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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Hanoks, Old Korean Houses

This is the first entry in my series about the development of one of the world’s most crowded countries. (Originally posted at www.urbanneighbourhood.wordpress.com)

Traditional House, A Hanok, in Gyeongju

Traditional House, A Hanok, in Gyeongju

Unlike modern times, Korea’s population wasn’t always high, during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1920) it hung somewhere around 8 million. For a country (complete country) twice the size of Ireland, 8 million people isn’t densely populated. It wasn’t until the Japanese arrived with tenant farms and forced quotas did the productivity of the land increase dramatically, driving up the population as well. The centre of Korean life was always the village. Though Seoul was a city of approximately 1 million people during the Joseon period, most of the countryside was undeveloped, and the major cities of today, Busan, Daegu and Pyongyang were actually quite small.

Traditional Village - Andong

Traditional Village - Andong

The average Korean was quite poor, as the Joseon Dynasty followed the writings of Confucius, and believed that trade and commerce were at best a necessary evil and at worst a destabilizing influence on the people and the nation. Foreign trade was all but eliminated except the occasional tribute mission on Ming China. The main focus of the dynasty was on studying the Chinese classics, drawing all the nations intelligensia away from modernization, trade or military developments.

The rich people lived in wooden houses called Hanoks with floor heating and heavy tilled roofs. The poor lived in mud and wattled houses called Cho-ga-chib. The Hanok has been reborn in for the nouveau rich around the country, while the Cho-ga-chib are dying a slow death in villages around the country.

Traditional Roof - Haeinsa Temple

Traditional Roof - Haeinsa Temple

The floor heating system, called Ondol, is a uniquely Korean design. Traditionally the floors were heated by wood fires, as the rich houses were built on stone foundations. Korean winters, especially in what would become North Korea can be harsh, easily reaching -20C in some provinces.

The Hanok is characterised by the sloping roof and the and soft ‘U’ shape, whereas Chinese and Japanese roofs are straight. The shear weight of the tiles used in Hanok roofs is shocking.

Post and Beams

Post and Beams

The roof beams must be on average 12 inches in diameter. This, not surprisingly, makes construction of modern Hanoks prohibitively expensive. Even if the land is affordable (which it isn’t) the cost of wood makes building a new Hanok a multi-million dollar project. One of the solutions is to replace wood with reinforced concrete painted to look like wood. From the exterior the difference is almost unnoticeable, but the house seems much colder than those built traditionally.

Hanok re-construction has undergone a bit of a renaissance in the last 10 years, with a number of Hanok design and construction courses being offered at local colleges.

Lil House in the Mountains

Lil House in the Mountains

The government in Seoul has tried to protect various neighbourhoods, such as Bukcheon, but much of the restoration money has been misplaced as many of the original Hanoks were torn down and replaced with two story concrete ‘mock’ Hanoks with shops or restaurants built in, destroying the original character of the neighbourhood.

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