<Essay> Exploring Old Things
Hanok Neighborhoods Near Hansung University Station
By Robert J. Fouser
For thirty years from the early 1980s to the early 2010s, Bukchon was the center of hanok preservation activities. The efforts saved Bukchon from demolition and turned it into one of Seoul’s most photogenic neighborhoods. Today, no visit to Seoul is complete without a walk through the hanok-lined streets of Bukchon. Bukchon’s success encouraged the city to expand its efforts to Seochon, which faced a direct threat of demolition in the early 2010s. In a flurry of activity, the city stopped plans to turn the area into apartments and supported homeowners who wanted to renovate their hanoks. Seochon became Seoul’s trendiest neighborhood, and fears of demolition gave way to concern over spreading commercialization. With the success of Bukchon and Seochon, people began to take an interest in hanoks in nearby neighborhoods. Though the concentration of hanoks in other areas is less than Bukchon or Seochon, these areas are dotted with attractive hanoks. One of the largest concentrations is in Seongbuk-gu near Hansung University on Line 4.
As the population of Seoul grew rapidly in the 1930s, the city spread to outlying areas along roads and rail links that punctured the Hanyangdoseong, or Seoul City Wall, that had circled Seoul for more than 500 years. The Hansung University Station sits very close to Hyehwamun Gate, one of the four small gates in the wall; Sungshin Women’s University Station is next and sits near the end of the area developed in the 1930s. The destruction of Hyehwamun Gate in 1928 to make way for a road connecting the area to the rest of the city inside the gates. Hanok developments soon began on both sides of the road, with the largest areas extending south all the way to Sinseol-dong. The area was full of hanoks until the late 1980s when changes in zoning permitted the construction of low-rise multi-family housing units. Waves of demolition destroyed most hanoks in the area but enough remained to make it interesting.
Because the area was new, many of the hanoks sat on bigger lots than those in Bukchon and Seochon. Even today, real estate inside the Seoul City Wall is more expensive than nearby areas outside the wall. The pressure to fit more people into desirable areas made the lots in Bukchon and Seochon compared to outlying areas. Like Bukchon and Seochon, most hanoks in Seongbuk-gu were built by developers and sold to be used as owner-occupied houses or rental houses. The availability of land also made it possible for individuals to build houses that fit their needs and tastes.
The best way to explore the area is to get off the subway at Hansung University station walk from Exit 5 to Choi Sunu’s House in Seongbuk-dong. Choi Sunu (1916-1984) was a leading art historian and the fourth director of the National Museum of Korea. Built in the 1930s, the house is an example of a large hanok with two gardens. Choi bought the house with the help of Kim Swoo-geun (1931-1986), one of Korea’s leading architects of the 20th century. In the early 1970s, Kim traveled with Choi around Korea to learn about Korean cultural traditions. Choi Sunu lived in the house from 1976 to 1984 and turned it into a sanctuary for Korean aesthetics. He changed the layout of the house by moving the kitchen from the main building to one of the subsidiary buildings to make room for a study. To save the house from demolition, the National Trust of Korea bought it and carefully restored it to what it would have been like when Choi lived there. It is now open to the public as a house museum.
A short walk from Choi Sunu’s House, is Yi Tae-jun’s house. Yi Tae-jun (1904-1970?) was a novelist who became an important leader in literary circles in the 1930s and 1940s. After liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, he moved to the northern part of the country under Soviet rule that later became North Korea and remained active in literary circles there until he was purged in 1956. Yi designed and built the house in 1933 and wrote many of his famous works there. The large garden area, in place of an enclosed courtyard, gives this house a rustic feeling and the house incorporates the aesthetics of a traditional country estate into the design. In the late 1990s, one of Yi’s relatives turned the house into a traditional Korean tea house known as Suyeonsanbang.
Han Yong-un’s house, or Simujang, sits on the edge of a hill a short walk from Yi Tae-jun’s house. Han Yong-Un (1879-1944) was a Buddhist monk who became one of Korea’s most famous poets. He was also one of the 33 signers of Declaration of Independence that started the March 1st Movement in 1919. Han moved to the Seongbuk-dong in the 1920s and then built this house in 1933. He lived here until his death in 1944. The house consists of one rectangular building with all the rooms opening into the garden, a pattern more common in warmer southern areas of Korea, but rare in Seoul. Like Yi Tae-jun’s house the house does not have an enclosed courtyard like other hanoks built at the time. The large garden and open view make the house feel more like a country retreat than an urban residence. It is open to the public as a house museum.
In contrast to the three hanoks in Seongbuk-dong, the alleys lined with hanoks near Exit 2 of Hansung University Station are one of the largest concentrations of hanoks outside the Seoul City Wall. The area has an urban feel because it is surrounded by shops and restaurants on four sides. The hanoks vary in size, but most are small, which makes the area feel like Ikseon-dong. The area has long been a target of redevelopment, but opposition to redevelopment remains strong. Supporters of redevelopment do not maintain their homes because they want them to deteriorate further to justify claims that the house are too old to preserve. Preservation of hanoks in the area cannot move forward until the redevelopment controversy is settled.
Finally, the area behind the main street leading from Exit 5 of Hansung University Station has several hanoks that have been converted into cafés and bars, giving the area a Seochon-like feeling. Similarly, several hanoks along the long street leading from Exit 6 are being used as restaurants and bars. This street and nearly streets were once lined by larger hanoks that were home to upscale residents. All the areas near other exits of Hansung University Station still have hanoks amid the jumble of 1990s multi-family units and, like their counterparts in Bukchon and Seochon, new owners have begun to renovate the houses, ensuring that hanoks will remain part of the cityscape in this part of Seoul.
_Magazine Hanok N.17