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Discovering New Hanok in Old Suwon

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<Essay> Exploring Old Things 

Discovering New Hanok in Old Suwon

By Robert J. Fouser



While teaching at Japanese universities in the late 1990s and 2000s, I got a lot of questions about Korea whenever the topic came up. The most common were questions about food and Korean views of Japan. In the late 1990s, however, I suddenly got a lot of questions about the Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon. In 1997, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and began to attract the attention of Japanese tourists. All the questions stirred me to make a day trip to see the Fortress during a visit to Korea. I walked the entire length of the Fortress and remember being stunned by the scale and the interesting architecture.

I would not go back to Suwon until the 2010s. Additional Restoration work on Hwaseong Fortress had been completed in 2000s. I wanted to see the results of those efforts and to study the structures along the Fortress in greater detail. My main, interest, however, was to find hanoks in the old part of Suwon that was surrounded by the Fortress. Building restrictions prevented large redevelopment projects inside and nearby the Fortress, so I thought there would be hanoks inside the low-rise cityscape.


As I walked around the old center of the city, I found only a few hanoks. I noticed one large hanok on a side street off the long artsy shopping street near the old commercial center of Suwon. On another visit, I stopped by the Alternative Space Noon, an indie art and culture center near the Suwon Stream and was surprised to find several small hanoks mingled with newer concrete structures in nearby alleys.

After several visits, I began to wonder about the paucity of hanoks in Suwon. I soon found out that most of the city and much of the Fortress was destroyed in the Korean War and recovery was slow. Restoration of the Fortress did not begin in earnest until the 1970s. Another reason is that Suwon did not have early 20th-century hanok developments like Seoul or Jeonju.

The success of hanok renovation and preservation programs in Seoul and Jeonju in the 2000s caused other cities to rethink development policies that focused on tearing down the old to make room for the new. Some cities, such as Incheon and Gunsan, began to take an interest in Western and Japanese-style buildings from the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945). Others, such as Daegu, focused on types of areas that contained different types of architecture.

  

With few hanoks and few buildings of historic value except those related to Hwaseong Fortress, Suwon found that it needed to take a new approach. Because the Fortress, built from 1794 to 1796, is one of the most noted structures of the Joseon Period (1392-1910), the city naturally focused on traditional Korean architecture which lead to the ambitious idea of replacing concrete houses near the Fortress with hanoks. In the mid-2010s, the built several public hanoks and began offering generous financial support to homeowners who build a new hanok. Over time, the city hoped, the number of hanoks would increase to create a hanok neighborhood like those in Seoul and Jeonju.

A walk from Janganmun Gate to the Haenggung Palace today shows that the city’s plans are beginning to bear fruit. Just inside the Gate are three examples of large newly built hanoks designed for public use. On the street leading from the Gate is a recently built hanok designed to liven up the side walk with commercial spaces. It bills itself as a “hanok mall” and is designed to meet contemporary commercial needs. The large group of hanoks behind it is a cultural center devoted to programs related to traditional Korean culture. Because of its emphasis on traditional culture, this hanok follows traditional design and construction closely. Next to it is a hanok exhibition center that is designed to help citizens learn more about the history and construction of hanoks. The building received financial support from Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport for its outstanding design. Together these hanoks show the how hanok designs and building principles can be adapted effectively to meet various contemporary needs.


The narrower sides streets behind the three public hanoks are mostly residential. Several hanoks have been built in the neighborhood in recent years. Some follow traditional hanok design ideas, whereas others experiment with second floors and large Western-style windows. Near the end of the neighborhood in the direction of the Haenggung Palace is the Noah Jae, a new two-story hanok with a café on the first floor and a guesthouse on the second.

The neighborhood ends at a quiet commercial street that leads back to the Haenggung Palace. The most notable building on this street is a large two-story hanok that houses a center designed to help parents in childrearing. The center is run by the city and is part of a broader public policy push to address the low birthrate in Korea. The creative mix of traditional design with the needs of parents and children makes this one of the most unique hanoks used for public purpose in Korea.


The Haenggung Palace was an extensive structure, but most of it was destroyed during the Japanese colonial period. Reconstruction began in 1996 and was completed in 2003. The palace was built in 1789 for Kim Jeongjo (r. 1776–1800) stay on visits to Suwon. The King chose Suwon because he wanted to escape political strife in Hanyang, as Seoul was called then. King Jeongjo’s death in 1800 put end to talk of moving the capital. Because it was designed as a royal palace, it looks similar to royal palaces in Seoul. 

Right next to the Haenggung Palace is the solemn Hwaryeongjeon Shrine, which was built in 1801 in honor of King Jeongjo. Several buildings have been destroyed, but the remaining buildings are excellent examples of royal ceremonial architecture of the period.

 

 

Among cities in Korea, Suwon is making the heaviest investment in “hanokization” of the cityscape. The combination of high-profile public hanok projects and support for citizens to replace non-hanoks with hanoks has created opportunities for architects and designers to create a new hanok sensibilities to meet contemporary needs.



_Magazine Hanok N.18