Tradition Revisited: Seoul’s Makeover of Old Housing Forms

By Jieheerah Yun

Fast growing metropolises of East Asia, especially those like Shanghai and Shenzhen, are often characterized by forests of skyscrapers and residential towers. For Rem Koolhaas, this development is the future direction of urbanization, and it should be accepted as the condition of “a generic city.”[i] For others, rapid urbanization and the lack of distinct urban characteristics, including the expression of a localized architectural style, led to the discourse of identity crisis – the process moved so quickly it erased aspects of the traditional city particularly vernacular architecture which left residents and elected officials searching for an urban identity. Seoul, it seems, is not exempt from such discussions especially amid the homogenizing tendency of architectural reproduction around the world. In the economic context of being sandwiched between Chinese manufacturing industries and the innovative technologies of the U.S. and Japan, Seoul has emphasized informational technology and other forms of “soft industry.” In the context of economic and demographic growth, previously undervalued cultural resources within the capital have become evermore important. Urban planners and policy makers are eager to promote a new image of Seoul, either by resurrecting traditional forms or by redesigning modern buildings.


Figure 1a. Remodeled hanok in Bukchon, Seoul [Photos by author]
Resurrecting traditional forms in Seoul is most apparent in the remodeling of hanoks, or Korean traditional houses in the historical villages such as Bukchon (Fig 1a and 1b). Although most hanoks have disappeared from the urban setting due to the rapid pace of urban redevelopment, some have remained within the capital. With the exception of a few well-known hanoks registered as cultural artifacts, many urban hanoks were deteriorating. Yet in the new millennium, things changed, as the local government and the neighborhood associations adopted a more collaborative approach and introduced policy measures to promote the use of hanoks while enabling repairs within the interior space. The successful village regeneration project has garnered much media attention, with the Bukchon Regeneration Project winning an award from UNESCO. Soon thereafter, more urban projects following the example of Bukchon were enacted by other cities. Additionally, national and local governments began promoting research on the renovation and reinvention of the traditional housing based on contemporary demand, meaning the inclusion of air conditioning, garages, and other modern amenities.

Figure 1b. Remodeled hanok in Bukchon, Seoul [Photos by author]
This is not to say that the urban landscape of Seoul has suddenly transformed into a traditional village. Like other metropolises in East Asia, Seoul is dominated by skyscrapers and other forms of “modern” architecture. Remodeled hanoks are a rarity in in the city and can only be seen in historic neighborhoods in small numbers. Yet the “return of hanoks” is considered a very important change in the context of near-extinction of traditional homes in major South Korean cities. In June 2015, the Seoul city government issued the “Hanok Heritage Proclamation,” which detailed seven different projects to protect existing heritage sites and aid new construction of hanoks. In addition, by providing financial support for those who build new hanoks,the city established several new programs for their construction as long as the homes adhered to stylistic conventions established by the Hanok Committee, a group of experts appointed by the city. More recent experiments include Eunpyeong Hanok Village in the northern section of Seoul (fig. 2), where newly constructed hanoks in this village have larger interior spaces meant to accommodate the changing needs of occupants. The trend of remodeling hanoks has been picked up by cities in the provinces, with the consultation of National Hanok Center, a new national research institute, and the Korea Land and Housing Corporation, a state-owned enterprise. According to the report by the Architecture and Urban Research Institute (AURI), twenty-nine new hanok villages have been newly formed as of May 2016.[ii] These are newly developed villages, and are unlike the traditional villages that have long existed.

Eunpyeong Hanok Village has many remodeled hanoks, some with second floor interior spaces to accommodate contemporary lifestyles. [Photo by author]
Regarding it as an anomaly in a housing market otherwise dominated by high-rises, some may view this phenomenon as a mere fad that is unlikely to sustain itself. This is due to higher construction costs associated with building hanoks, and the relative difficulty of finding a suitable labor force. Mass production of structural elements of the hanok is much more difficult compared to detached houses made of concrete and steel, even though many R&D projects are commissioned by the state (the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport) to find ways of lowering costs and improving the comfort. In some cases, more intensive human labor is required in order to produce a more “authentic” traditional ambience. Most craft-workers of hanok specialize in cultural heritage preservation, rather than building new hanoks suitable for contemporary living. Thus, it is challenging to produce a remodeled hanok that has both an “authentic” aesthetic and good, functional performance at a reasonable cost. Admittedly, finding affordable housing in Seoul itself is challenging, but it becomes even harder if one is looking to build a remodeled hanok. So what is the reason behind the so-called “Hanok Renaissance”?[iii]

The Seoul Hanok Portal promoting the remodeled hanoks of Seoul [Source:
To answer the question, one needs to more closely delve into the prospective residents. Who are the prospective residents in remodeled hanoks? And why would they want to move into one? It is one thing for the state and local government to promote the idea of resurrected traditional houses but quite another for residents to desire them. People living in remodeled hanok dislike living in apartment complexes, and desire to live in a house that better reflects personal preferences.[iv] Although the majority of South Korean urban residents live in multifamily homes such as apartment buildings, such choices do not necessarily confirm public desires for multifamily houses. Of course, satisfying personal preference does not require a hanok, as any detached house with careful design considerations would do. Yet having traditional ambience does not hurt, and incentives provided by the local government reduce the economic burden of maintenance. Some residents are retirees, and have found deteriorating and uninhabited hanoks in rural towns that they converted into their own homes. Older people, especially boomers, have childhood memories of living in hanoks, and having fewer involved household chores. They regard the lifestyle associated with hanok living as emotionally satisfying. In such cases, nostalgia functions as an important factor. Hanoks are not exclusive to older populations, and young people also live in them.

As the Hanok Renaissance has gained momentum, some experts have expressed concern over the quality of certain remodeled hanoks—criticizing them as too experimental and not in keeping with the traditional aesthetic. Others worry that burgeoning hanok villages around the country will reduce remodeled hanoks to another standardized residential prototype, much as International Style apartment towers have become. But there are positive signs that remodeled hanoks may thrive into the future as the share of detached houses in the overall housing market has increased significantly. With the diversification of housing demand, the market share of hanoks has steadily grown. Ongoing experimentation and research exploring innovations in construction methods is being carried out by industry and academic institutions. Vigorous discussions and debates regarding how to appropriately remodel hanoks and plan hanok villages are being published in journals such as Hanok Munhwa [Hanok Culture]. While some critics point out that contemporary hanok villages lack the traditional layout of the historic hanok villages, they represent an important break from the skyscraper-dominated urban residential landscape of Seoul. Perhaps, with historic hindsight and much caution, architects and planners of contemporary South Korea may not repeat the same mistakes made by earlier generations. Yun is an assistant professor of architecture at Hongik University in Seoul, South Korea. Her recent book, Globalizing Seoul: The City’s Cultural and Urban Change, was published in February 2017

[i] Koolhaas, Rem and Bruce Mau. S,M,L,XL The Monacelli Press; 3 edition, 1997.

[ii] AURI, Hanok Village Story, AURI: Sejong, 2016. pp.57

[iii] Lee, Gilho. “2010 Hanok Runesansu Wonnyon Uro” [“2010 Hanok Renaissance’s Beginning Year”] NewDaily.

[iv] Yun, Jieheerah. “Remodeling of the Vernacular in Bukchon Hanoks” Open House International, Vol 37, No. 1, 2012: 40-47



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