Seoul should fight for historical area

By Tony MacGregor
Korea Times, June 5th 2007
David Woodcock
David Woodcock, a professor of architecture and urban conservationist, exmaines eaves of David Kilburn's hanok on visit to Seoul's historic Kahoi-dong near Anguk Station. / Photo by Tony MacGregor

A visiting urban conservationist from the U.S. says the there ¡s enough left of Seoul's historic Gahoe-dong district worth fighting for although he sees cracks in the integrity of the neighborhood.

Gahoe-dong near Anguk, the last area in Seoul where whole streets of hanok (traditional Korean houses) are preserved, has been the center of a controversy as preservationists, led by British expatriate David Kilburn, have clashed with developers and the city.

David Woodcock, a professor of architecture and director of the Center for Heritage Conservation at Texas A&M University, said communities inevitably change and Gahoe-dong has changed in the past.

"Change is as inevitable as death and taxes," he said. "The question is, how do you manage it for the benefit of the community. What should we be preserving now for the future?"

Woodcock said some of the new buildings in Gahoe-dong are beautiful works in themselves.

"The level of craftsmanship and design are outstanding," he said. "It doesn't surprise me that one of them won an architectural award. The question is how do they blend in with the rest of the neighborhood?"

He said if the new buildings don't have qualities similar to their neighbors, it can change the ambiance of the neighborhood in profound ways and destroy the architectural harmony of the community.

He said it is important that building guidelines be specific enough to prevent new buildings from infringing on their neighbors and that those guidelines be adhered to and strictly enforced.

"The first rule in renovation, as in medicine, is "Do no harm," " he said. "Whatever changes you make, don't harm others."

He said that principle had been accepted in Britain since the Great Fire of London in the 17th century when people realized that the way they built their houses affected the rest of the community.

To resolve the conflict over Gahoe-dong, he called for a healthy dialogue* between residents and the city. "People need a clear understanding of what changes they can accept and what changes threaten the community."

"If wealthy people come into the area and expect to be able to park their cars near their houses," he said, "it could profoundly stress the neighborhood, which would require larger streets."

David Kilburn, a leading proponent of conserving Gahoe-dong, said the government¡¯s efforts to preserve the area have gone terribly wrong.

"There is an enormous gulf between what city officials publicly proclaim and what they allow to happen in reality," he said. "Surely, it is time to halt all the destruction of old buildings in Gahoe-dong, to demolish new buildings with illegal features, and for society as a whole to consider the fate of the district?

"Is it too much to expect that a country of Korea's economic power should find the time and the resources to preserve the last couple of short streets in the city that provide a window into ordinary life a century ago?" he asked.

More of Kilburn's views can be found on

Tony MacGregor

* Comment: Sadly, the dialogue David Woodcock hoped for has never taken place. Both his visit and his comments were ignored by the Seoul Metropolitan Government. Meanwhile the hanoks of Kahoi-dong continue to be demolished - most recently another fine example in Kahoi-dong 31 was demolished in April 2010. David Kilburn Contact us