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BOUND to PLEASE / Serene beauty revealed behind doors of hanok Korean homes

The Japan News

By Kumi Matsumaru / Japan News Staff WriterHanok: The Korean House

By Nani Park and Robert J. Fouser

Photos by Jongkeun Lee

Tuttle Publishing, 176pp

When talking about South Korean culture, the first things that come to mind might include K-pop music, spicy food, bustling city markets or neon-colored hanbok dresses. But authentic Korean culture also has a low-key side.

Hanok, the traditional Korean house, presents a quiet and traditional yet stylish face of the country.

“Han” means “Korea” and “ok” means “house” in the Korean language. According to Nani Park and Robert J. Fouser, coauthors of “Hanok: The Korean House,” traditional hanok built by master carpenters have evolved to suit the Korean climate and the practical needs of residents.

Hanok, first built in the 14th century during the Joseon Dynasty, are constructed of four elements: wood, stone, clay and paper. They also incorporate natural elements such as wind and sunlight, with feng shui considered as well.

“Hanok” explores 12 “city hanok,” which were built on smaller lots that were divided from larger lots. City hanok started to appear in the late 1920s and ’30s, and many can be found in the Bukchon neighborhood in Seoul. The neighborhood sits between two of Seoul’s five Joseon Dynasty palaces, Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, the latter of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Leafing through “Hanok” will leave readers impressed with the beauty of hanok’s basic structure. The use of paper, as seen in latticed doors and windows, suggests an abundance of indirect lighting inside. The straight lines of the walls beneath the flowing lines of the tiled roofs elevate the sense of cleanliness and sophistication. The faintly luminous, composed air is firmed up with small touches of black ironwork, such as hinges and locks.

While hanok may be Korean, an appreciation of the essence of their beauty is shared by another culture. The preference for dim, indirect lighting and understated, natural elements reminds me of Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay, “In Praise of Shadows,” in which he celebrates the Japanese aesthetic ideal.

Also, the owners of the 12 city hanok stylishly arrange their interiors by mixing old and new, or East and West.

The owner of a 1920s hanok in Bukchon, for example, fills the house with objects he collected on visits to Insadong, Seoul’s antiques street, along with works by modern interior designer Teo Yang. He also adds traditional Korean folk paintings and calligraphy to the headboard in a Western-style guest bedroom for more Korean flavor.

The owner of a 1930s hanok gives his house a contemporary, urban and even playful look by introducing a bright green color scheme and displaying bicycles on a wooden pillar. Another hanok owner chose chairs by Danish designer Hans Wegner to lighten up space that might be too solemn otherwise.

Photographer Jongkeun Lee captures the many faces of city hanok from various angles. Pine trees that often appear beyond windows and doors suggest a rather secluded, peaceful atmosphere around hanok, while concrete buildings beyond tilted tiled roofs underline that the classic buildings are located in the middle of a busy city.

Seeking the flavor of hanok, you might stay at one of the hanok-style accomodations that are popular among tourists nowadays. But you can find something truly local and special in the pages of “Hanok.”

When to Read

Before traveling to South Korea in search of something more than colorful pop culture.

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