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Hanok: The Korean House

by Yvonne Kim
6 January 2015

One of the main attractions that bring visitors to the neighborhoods of Bukchon, Insa-dong and Samcheon-dong, is the Hanok, or traditional Korean house. Although many people get to see the picturesque small streets lined with these traditional houses, not many people get to go inside. This is what inspired Nani Park, Robert Fouser and Jongkeun Lee to write and publish Hanok: The Korean House which was released in late 2014.

In recent years, Korea has experienced huge transformation and development, often referred to as “the miracle on the Han River”. While Seoul's skyscrapers and luxury apartments have been popping up all over the city, the traditional Korean home or Hanok is also experiencing a surprising renaissance. Nani Park’s book, Hanok: The Korean House, gives us an insight into twelve very special Hanok that reflect today's Korea—a country that's putting a modern twist on traditional values. While the exteriors of these houses are indistinguishable from Hanok built decades ago, the interior designs have been completely updated.

Nani Park was born in Korea, but grew up in Hawaii, which gives her the special perspective as an insider and outsider in Korea. Currently residing in Seoul, she started this project when she realized there was a lack of well-made books on Hanok in the market. Nani grew up in a Hanok when she was young and wanted to share her experience of what the Hanok lifestyle is in this modern age. The Asia Society Korea Center's Matthew Fennell joined Nani in her Seoul office to talk a little bit more about the book.

You have lived a large part of your life in a Western style house. What made you want to write about a traditional Korean house?

Having spent a portion of my childhood in Korea, I am extremely familiar with hanok from a first-hand experience of living in one myself. Since everyone at the time lived in a hanok, I never truly realized the value of the type of home or appreciated the beauty it offered until I moved away from Korea. Once I moved to Hawaii and noticed the vast differences in the types of homes available, I found myself wishing I could live in a hanok once again with my newfound appreciation. I wanted to share my hanok experience with a foreign friend when I moved back to Korea, so I began searching for an English book about Korean culture, but found difficulty in finding the perfect one. This is when I came up with the idea to make a Hanok book myself to show foreigners what hanok are and do so properly. When people think of Korea, they usually think of kimchi, bibimbap, or lately, K-Pop. I wanted to add “hanok” to that list of words because they are such an important part of Korean culture, historically and now.

What were your memories of living in a Hanok when you were young?

Cold! I remember constantly running in and out of the house in the winter since the bathroom and kitchen were both outside. Not to mention the cold wind that would blow through the gaps of the wooden window frames. Also, as I’m sure all children who lived in hanok know, I remember being scolded by my grandmother for poking holes through the paper doors and windows!

What do you think has prompted this recent “Hanok renaissance”?

I think people have started to look back to their roots and want to reconnect with the natural Korean elements. A Hanok is a healthy house; it is a house that breathes using only a few organic materials. Koreans often use the term, “well-being” to describe healthy lifestyles and a Hanok is the perfect well-being house. In addition to the natural element of hanok, I also think the younger generation of Korea today is beginning to realize what they have been missing out on. Most Koreans today have grown up in tall concrete apartment complexes and would like the chance to reconnect with Korea’s traditions through Hanok. When you look at a picture of Gangnam’s skyline, it could easily be mistaken for any other major city in Asia. However, when you look at a landscape photo of the Bukcheon Hanok Village, you instantly know it is Korea.

What are some big differences between a traditional Hanok and a modified Hanok?

One main difference is that hanok now have bathrooms and kitchens inside. On top of that, some modern Hanok have a basement as well, which is something many traditionalists are against. These basements are mainly used for storage and tend to be found in the new Hanok that have been demolished and rebuilt from the ground up.

Was each Hanok uniquely different in design and do you think the design was a representation of the owner?

I wanted to choose 12 Hanok that belonged to a diverse group of contemporary and unique, yet traditional owners. I believe that you can really tell a lot about the style of a house simply by looking at its owner. When looking at the photographs, you can tell how much time and effort have gone into every single detail of each home. The owners have taken the time in designing their homes from the layout to specific pieces of furniture. For instance, one of the home owners specifically placed a window at a certain height so she can look out over Inhwang Mountain while sitting at her dining room table. Like all hanok owners, the 12 home owners featured in my book understand the natural simplicity of the hanok structure and appreciate the organic elements of rock, dirt, and wood that are used to build their homes. They have all incorporated the natural elements into the exterior and interior design of their homes in very different, yet special ways.

You showcased 12 different Hanok. Did you have a favorite? 

I really cannot say since I truly love them all as they are so unique and different from one another. I am so thankful to all of the Hanok owners for inviting me into their homes and allowing me to show outsiders what it is really like to live in a traditional home as our modern society continues to rapidly change.

Do you have any other plans to document further Hanok or other parts of Korean tradition?

It took a little over two years to produce “Hanok,” from when the idea was first born to being placed on the store bookshelf. I could not have finished this book without the team effort of Robert Fouser and Jongkeun Lee. We photographed the homes for throughout the year, but unfortunately just missed the winter season. If I were to produce a sequel to “Hanok,” I would definitely showcase hanok in the winter, covered in snow with icicles hanging from the tiled rooftops. I will be making a series of books, each focusing on different aspects of Korean culture, from furniture to Hanbok to allow the Western world to catch a real glimpse of the traditional Korean lifestyle.