pine beams and framing inside, under-floor heating and paper-covered doors and windows. Old hanok also featured mortise-and-tenon construction, rather than nails and screws, and each home was essentially handcrafted by experienced woodworkers and tradesmen.

Ms. Kim has restored half her hanok in the traditional Korean manner, using handmade materials and old-school carpenters. The other half is more Euro than Asian. The small kitchen is sleek and stainless. A Frank Gehry cardboard armchair is the signature piece in the sitting area. It could be Milan or New York.

“I have an immense love and respect for our Korean things, yet I’m also a contemporary person,” said Ms. Kim, who said she wrangled with Bukchon’s design-review board for more than a year to get her renovation plans approved.

“I’m not going to be a monk or an 18th-century Chosun woman. This house is a summing-up of my life, my sense of taste and beauty. You can keep a balance between the traditional and the modern.”

The “modern” part is what really seems to get to Mr. Kilburn. Gutting the interior of a hanok, adding a basement or putting on a second story are the kind of architectural insults that he abhors, and he worries that the purity of the hanok idiom is slipping away.

“Everywhere you can see exceptions being made now, one at a time,” he said. “It’s death by a thousand cuts.”

Mr. Kilburn rails most angrily against any sort of demolition or tear-down. A moldering and neglected hanok being replaced by a new house, even one that alludes to the hanok style, is beyond both his understanding and tolerance.

He can barely look at the hanok that have morphed into coffee bars, pizza parlors and trendy shops for jewelry and folk art. He points with contempt at a new garage with carved wooden doors that attempts to mimic hanok design features. The garage was built, he harrumphs, to stable a neighbor’s Lamborghini.

“We just want to retain the architectural heritage of Bukchon,” said Mr. Kilburn, a journalist who chronicles his preservation efforts on his Web site, “The fine for demolishing a hanok is only $300. So people just pay it. It’s a tragedy.”

But Mr. Hwang, the architect, said that if something traditional no longer makes practical sense — clay and dirt as insulation, for example — he is willing to update it with a modern material, such as Tyvek insulating wrap.

“The traditionalists think I’m ruining every house,” Mr. Hwang said.

“Sooner or later I am going to offend someone in the architectural community here,” he said. “But you can’t preserve everything on every level. That kind of symbolism doesn’t work for us anymore in Korea.”

The city government began fiddling with preservation laws in Bukchon about 35 years ago, initially ruling that no improvements could be made to any hanok there. Roofs went unrepaired, concrete outhouses were built in courtyard gardens and heating systems fueled by charcoal bricks were defeated by Seoul’s notorious winters. As a result, Bukchon turned shabby.

Even deliverymen avoided the area because of its confusing, twisting, narrow lanes.

The city’s overzealous protectionism eventually led to organized protests by the residents, many of whom were elderly or working-class. In response, in 1995, most previous restrictions were lifted, resulting in hundreds of hanok being demolished, replaced by blocky medium-rise apartment buildings and suburban-style houses that clashed badly with the elegant style and proportions of the hanok.

By the time the city reversed itself six years later, the damage had been done.

“More than half the village was gone,” Ms. Kim said glumly. “Six years was enough to ruin the place.”

On this, at least, she and Mr. Kilburn agree. The neighborhood, now heavily promoted by the city as a historic district, is overrun most days by nosy, noisy tourists. At night, because of so many absentee owners, it feels deserted.

“It used to be a living village,” Mr. Kilburn said. “It didn’t feel like a movie set. It felt genuine. People were living their lives.

“But now, neighbors never stop by. If you need to borrow a cup of something, there are no neighbors to go to. Walk the streets at night, and there’s not a single light in any of the houses. No kids. No little old ladies trudging up the hill carrying their cabbages. That’s all gone.”

A version of this article appeared in print on December 14, 2010, on page A13 of the New York edition.
You can see more of the photographs Jean Chung took here



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