|A gutted hanok that housed one of many hipster cafes in Ikseon-dong, Seoul, until recently lies abandoned with a leaking roof, Aug. 7.|
Historians, preservationists alarmed by unchecked remodeling boom in Seoul's last hanok enclaves
By Lee Suh-yoon
Photos by Shim Hyun-chul
From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., visitors crowd inside an early 20th century hanok near the southern entrance of Gyedong-gil.
Around half are tourists. Everyone looks content, sitting with artisanal coffee and baked goods inside the grand wooden structure. One section is entirely cleared of the foundation, flooring and walls to create the open chamber-like space better suited for a factory. Glass slabs are fitted into wooden frames and cement is poured into recesses to finish off that hipster vibe customers crave.
Hanok, which translates literally to Korean house, is the latest asset for hipster cafes in Seoul. They're mostly concentrated in Ikseon-dong and parts of Bukchon, old residential areas that have mostly been turned into commercial districts now.
But after talking with experts and visiting sites in the mentioned areas, The Korea Times found that the remodeling processes are often invasive to the point of forsaking structural integrity ― shortening a building's lifespan and erasing its unique cultural footprint.
Suk Ji-hoon, a Ph.D. student in Asian History at the University of Michigan who closely watches cultural heritage sites in Seoul, says the same building that has been transformed into Bukchon's most hipster cafe also played a crucial role in Korea's modern political history.
"All the key political associations were formed here after the country's liberation on Aug. 15, 1945," Suk said during a visit to the cafe last week. "It's a blind spot in Seoul city's policies for hanok preservation. As long as it is in a commercial district, there is no care about its preservation, or legal consequences for the owner who destroys it."
|H-beam supports are planted into pillars that are under greater strain due to the absence of some middle pillars and horizontal cross-section supports, which came off with the flooring at one section of this hanok. The hanok, once the residence of Han Hak-soo's family, preserved most of its original architecture while it was a traditional Korean restaurant for 30 years until 2017.|
|The outer plaster layer is removed from the roof of the hanok cafe. Without the plaster, the mud layer cracks and falls off in pieces, leaving holes and requiring a special cover (right) to protect baked goods on display below.|
|The cafe has intentionally stripped down the walls to show the wood and reed frame.|
According to Suk, the hanok was built around 1934 and belonged to Han Hak-soo, the grandson of Han Kyu-seol, a former prime minister who was imprisoned for resisting the protectorate treaty imperial Japan enforced on Korea in 1905.
|A 1934 Dong-a Ilbo clipping specifying Han Hak-su's Bukchon address / Naver News Library|
The real historical significance of the house, however, is traced to after Korea's independence. Han opened his house to well-known independence activists and leaders living in Bukchon. The Koryo democratic party and the Chosun democratic party were formed here that August. Leaders of the right and left political coalitions met here to discuss how they could cooperate with each other the following month.
In this new light, it's easy to see why historians and preservationists are alarmed by the building's changes.
|A 1982 Dong-a Ilbo newspaper clipping detailing the political meetings at Han Hak-su's residence / Naver News Library|
Peter Bartholomew, a hanok expert who has lived in one in Seongbuk-gu since 1974, says the structural damage is significant at the current state.
"Why would you take out the plaster? Mud is a very weak material and little pieces will constantly fall out. It's totally wrong and impractical." Bartholomew, who has visited the cafe, said in a phone interview. He was a regular customer when the hanok was still a restaurant and retained most of the original architecture. "The movement of the wood when it gets moist, humid in the summer and dry in the winter, it expands and shrinks a little bit. If it has plaster on the outside it can absorb this movement but if it's mud, it will crack."
|"The architect office, government and media all lack the professional knowledge to properly monitor hanok preservation,' says Suk Ji-hoon, an Asian History Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan who took Korea Times reporters around Ikseon-dong area, Aug. 7.|
Removing whole pillars or cross beams ― also a common trait among hanok cafes in Ikseon-dong ― destabilizes a wooden structure with a heavy tiled roof. Even if H-beam supports do the job for now, the hanok's condition will deteriorate quickly, Bartholomew says.
"They also removed the cross beams that give horizontal strength to the house from twisting, warping, moving in any way." he warned. "Especially in winter with heavy snow, it can collapse."
On July 30, the city government announced it would create a list of traditional houses that could receive architectural heritage designation for their historical value by June next year. Jongno-gu Office issued a similar press statement a week later.
Both are too late. Even if such buildings are later restored to their original state ― undoubtedly at a much heftier cost then the current remodeling ― their cultural value is permanently lost.
"Under the UNESCO definition of cultural preservation, the point is preserving the originality of the building ― of its design, exterior, interior ― materials, doors, windows, everything, because the actual cultural value is how much is original, how much is remaining of the era and period when this building was built," Bartholomew said, fuming.
The worrying signs are already appearing in Ikseon-dong's houses, which are smaller and have weaker frames than the aristocratic residences of Bukchon. A short walk through the crowded alleys lined with cafes and bars shows the different stages the houses here are undergoing.
|A brand new building is under construction at Ikseon-dong.|
In most shops, the only pieces left of the original hanok are the facade and the roof, seemingly suspended in the air with thin glass walls. Interiors have been torn out to accommodate new design elements ― gray floors, more open space and sometimes even a small fountain. A few are deserted, with leaking roofs and warped pillars. Even with the large crowds of visitors, the throng of identical hanok-themed businesses closed due to excessive competition, or are cleared for complete redevelopment. A large modern-looking building is under construction at the northern entrance to the neighborhood.
Suk worries the commercial forces will soon reach an unusually large hanok that currently doubles as a restaurant in one corner of the neighborhood at Ikseon-dong 155 ― the site of Chosun Sung'ak Yonguhoe, a vocal music group.
"This is the root of Korea's pansori, it's where the master pansori artists of the late Joseon period boarded and trained," Suk said. "This place and the old National Gugak Center in Anguk is the reason the gugak street formed around here."
A few steps away, the last of Jongno's gay bars also peeked out of a yet quiet alley. Owners present at the rather deserted Korean restaurant stopped the reporter from photographing images of the Chosun Sung'ak Yonguhoe that were on display in the narrow passageway into the hanok.
"What will they do once the hipster hanok cafe boom, too, passes? They changed the building without long-term plans about its sustainability," Suk said as he walked out of Ikseon-dong with the reporters. "Once the degradation and structural problems intensify and maintenance becomes too much of a nuisance, they'll just bulldoze it to the ground as usual."