30 July 2008

field trip #13: bukchon (북촌)

between seoul's two greatest palaces is a sea of tiled eaves that form the 600-year-old city's last traditional neighborhood.

in joseon seoul there was both a north village (bukchon) and a south village (namchon). while namchon stretched from the cheonggyecheon south to nam mountain and was home to lower ranking officials, bukchon was built between gyeongbuk and changdeok palaces, and was historically home to fancy palace officials.

pic of bukchon from no. 11 gahoe-dong (from here. please click for larger... no, really, it must be done).

the palaces were built on what was considered seoul's two best plots. according to korean baesanimsu (배산임수) principles (similar to feng shui), their location is auspicious since it sits on the slopes of a mountain (bugaksan) with water (the cheonggyecheon and the han river) in the front. situated in-between, bukchon also enjoyed the area's positive yang energy. while little of namchon remains, bukchon is seoul's last neighborhood with a high concentration of traditional homes, called hanok (한옥). according to peter bartholomeu, there were over 800,000 hanoks in seoul just thirty years ago, but today only some 12,000 remain with 900 concentrated in bukchon.

a close-up of a beautiful hanok roof.

hanok are typically single-story structures made of clay, wood and stone with ondol heated floors topped by curved tile roofs called giwa (기와). in this part of korea, they usually take the shape of the korean letter "geok" (ㄱ) or "deegut" (ㄷ), which create a nice central courtyard. in the cold north they are often square shaped to help retain heat, while the warmer southern region's hanok can have an open "I" shape.

the number of hanok in bukchon has decreased significantly since 1985, despite the area's "preservation" designation since the 1970s. today, less than 40% of the structures in bukchon are hanok.

today there are about 2,300 homes in bukchon, but back in the day there were probably no more than 30 villas here. but when japanese annexation brought the joseon dynasty down in 1910, social and economic forces conspired to divvy up of the old villas into hundreds of compact lots. unfortunately, what remains is only about 40% hanok (down from 55% in 1985), and very few of them date from the joseon period. most were mass produced in the 1930s, and space restrictions required shorter roof eaves and the average hanok in bukchon is only about 25 pyeong in size (about 83 sq m / 900 sq ft) although there's one 150-pyeong monster hanok.

two maps compare the number of hanoks in bukchon in 1985 and 2001. blue denotes hanoks and orange denotes demolished hanoks. orange kills me! (click for larger).

bukchon hasn't escaped a government policy to tear down hanoks, or the desire of many koreans to abandon their "inferior" traditional housing for the sea of ubiquitous "apateu" tower blocks that started ravaging seoul's skyline in 1962. while just 10% of seoulites lived in community housing in 1970, a generation later (by 1994), nearly 60% did.

a nice junction in gahoe-dong.

it's only recently that the city government and tourism officials realized bukchon's value and moved to protect it. unfortunately, their preservation plans have been plagued with snafus. while the neighborhood has been better preserved than most (this isn't saying much), it's nearly impossible to find a view uninterrupted by ugly, new-ish, multi-story brick homes. for example, even though the gahoe-dong neighborhood was designated a hanok preservation district in 1973 and put under special care of the city, less than half of its hanoks remain.

a less-polished row of hanok.

by 2000 there were just two streets in gahoe-dong filled entirely by hanoks. in 2001, the seoul metropolitan government launched its "bukchon project", investing 84-billion won ($90 million) to encourage residents to register and renovate hanoks via grants and low-interest loans. the city undertook a detailed architectural survey and worked to improve roads, street lighting and tourist signage while changing zoning laws and imposing new height and design restrictions.

the problem, however, was that large areas in west bukchon were excluded. through 2007, while 200 neighborhood hanoks were renovated, many others were demolished and replaced with 4-story+ commercial buildings. furthermore, while bukchon maintains its tenuous definition as a primarily residential neighborhood, its population is only about half of what it was in 1976. furthermore, in 2006 alone, 33 homes were converted into commercial establishments.

this hanok has been renovated into a dentist's office.

while the number of hanoks in bukchon continues to fall, there's also new hanok construction going on. living in a hanok is becoming cool, and the city is working hard to promote bukchon as a top tourist destination. the rise of wine bars and art galleries in trendy, next-door samcheong-dong, brings a lot of foot traffic, not least of which is japanese housewives on "yonsama" pilgrimages. "yonsama" is the japanese name given to bae yong-joon, the (gross) star of the very popular korean tv drama, "winter sonata", which was filmed in bukchon.

not your thing? then pick up a neighborhood map at the bukchon cultural center and partake in the new "bukchon museum freedom pass". for 10,000-won, you get access to five museums: the gahoe museum, hansangsu embroidery museum, dong-lim museum, museum of korean buddhist art, and my favorite, the seoul museum of chicken art.

let's hope another hanok is what's to come.

as hanoks continue to be demolished in other parts of seoul, at least one neighborhood's clumsy efforts to preserve them is gaining traction. let's hope bukchon's sea of arching tile roofs and winding alley roads stick around to see seoul's next iteration.

getting there:

→ take subway line 3 to anguk station (exit #2) and walk north. the area's museums are typically open 10:00-18:00, closed mondays.
more info:
"the bukchon plan" (in korean)
"the bukchon plan" translated into english


Jon Allen said...

I went to the Museum of Chicken Art as well. Excellent place. I meant to post a blog entry about it, but never got round to it.

matt said...

hey there! i was a little disappointed that the art was of chickens. i had hoped the museum specialized in art made by them.

Brian said...

thanks for sharing this piece on hanok. the demolition of the area is such a shame. i def. have to make a visit this winter.

matt said...

leme know your exact dates when you have them, k papi? xo

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