Prepare yourself, folks, there’s a history lesson in here today! 🙂
I think most would agree that the skyline of Seoul in many areas is quite impressive, however, the inside of most apartment buildings, the majority of the skyscrapers in Seoul, look like something this side of a psych ward. The apartments weren’t made to necessarily be creative, interesting or impressive. Barren boxes, designed to house as many families as possible, is what comes to mind when I think about how most of us live in Seoul.
So when we are tired of looking at our boring little boxes, it is time to visit areas with traditional architecture and a time when homes were made with a bit more love and care. One such area is a tiny hanok island surrounded by those tall, boring buildings, called Ikseon-dong. It’s just a neighborhood over from Insa-dong. The entire area is experiencing a glowing revival, much the same as the hanok renovations in Samcheong, Bukchon and Seochon.
Renovations to these wonderful little places have been met with controversy through the years, however. In the gorgeous coffee table book, Hanok: The Korean House, professor and author Robert J. Fouser explains,
“Preservationists were alarmed at the extent of the changes and began to complain that the scale of the renovations went beyond what was necessary and, in some cases, equaled new construction. Architects and builders, meanwhile, argued that the houses needed a full-scale gut renovation or, in some cases, complete reconstruction so that they could be updated to contemporary needs.”
As someone who loves traditional architecture but also revels in modern conveniences, I love the idea of renovating and updating these elegant homes. But, it’s important not to lose the Korean aesthetic. Actually, that is how Ikseon-dong got its start. During the Japanese colonization of the early last century, new construction made its way into the scene by tearing down traditional Korean housing. A prominent house builder bought up land to start construction on the city hanok style in the 1930s to save the Korean aesthetic. Ikseon-dong was born and still displays the city style.
From Hanok: The Korean House,
“The roots of the city hanok remain clearly on display in Ikseon-dong today: rows of houses with brick walls, short eaves, glass windows and brick and tile walls.”
Ikseon-dong has new construction in every lane but seems to be keeping the city hanok style. There are shops, bars and restaurants that are completed and thriving as well as homes in progress. Walking along the quiet streets around the Lunar New Year’s Holiday, I was charmed by the area. Hanoks are lovely and make wonderful modern live and work spaces. But, I don’t think anyone visiting would want to drive up rents and push out the people who have kept the neighborhood alive all these years.
When you visit, and you should visit, respect the area and the fact that families call Ikseon home. Marvel in the traditional and modern commingled and throw a little money at the new and old shops and eateries so they can continue to breathe new life into this very Korean neighborhood.
Want to read more?
Hanok Revival | Eloquence
Saving a Korean District | The New York Times
To get there exit at Jongno 3-ga and follow the map: