Street in Kahoi-dong

Attempts to preserve some of South Korea's last traditional homes have
met with official stonewalling, and landed one resident in hospital

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by Andrew Salmon

25 March 2006
South China Morning Post

IN A COUNTRY where activists typically wear red headbands and wield steel pipes, tea merchant David Kilburn stands out. But although the 62-year-old English expatriate knew he'd face hostility in his campaign to preserve some of South Korea's last traditional homes, he didn't expect to be put into hospital.

Kilburn was photographing construction in his Seoul neighbourhood of Gahoe-Dong last month, when he was

David Kilburn in Hospital

David Kilburn is a hospital patient

involved in a scuffle with an architect for a developer. He claims the man assaulted him, knocking him unconscious. Kilburn was taken to hospital, where he's still being treated for back injuries. The architect claims Kilburn pushed him first. The incident is being investigated by prosecutors. Meanwhile, local authorities have ruled the construction to be illegal and frozen all activity.

The Briton's lobbying and agitating through his website, which features photos of construction work, has put him at the frontline of a fight to stop the destruction of hanok, or traditional Korean houses, in Bukcheon district and its ward of Gahoe-dong.

Much of what activists call destruction is regarded by city authorities as restoration. In Bukcheon, hanok owners are eligible for subsidies to renovate old homes. But Kilburn and his allies argue that what passes for restoration is, in fact, demolition and ersatz reconstruction.

In a metropolis notable for its ranks of faceless apartment blocks, the Bukcheon district, nestled between the capital's two major palaces, has always been a desirable area - valued as much for its favourable fung shui as its prestige. Once inhabited by court officials, Bukcheon is today the last area in Seoul in which a significant cluster of 920 hanok still stand.

Hanok are single-storey, wood-framed houses constructed on stone foundations. Traditionally, the houses face south, so the living areas at the rear enjoy maximum sunlight, and their wide, curved eaves maintain shade in the hot months. The kitchen traditionally faces east, so that ingredients benefit from exposure to the early rays of the sun. A clay-floored attic is customarily set above the kitchen - should a fire break out (a real danger in wooden buildings) it collapses, extinguishing the blaze. Heat is channelled via underfloor flues. The largest stones in the exterior walls are at the bottom, with smaller ones at the top, leading the eye up to the home's most attractive feature: its curved, tiled roof.

In Gahoe-dong, where Kilburn lives in a hanok with his Korean wife, Choi Keum-ok, the traditional houses are stacked like rows of theatre seats along winding alleys.

However, the district in northern Seoul isn't what it once was. In the past two decades, its character has been eroded by what could be called democracy run amok. Although previous authoritarian governments bulldozed much of old Seoul, they recognised that Bukcheon merited preservation - to the point where hanok owners weren't even permitted to install modern toilets or kitchens.

After South Korea passed democracy laws in 1988, residents in the district protested about the state of their houses. They wanted modern conveniences and were eager to benefit from the real-estate boom in Seoul, where owners in other areas had been allowed to build higher. After building restrictions were lifted in 1991, 600 hanok disappeared. It was a decade later before belated moves were made to preserve the remainder.

"The city government supports the preservation of hanok," says Kim Woo-sung, head of the Historic City Preservation Team, a unit in the city's Urban Design Division. "We provide 30 million won ($237,000) in subsidies and up to 20 million won in low-interest, 10-year loans. To obtain the funds, owners must register their home as a hanok and keep it as it is for at least five years."

Although a few narrow hanok-lined alleys still remain, modern villa apartments, shops and houses now dominate in Bukcheon. If tourists didn't know where to look, they might stroll through without realising it was a historic district.

City Hall has published a glossy photographic book showcasing major restorations. But activists and hanok experts say that many redevelopments are destroying the authentic character of houses: too often, the buildings are torn down and rebuilt.

"I have no objection to modern houses with superficial hanok-style features in other parts of Seoul," says Kilburn. "But these few streets in Gahoe-Dong represent authentic traditional architecture. They're a living museum of how Koreans used to live."

But Jaho, the construction company engaged in the dispute with Kilburn, defends the redevelopment. "Many people like well-renovated hanok," says spokesman Kim Duk-yoon. "Houses in Bukcheon aren't cultural heritage sites, but homes where people actually live."

Buttressing that argument is the fact that most hanok in Bukcheon date back no further than the 1920s.

City Hall concedes that restoration can be demolition - so what it describes as traditional homes aren't necessarily authentic. "Whether demolition, reconstruction or renovation, all plans should be submitted and reviewed by the city's Hanok Advisory Committee," says Kim. "But the new buildings should have the features of a hanok - traditional-style tiled roof, rafters, heated floor - and they should be one storey."

The situation has some academics fuming. "These newly built, so-called hanok have features - the roof, basically - but they're not really hanok," says Hyun Young-jo, a professor of architecture and authority on hanok. "They don't have traditional views and shapes. They're a distorted form of hanok."

Kilburn claims that an "unholy alliance" of construction firms and local bureaucrats are profiting by Bukcheon's redevelopment.

City Hall's Kim Woo-sung disputes this. "Since the city started the project, the prices of property have gone up from 5,000,000 won to 15,000,000 won per pyeong (35.5sqft) - but real estate has also risen elsewhere in Seoul," he says. "It's nonsense to say that there is property speculation in this area."

That's not the experience of former Bukcheon resident and Kilburn supporter, Jung Tae-bong. "I sold [my hanok] 13 months ago," he says. "Prices used to be seven million won per pyeong, but I sold at nine million won. Now they're 15 million won per pyeong."

Jung, who has since left Bukcheon, says he saw little preservation work by his former neighbours in the district. "The three houses in my area weren't renovated. They were rebuilt from scratch."

Despite his raised profile since being taken to hospital, Kilburn isn't the best known foreign hanok activist. That honour goes to Peter Bartholomew, a former Peace Corps volunteer who arrived in South Korea in 1965. Now a business consultant, his hanok is in an area under threat of redevelopment. Partly on the strength of his fluent Korean, he has become a minor media star. "The problem in Korea and across Asia, is that people see no value in old buildings other than monumental structures like palaces and temples," says Bartholomew. "New is, de facto, better than old and traditional. There's a prejudice that old homes are uncomfortable and obsolete."

However, Bartholomew sees a ray of hope. "A growing sector of society is becoming concerned at the loss of their traditional architectural heritage," he says. "But it's almost too late."


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