Should old neighborhoods always be preserved? How do you preserve a neighborhood without it becoming just a re-creation of its former self?
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When I checked into the Hotel Ibis Insadong in Seoul, South Korea, I was immediately fascinated by the view from my window. The hotel overlooks the Ikseon-dong Hanok Area, or perhaps I should say it looms over it.
Ikseon-dong Hanok Area
The neighborhood looks from above to be about a city block around, and is filled with small, single-story, traditional Korean buildings, called hanoks. Many have the typical curved roof lines, with tiling supported by wood beams. From above, many appear to be in poor shape: the roofs have been repaired and patched, sometimes with what looks like scraps of tarp.
Exploring the neighborhood on foot confirmed my first impression. While some of the houses have been restored, many make a rundown impression. A few have the traditional plaster with decorative elements in tile, but many have been changed with the addition of plain tiling or concrete or other materials. A few contain businesses catering to tourists or young people, running teahouses or restaurants. Some clearly supply the more prosaic everyday necessities or cheap food. Most, though, seem to still be homes.
Strolling along the narrow alleyways – too narrow for cars, but motorcycles and scooters are everywhere – I could still glimpse here and there the traces of Seoul’s past in these homes . . . if I just ignored the tangles of electric wires, the external plumbing, the utility meters, and so on.
This neighborhood was built in the 1930’s, when Seoul was occupied by the Japanese and population pressure led to the development of tightly-packed hanok neighborhoods. And judging from the view from my hotel, the neighborhood is in imminent danger of disappearing, swallowed up by the growing city on all sides. Yet recent magazine articles tell of hopeful changes coming to the community. Some hanoks have been refurbished and aim for a chic end of the market. Some have become galleries.
Bukchon Hanok Village
Bukchon Hanok Village is another section of Seoul, a fifteen-minute walk from Ikseon-dong. Also built in the 1930’s for the same reason as Ikseon-dong, this “village,” shows the results of a joint effort between the city government and local residents to preserve what is left of the traditional hanok housing. This comes after a period in the 1980’s and 90’s when many were destroyed in favor of multi-unit buildings. Like Ikseon-dong, it contains many hanoks, but it has a completely different feel to it.
These houses are in good repair and appear closer to the traditional hanok. Many have the plaster with prettily-inset tile fragments lining their outside walls, or neat brick or stone work.
The electric wires above the streets are minimal and don’t hang low. The streets are clean and many of the homes have trees peeking over the walls or framing their doors.
Some of the hanoks in Bukchon appear to be brand new, judging by the light color and pristine state of the wood. Nevertheless, they were obviously built to the older traditional style.
The area is hillier, and strolling the streets can lead to some great views over the roofs of the hanoks.
Many of these are homes, clearly higher-end homes than in Ikseon, of course. Some of them are being used for “home stays,” though I don’t know whether those are really people’s homes, or function more as very small hotels. Also amongst them are various museums and workshops catering to visitors, some of which are housed in hanoks. This is a very partial list:
- Donglim Knot Workshop: demonstrates traditional knot-tying craftwork
- Bukchon Traditional Culture Center: museum with displays about the history and architecture of Bukchon
- Han Sang Soo Embroidery Museum
- Gallery Giotta (formerly Gallery W Gahoe): contemporary arts
- Bukchon Heritage Studio: heritage crafts
The day I explored Bukchon, the place that appealed to me most was the Bukchon Traditional Crafts Experience Center, which gives visitors the opportunity to try out some traditional Korean crafts: different ones each day of the week. On the day I visited, a Sunday, three options were available: painting a t-shirt (with a traditional drawing on it), making traditional paper slippers, or tie-dying a handkerchief. I chose the t-shirt. It was pre-printed with a design of a horse which appeared to have flames emerging from it.
I searched Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge, later, and I think the horse is meant to be Chollima. According to Wikipedia, when the people of the mythical kingdom of Silla
…gathered to pray for a king, the horse emerged from a bolt of lightning, bowing to a shining egg. After the horse flew back to heaven, the egg opened and the boy Park Hyeokgeose emerged. When he grew up, he united six warring states.
I spent a very pleasant hour using paint fabric dye to fill in the line drawing on the shirt.
Bukchon and Ikseon-dong are both hanok neighborhoods, both representatives of Seoul before its post-Korean War modernization. Few such homes remain in this city, and very few whole neighborhoods.
The question is whether any will remain at all, given the pressure of population growth. I don’t know anything about local politics or decision-making about preservation of older buildings, but from outward appearances, looking down on it from my hotel room, it seemed to me that the Ikseon-dong Hanok Area is probably doomed. Bukchon, on the other hand, will remain, but I fear it will increasingly become a disneyfied version of old Korea.
What do you think? Should old neighborhoods always be preserved? How do you preserve a neighborhood without it becoming just a re-creation of its former self?
My travel recommendations
- Skyscanner is where I always start my flight searches.
- Booking.com is the company I use most for finding accommodations. If you prefer, Expedia offers more or less the same.
- Discover Cars offers an easy way to compare prices from all of the major car-rental companies in one place.
- Use GetYourGuide to find walking tours, day tours, airport pickups, city cards, tickets and whatever else you need at your destination.
- Bookmundi is great when you’re looking for a longer tour of a few days to a few weeks, private or with a group, pretty much anywhere in the world. Lots of different tour companies list their tours here, so you can comparison shop.
Other travel-related items
- Get a Priority Pass if you fly a lot so that you can use airport lounges while you wait for flights. Plan your visits around meals and/or drink times and it’s definitely worth the investment!
- I’m a fan of SCOTTeVEST’s jackets and vests because when I wear one, I don’t have to carry a handbag. I feel like all my stuff is safer when I travel because it’s in inside pockets close to my body.
- Airalo is an e-sim card. You buy it through an app and activate it when you need it. I tried it on my trip to Thailand and it worked just like any other sim card, but without my having to fuss with physical cards.
- I use ExpressVPN on my phone and laptop when I travel. It keeps me safe from hackers when I use public or hotel wifi.