The House of Choi

by David Kilburn

First published in "Wingspan" September 1990. PDF version, with illustrations and photos available here

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한국어 번역 - 클릭

The drive from Kimpo Airport to Seoul is a journey back through modern times, and then a leap into history. The Olympic highways speed past serried rows of modern high rise apartment blocks. The mountains at the city's northern perimeter come into clearer view. The road narrows and slowly passes the granite, steel, and glass towers of downtown offices, hotels and stores. Pause for a moment, listen to the bustle of the modern world. Let its noise envelop you. Then walk slowly away from it towards the craggy mountains. Here Seoul was born as home for the Kings of Korea.

In the foothills of Pukaksan Mountain, about 15 minutes walk from the Lotte Hotel stands Kyongbokgung Palace, built originally in 1394. The palace lies in a gentle valley, a site chosen because cosmic forces, and those of the earth are in harmony with man. The mountain views are imposing, and the landscape helps defence.

Rising up the foothills next to the palace is a sprawling cluster of one-storey houses roofed in heavy black-tiles. This is Kahoi Dong. The name means 'the district where beauty gathers.' And so it is. A maze of narrow roads, steps, and footpaths branch in all directions, climbing hills and along ridges, leading to houses big and small, jostled together. These are Hanok, or traditional Korean houses. All told, there are about 200 of them left in Kahoi Dong, now a protection area.

H ere, in 1987, my wife CHOI Keum Ok and I decided we would make our Korean home, and my own interest in Korean architecture was born.

"Even to people who have lived in Seoul all their lives, this district is a surprise. A traditional Korean house has very beautiful lines. Nothing is perfectly straight, or square, or flat. Everything has a texture and a variation all of its own. Just being here is a relaxation," she says. Words I can only echo in agreement.

Despite their traditional look, most of the houses in Kahoi Dong were built in the 1930's, though a few are much older. Their styles are those perfected through the five centuries of the Choson dynasty to 1897, plus a few modern embellishments such as electricity. The techniques used to build them are also traditional. Concrete, steel beams, brushed aluminium, nails and screws had all yet to make their full impact on the way a home was built. Dry mortice joints, wooden and bamboo pins, plus a sense of balance give great strength and solidity.

The residences of Yangban, the Confucian scholar-aristocrats of royal Korea are the inspiration for Kahoi Dong. The styles of decoration, size of beams, roof pitch, and numbers of rooms allowed once depended on social rank. By the 1930's the regulations had disappeared, while the urge to enjoy ancient symbols of rank had not.

From the street the houses are tantalizing and mysterious. Nearly all are single storey and completely hidden by high walls. Eaves and gables peep above them. Roses and ivy hang over them. Laughter and music escape from them. Children run out of the imposing wooden doorways, but the life within is hidden from view.

An Englishman's home may be his castle, but in comparison these Korean houses are fortresses. Korea's long history of wars and invasions can certainly justify a protective turn of mind but surely every home need not be planned to resist a long siege ? The real enemy is more elemental, more bitter than man, it is winter. Throughout centuries this foe returns without fail offering only a brief truce in the summer months.

In the long winters, a dry, icy wind blows down Korea from Siberia. The temperature plummets to minus 10'C, minus 20, and even below minus 30. Monsoons from the Pacific drench the short hot summers as the temperature rises to the mid 30's. However, it is winter that predominates. Not surprisingly, the Korean house has evolved some ingenious strategies to keep warm.

Winter visitors will kneel and place their hands on the floor. This is not prayer, or a sign of respect to the household. The floor, not the hearth, is the source of life preserving warmth. This is the ondol (it means 'warm stone'), the heart of a Korean home. Origins are unclear, but the idea may have come from Central Asia. In Korea, ondols have been around since the fifth century.

There is little to see. The ondol floor is completely bare, bar a few cushions and simple furniture. At first sight, it looks covered with old yellow linoleum turned up at the edges along the walls.

In older houses, the floors are built from stone over a hypocaust. Heat from a kitchen fire or an outside furnace channels through the flues, heating the stone and the room.

In modern houses, concrete may replace stone. Today's ondol may be heated by gas, electricity, piping hot steam, or foul smelling coal briquettes. But the colour is always yellow.

