Now that the world’s eyes are on South Korea for the Winter Olympics (my stomping grounds for a decade), I thought I’d write about some of their art and architecture as I haven't seen the networks create any "puff" pieces about this subject. I wandered the streets of Seoul one rainy afternoon a few years ago searching to learn more about this wonderful city.
Seoul’s architectural face is not pretty. Much of it's nondescript stacks of hastily constructed bricks and concrete rose, not so long ago, out of a literal pile of rubble. There is a phrase and a concept in Korean, bali, bali! (hurry, hurry!) which sums up how things have proceeded since the war. This attitude continues in the bustle of the peninsula, whether it’s the high speed trains, the internet, or the construction of buildings.
From a distance, the ubiquitous red-bricked “villas”--small blocks of flats--can appear like shanties on the hillsides, whereas the more desirable high-rise apartment complexes remind me of the vertical slums on the outskirts of many a European city. During my time there, I lived in a shabby, but not shanty, villa and enjoyed the easy access to the street, the balconies and the charming rooftop garden my landlady maintained. The gorgeous South Korean landscape is 70 percent mountains, so with flat space at a premium, building upwards has become the norm. I think the Koreans now prefer the modern towers over the older villas. But there was time when they lived in neither.
Modern Housing Blocks
Typical Villa - My Home Sweet Home
Not so long ago, before the last war, and even after that, most Koreans lived in some form of traditional housing -- often with thatched roofs and dirt floors. I’ve met several Koreans my age born in such abodes, and I’m not that old!
Tired of the treadmill-like background of apartment blocks, song rooms, convenience stores, billiard halls, storefront churches, temples, and saunas, I headed to Bukchon (BOOK-chon), in central Seoul, where you can still find old Korean architecture. Bukchon hugs the foothills of Bukhansan (North Han Mountain), a national park within the city limits. Somehow this relatively intact neighborhood of hanok (HAHN-oke), or traditional Korean homes survived war, Japanese colonization, and modernization. The soil, rock, and timber buildings in Bukchon date from Joseon dynasty which lasted from 1392-1897, so some are several hundred years old. Government protected hanok survive in this desirable district near the Blue House, where the president of the republic resides. Bukchon was once where nobles, attached to the nearby royal palace, were housed and is now populated by well-heeled “commoners”.
From Bukchon - Downtown Seoul in the Distance
Korea’s distinctive style, I suspect, remains a mystery to most. I certainly had no visual in my head before I arrived, unlike, say I would of Japan or China. The tile-roofed structures of this area are inward facing with exterior walls enclosing a courtyard. The central courtyard, the timber beams, and the floor heating, are adapted and oriented for Korea’s four distinct seasons. It gets downright tropical in the summer, including monsoons, and bitterly cold, as you can see at the Olympics.
It was hard to capture in photos the charm of these dwellings, being walled off as they are, but the roofs, gates and walls are still worth a look. The neighborhood is peaceful, though it’s gaining popularity among the locals as a destination. I stepped into a teahouse, to see the wood beams and joints that frame the structures. I also ran across a structure under renovation, to get an idea of their build. The serene neighborhood is full of tea houses, galleries, museums, and vistas.
Bukchon Structure under renovation - Notice the wood beams
My favorite common feature of Korean homes, old and new, is the underfloor heating, or ondol (OWN-dole). Since I slept on the floor, on a traditional yo, a thinner version of a futon, the warmth made it both easier to get out of bed for work on a winter morning, and yet more difficult to get up off the floor! I’ve had occasion to spend a lot of time in modern Korean homes, and despite the “Western style” sofas and beds, Koreans still spend a lot of time on the toasty floor… so take off your shoes! Especially in a hanok.
On this drizzly day, surrounded by these wonderful structures with a low mist over the foothills, Bukhan Mountain coming in and out of view and a pagoda in the near distance, I really felt as if I was transported back to Old Korea. This area is worth exploring for visitors looking for a taste of traditional Korean living.
A rare, quiet street in Seoul
Check back for part two: A prison turned art gallery.
John Norton is a raconteur, a flaneur, and a fan of Guy Lafleur. A career expatriate with long stretches in Prague and Seoul. He currently resides in Buffalo, NY with his cat, Chopper.