Architecture Sketch

Gwangju Discovers Its Hanok Heritage

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<Essay> Exploring Old Things 

Gwangju Discovers Its Hanok Heritage

By Robert J. Fouser

Gwangju, the biggest city in the southwestern corner of Korea is known for its fine cuisine and central role in the democracy movement in the 1980s. Since the beginning of the Gwangju Biennale in 1995, the city has developed into an important center for contemporary art in Korea. The opening of the Asian Culture Center in 2015 has deepened the city’s involvement in the contemporary art yet further.

Though Gwangju is the regional center of southwestern Korea, it attracts far fewer tourists than nearby Jeonju. Tourists flock to Jeonju year around to enjoy the Hanok Village and eat great food, but few of them know that Gwangju also has concentrations of hanoks throughout older areas of the city.  A few of the hanoks are large houses with extensive grounds, but most are small hanok similar to those found in Jeonju before remodeling began in the 2000s. 

Yangnim-dong on the other side of the Gwangju Stream from downtown has the largest concentration of hanoks in Gwangju. The neighborhood is also home to Western-style missionary houses and churches from the early 20th century. The combination of hanoks and Western-style houses is unique in Korea. Like other hanok neighborhoods, Yangnim-dong has winding narrow alleys that are accessible only to foot traffic. 


 The best way to start a walk in Yangnim-dong is to take the street leads from the Asia Culture Center and over the Geumgyo Bridge. One of the two important hanoks in the neighborhood is the Choe Seung-hyo House. Built in the 1920s, the City of Gwangju designated the house as a folk heritage site in 1989. The house is much larger than nearby hanoks and sites in the center of a large garden that includes a pond and many mature trees. It is most notable for its red-toned roof tiles. The design and woodwork reflect changes in hanok that began in the late 19th century after Korea was forced to open its doors. The house also has a large attic that was a popular hiding place for independence activists during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945).

Nearby is the Yi Jang-woo House, the large and important in the neighborhood. Build in 1899, this hanok reflects the style of a traditional rural estate that has several buildings used for different purposes. That anchae, or women’s quarters in the back of the complex, is the largest and oldest building in the complex and was designated a folk heritage site by the City of Gwangju in 1989. The sarangche, or men’s quarters near the entrance, is smaller and was used mainly as a study and a place to receive guests. Yi Jangwoo, who founded schools in the Gwangju area, bought the house in 1959 and added the other buildings. Like the Choe Seung-hyo house and other hanoks warmer climates, there are few walls and most of the house can be opened to the outside in summer.                                                                                                         

The remaining hanoks in Yangnim-dong and are smaller and often densely packed like those in Seoul. Some have been remodeled and turned into cafés and restaurants, but many are in original condition and home to long-term residents. The café Deobanham near the Choe Seunghyo House is an example of small hanok that has been renovated in contemporary style. The Han Hee-won Museum of Art, also near the Choe Seunghyo House, was opened by artist Han Hee-won and is a gallery café in a renovated hanok that balances tradition with contemporary touches. Near the five-street intersection, the symbolic center of Yangnim-dong is the Hanok Sikdang, an old-school Korean restaurant in a well-preserved hanok. 

The red-brick Yangnim Presbyterian Church is easy to spot from the five-street intersection. Construction of the church began in 1954, only one year after the end of the Korean War. The church was founded in 1904, and the original building was a hanok. Next to the church is the grey-brick Owen Memorial Hall, which was built in 1914 in memory of Clement C. Owen (1867-1909), one of the two most important missionaries in the Gwangju area in the late 19th century. The two buildings are excellent examples of Korean church architecture during the first half of the 20th century. The hills behind Yangnim-dong have several missionary houses and the graveyard where many missionaries and their families are buried.



Areas around the church have many small hanoks in along alleys and small shops along bigger streets. Dotted among the low-scale cityscape are some interesting examples of the contemporary architecture, including minimalist red-brick Yangnim Bakery that is famous for onion bread. Toward the end of the neighborhood is a large apartment complex towers over the neighborhood; it is a reminder that apartments are the dominant form of housing in contemporary Korea.

Outside of Yangnim-dong, two other areas have a high concentration of hanoks. The first is Sa-dong to the north of Yangnim-dong. The area attracts few tourists and has many alleys lined with small hanoks. The other hanok area is Dongmyeong-dong on the opposite side of the Asia Culture Center from the downtown shopping area. Hanoks in this area sit on larger lots than in the other two areas and are mixed with Western-style houses and commercial buildings. As in Yangnim-dong, some hanoks have been turned into cafés and restaurants; the restaurant Our Pasta is an excellent example of this. Nearby Tea Art serves a variety of teas in a remodeled hanok that keeps many of its original features. A walk from Sa-dong to Yangnim-dong and then across town to Dongmyeong-dong reveals a city rediscovering its long-overlooked hanok heritage.

_Magazine Hanok N.15