A practised eye can soon tell the warmest spot in the room, and also the age and likely source of heat. Traditionally the stone floors are covered with a sealing of fine clay. Thin sheets of paper are pasted on top and then thicker, overlapping sheets of strong hand-made mulberry-leaf paper. The paper is varnished with vegetable oil made by pounding soy beans and wild sesame seeds in a cloth bag. As the oil seeps out, it is painted across the floor, where it dries pale yellow in colour. Later, when the ondol is heated, the colour turns deeper. Hot spots betray themselves by turning shades of brown - the darker, the hotter. If the heat comes from a fire, the ondol colour is paler further from the source. Under-floor piping shows itself in faint brown patterns on the floor. As the years pass, yellow slowly subsides into a rich chestnut brown.

The warmest spot is for the guest. In crueller times unwelcome visitors or prisoners might be cooked alive on truly hot spots by stoking the furnace outside. Cooking is a good description. Ancient scrolls depict early ondols as a large hot stone plate on a wood burning stove. The stone would hold the heat for a long time and have been a comfortably warm spot to sit if the fire was not too fierce. How natural to make the plate bigger for all to warm themselves. There are still many old houses where the fire from the kitchen stove also heats the ondol.

Warm in winter the traditional ondol is also pleasantly cool in summer, as air circulates through the flues.

Walls and roofs are also designed to keep the heat within. The frame of a Hanok is a heavy, cube of wooden beams, resting on corner stones of granite. The cube supports tiers of wooden rafters which make the ceiling. The more tiers, the steeper is the slope of the roof and the loftier the status of the household. The rafters hold in place layers of corn stalks, mats of rice straw, and layers of clay and earth. A topping of heavy black tiles completes the insulation and weather proofing. Heat stays inside in winter and is kept outside in summer. Walls too are made of clay and corn stalks, finished with a wash of clay. A layer of handmade paper that also runs over the trellis frames of the windows and doors gives the final interior touch.

To support their heavy load, the pine beams are massive. Across the middle of the house runs the 'Daedulpo', or 'Big wood' - the main beam that in turn supports the roof. The richer the household, the bigger is the wood.

Ondol rooms usually have a false ceiling for added insulation. However, the splendour of the beams is revealed in wooden floored rooms that are used as corridors or reception rooms.

The wooden beams that give the interior its beauty also give warmth to the exterior. The rafters project out from the walls to make eaves that shelter a verandah. This doubles as a place to sit and a walkway round the house. The rich colours of the wood contrast with plain white walls. Before paint came in cans, Korean artisans would boil corn stalks with seaweed. The filtered broth was mixed with lime to give a white warmer than most modern pigments provide.

After the weather, Confucius had the most lingering impact on Korean social life and the design of the home. He laid down ethical codes which decreed that male and female shall not sit close after the age of seven. Traditionally, a home was divided into two sections, the sarangchae for men and the anchae for women. In larger homes, these would be different buildings, separated by walls and gates.

The anchae was where wives and elder daughters spent their time, where children grew up, where fabrics were stitched and food prepared. Kitchens, store rooms and the main room which doubled as the master bedroom were all in the anchae.

The sarangchae housed the master's den or library, a shrine to the ancestors, and some additional bedrooms. Guests were received here. For recreation there might be a checker board, or harp. For hospitality a tea set. For the intellect, books, scrolls, and writing brushes. Low cushions and mats made it comfortable to sit or sprawl on the floor.

Our own house has two buildings. My wife and I live in the anchae while mother-in-law lives in the sarangchae. The courtyard doubles as an extra room. My mother-in-law washes vegetables and clothes there. It is also in the courtyard that Kimchi, miso paste and soy sauce are made. The courtyard is good for barbecues and conversation, watching the carp or contemplating the lily pond.

Despite their beauty, to Western eyes there is something missing in the Korean house. There is no garden. Space is not the problem. Even great temples and the palaces of kings boast only vast courtyards. There may be a few well placed trees and shrubs, but there is no attempt to organise nature to complement the house or mirror the landscape. There is no Korean equivalent to the elaborately manicured Japanese garden.

"When the Japanese enjoy views of a mountain or lake, they like to bring it near to them, and re-create in miniature in their gardens. We Koreans would much rather go out and view nature in the raw," says Mr. OH Bang Il, a researcher at the Institute for Korean Architectural Culture at Myong-ji University.

The Korean countryside is bedecked with discrete pavilions providing shelter and a place to sit while enjoying the view. Even Seoul's enchanting 'Secret Garden,' where the Royal Family used to relax and entertain, is essentially 78 acres of nature in the raw.

Although the courtyard trees may look accidental, there is ancient lore to guide their choice. My mother-in-law, Mrs OH Sea Soon is a repository of this knowledge:

"Never plant a peach tree near the home. It drives away ghosts and spirits. It will even prevent the spirits of our ancestors returning to bless us."

