South Korean architects look to the past in their push to modernize

Updated 20th July 2017
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South Korean architects look to the past in their push to modernize
Written by Georgia McCafferty, CNN
South Korea may be known for its sharp focus on the new, but architects -- and their increasingly sophisticated clients -- are looking to the past for inspiration.
Once a familiar sight across the country, traditional Korean houses, called hanoks, have been steadily disappearing since the 1990s.
Despite government efforts to preserve them, these single-story courtyard homes have been replaced by modern housing, or destroyed to make way for large commercial developments and infrastructure.
But just as K-pop grew from Korea's musical past to express newfound wealth and national identity, 'K-architecture' is now offering a contemporary take on traditional living.
"Historically, the prevalent view was that the hanok was useless -- it was blocking development and economic progress," says Hyumgmin Pai, an architectural historian at Seoul National University who curated South Korea's award-winning pavilion at the 2014 Venice Biennale.
"Now we are just beginning to understand what hanoks mean."

Evolving for the 21st century

At first glance, the wildly creative homes being built in today's South Korea appear anything but old-fashioned. Their sleek lines and glossy exteriors reflect a modern aesthetic that many Koreans aspire to.
But look closely and you find that many of the country's most inventive architects are drawing on hanok principles.
Even taller buildings in Seoul, like this one from Doojin Hwang, are adopting hanok principles of design.
Even taller buildings in Seoul, like this one from Doojin Hwang, are adopting hanok principles of design. Credit: Jeong Yongho
Featuring conventional layouts and traditional building materials, a new aesthetic is emerging in Korean architecture, explains Doojin Hwang, a Seoul-based architect and author of "Hanok is Back," a book on hanok restoration.
"There is a renewed interest in applying lessons from traditional architecture to modern and contemporary buildings," Hwang says.
"In the old days, that normally meant a very direct application of [traditional] stylistic elements to modern buildings. Now, architects are more interested in a process of 'critical reinterpretation' -- and applying that principle to a modern building."

Leading Advocates

Hanok design reflects the Asian way of living "very close to the floor," says Pai. In Japan, this principle meant the widespread use of tatami -- floor mats made from rice straw. But hanoks come with a distinctive Korean design feature: a heated floor.
And while internal courtyards are found across Asian architecture, in Korea they were considered multi-purpose spaces of "production and community," says Pai, who is co-curating the first Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism this fall. This makes them quite different from Japanese courtyards, which were landscaped as gardens to relax in.
The close relationship between a building's interior and its exterior is another design principle that today's architects are hoping to revive.
"As [South Koreans] became more and more modernized, for some reason we started to think that everyday life should take place inside the house," explains Hwang, who has used his experience renovating hanoks to inspire contemporary designs.
"What's happening these days is something I call 'rediscovery of the exterior.'"
Seoul-based architect Moon Hoon also draws on hanok design principles, though his colorful and creative buildings have attracted ire from some critics in South Korea.
Hoon says that traditional influences are clear in his use of geometric angles, open space, pavilions and even the way he positions his projects on the land. Not everyone sees it that way.
"Many architects in Korea think that I'm an alien," Hoon says. "It tends to only be people from overseas who see that relationship with traditional Korean architecture. So that's really a paradox."

Changing tides

The popularity of traditional designs marks a significant shift in a society defined by modernity. Having completely rebuilt the country from the ashes of Japanese occupation and war, many South Korean consumers see newness as a marker of success.
But as the country grows more comfortable with its identity, architects say that people are learning to appreciate the beauty and grace of the past.
"I think hanok [design] has been an inspiration for architects all along, but recently this has [reached] the general public," says Hoon. "They have become appreciative of our heritage."
"Hanoks are easy to cool in the summer because of the courtyard, and easy to heat in the winter because the rooms are small," says Robert Fouser, an American professor and co-author of the 2015 book "Hanok: The Korean House."
Nonetheless, architects still need to find new ways of adapting hanoks to the 21st century.
David Kilburn, a Seoul-based British expatriate who has lived in traditional homes and campaigned for their preservation for more than twenty years, notes that hanoks are "in many ways not well suited to a consumerist world where you have a lot of possessions, a lot of clothes and a lot of household accessories."
And Hoon argues that hanok design needs to help people feel more connected to the natural world.
"The awakening of the general public [to traditional design] is cultivating clients who understand the value of a hanok and its capacity to be in harmony with nature," he says, "of it being more than a mere pretty object standing alone in the environment."