" A sandalwood tree is good to plant near the well. Its leaves never fall into the water, its wood protects from insects, and the roots keep the earth clean."

"Do not plant a large tree in the middle of the courtyard. It blocks the light and warmth of the sun we need for our very existence. Its roots can undermine the foundations of a building. It can only bring trouble."

While many Kahoi Dong residents would prefer to live in a modern apartment block, many, such as our neighbour Mrs CHUNG Seok Man would live nowhere else. Mrs. CHUNG and her family moved from the countryside to Kahoi Dong over 20 years ago to be near good schools for the children.

"I love the feeling of my house," she says. " My son lives in a modern apartment building. When I visit him and his family the concrete building makes my heart feel a little heavy. Modern buildings lack the character and individuality of the old. In Kahoi Dong, every house is different. They are all hand-made by craftsmen from wood, stone, paper, earth, and straw. These are living houses, very warm, very friendly."

Old traditions co-exist happily with the modern world in Korea. Both oriental herbal medicine and the modern Western variety are practised and valued. Shamans still commune with a world of spirits to fend off evil or bring blessings for those who visit them. The vitality of folk arts and crafts reveals a world in which mountains, forests, and man share in a communal life just beyond the realm of modern sensibilities.

Our own valley is flanked by the spirits of the Blue Dragon and the White Tiger. Living in a house of wood, earth, paper, and stone it is easy to feel a rapport with natural forces. But there's no need to resort to geomancy or animism. As OH Sea Soon explains,

"I grew up in a Hanok and later I lived in an apartment. Now I feel very comfortable to be in a Hanok again, to water the plants, feed the fish and enjoy the sound of the birds once more."

An update for 1998

Kahoi Dong has seen many changes since this was written in 1990. Eventually, as property prices soared in the rest of Seoul, residents protested that the area's preservation status held back the increase in value they felt was rightfully theirs. The city government proposed a compromise: help with all repair and maintenance costs, reduced property and land taxes, and free installation of town gas supply. But the residents would have none of this, so the preservation status was rescinded. Now, every couple of months a block of houses disappears, to be replaced a new three or four storey apartment block. Property values have dropped, and continue to fall now that the Korean economy is in crisis. Recently a few of the older houses have been bought, and lovingly restored to their former glories by new residents. Our own street has, so far, been spared the encroachment of modern housing blocks and, this summer, one of the houses has been painstakingly restored.

But some things have not changed. We still draw our drinking water from a natural mountain spring higher up the mountain, as do all our neighbours. Many families have a favourite spring and will walk miles or drive even further to collect fresh drinking water. Each spring has a very slightly different taste, but it takes a connoisseur to discriminate the finer differences. It's not that Seoul lacks tap water, but as in many countries this has been endlessly treated and tastes so.

And others have improved. The city government has been replacing Acacia trees with Pine on the mountain slopes. The Japanese planted Acacias during their occupation of the country - these poison the soil for pines which die off (or so I am told). Why would they do this ? Well, the Pine is one of the natural landmarks of the Korean way of life which the Japanese tried to eradicate. This painful chapter of history has yet to be fully told in English.

In our own house, we have re-built the balcony and re-done the main doors. The difficulty with such work is finding the right quality of wood. Generally we have to wait till a carpenter (now hard to find ones with the right skills and patience) has amassed a suitable stock of old timbers from the demolition of other old houses. We installed dishes for satellite TV, but then took them down since they spoiled the feel of the house (and the TV wasn't that good). And we added sets of Dragon-head tiles to the roof for the protection they bring. Panda, a mongrel terrier, rescued as a puppy from the street a couple of years ago, has joined the family, and makes growls that belie his tiny size whenever he imagines an intruder may be nigh. The magpies, who visit frequently, ignore him, and , though they may nibble his food he respects them as fellow guardians of tradition and bearers of good luck.

An Update for 2004/2005

After several hundred years at the centre of Korean cultural and social life, Kahoi Dong, "the place where beauty gathers," is being relentlessly destroyed. Whole streets of hanoks have been bulldozed to be replaced by two storey buildings built mainly of concrete and decorated with a topping of Chosun-style architecture.

Last year (2004) a concerted attempt was made to demolish our own house, or at least make it unliveable. Land values, property speculation, and goverment money are, as usual the driving forces for the destruction.

More documents will be added to this site to show what is being done under the guise of "preservation" and with the active support of the Mayors of Seoul and of Chongro-gu.

You can read more about this here and see a film here.

David Kilburn, June 2005, August 2010

[ Original article first published in All Nippon Airways' Wingspan in-flight magazine, September 1990 ]

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