If you have watched the historical Korean TV dramas, you definitely have seen the traditional houses lived by the Koreans at that time. These traditional houses are called “hanok” (한옥) and some which are over 500 years old still remain today. You can look at some photos of different parts of a boutique hanok hotel, Rakkojae (락고재), to get an idea of how a hanok looks like. Hanok is indeed a kind of living antique in South Korea. Let’s talk about hanok in this blog post.
Before the 1960’s, there were still a large number of hanok in South Korea. However, since 1960’s, due to industrialization and rapid growth of population, a lot of hanok have been demolished to build apartments and factories. It is estimated that initially there were more than 1 million hanok in South Korea but in 2000, only 10,000 were left. Fortunately, after 2000, with the environmentally-friendly attitude and interest in Korean history and culture gaining ground among the people, interest in Hanok (a form of architecture which is eco-friendly and has a long history) has revived and people are more concerned about the preservation of hanok.
Hanok is built with a view that the orientation and layout of a hanok should be in harmony with the surrounding natural environment. For example, as an ideal location for the house, Korean people prefer a site protected by hills or mountains at the back, with a stream or river passing in front. The roofline of the house is designed to run parallel to the curves of the surrounding mountain ridges. Factors such as limiting the effects of wind off the mountain, adequate ventilation and exposure to sunlight are also taken into account when designing hanok. Moreover, digging of the ground during construction should be kept to a minimum to ensure minimal environmental impact.
Hanok are made using only natural materials such as earth, stone and wood. Wood is used for pillars, rafters, doors, windows and flooring. Walls are a mixture of straw and earth. The Korean traditional paper (한지 – hanji) which is made from natural wood pulp is glued to the frame of the sliding doors and the cross ribs of the windows. The hanji allows natural air to penetrate through doors and windows and natural light to enter the room, providing indirect lighting which creates diverse colours and beauty. The floor is polished with bean oil after covering it with hanji, making the flooring waterproof. The roof can be made up of tiles, thatches and shingles though most of the hanok remaining today are tile-roofed houses.
The wooden structures within the house are assembled together through different kinds of joints without using any nails. If you are interested in how a hanok is constructed, you can refer to this website for a video clip or a series of pictures showing the construction process.
Hanok is built on a raised platform, usually made by piling rocks to avoid water splashing into the house on rainy days and to prevent the cold air and humidity from the ground from entering the house. The height of the platform is generally proportionate to the social status of the occupants of the house.
Hanoks are designed with the human body and needs in mind. For example, since people are usually sitting down in the room, the ceilings and the height of fixtures are generally lower than those in the hall where people are usually standing. To protect privacy of domestic life, women and children occupied the inner quarters of the house and men the outer quarters. Both the height and size of a window are based on the standard height and shoulder width of an adult person.
Hanok has fewer walls and more doors between the interconnected rooms in the house – this provides flexibility in changing the layout to suit the needs of the people. For example, when the door is closed, it serves as a wall and when it is open, it brings in the breeze to keep air circulating through the house. On the other hand, bedrooms in hanok are a place to sleep in, play in and eat in – interconnected bedrooms are separated by sliding doors which can be opened to create one single inner space to fit the activities to be undertaken.
Vacant or empty spaces are an important structural element of hanok. Such spaces can be used to plant flowering plants or trees or provide extra spaces for enriching the lives of those living in the house.
Features of Hanok Help Regulate Temperature Inside the House
A distinctive feature of hanok is the under-floor heating system called ondol (온돌) which is a system of channels running beneath the floor of the house from which heat is delivered from the fireplace in the kitchen to provide warmth to the floor of the house so people can utilize the floor for both dining and sleeping in daily life. The section of the house closer to the furnace is warmer and the warmer area is reserved for elders. Moreover, ondol is used for medical purposes – it is believed that lying on the hot floor in the cold winter can help ward off illness and is good for the tired or sick people, pregnant women and the elders. Nowadays, some modern apartments are furbished with a heating system similar to the ondol system although traditional heat channels are replaced by under-floor metal pipes with running water heated either by gas or electricity.
Another important feature is the wide wooden-floor area (maru) located in the centre of the house and used for multiple purposes. The room is usually larger than other rooms and is raised from the ground to allow air to freely circulate under it, creating a cool living environment during the summer season.
Hanok tends to have long eaves (cheoma) – far-projecting overhanging cheoma are better at shielding the house from the high sun of summer months as they provide a large amount of shade, making hanok much cooler in summer. In winter months when the sun is low, sunlight penetrates deep into the interior of the house to provide warmth and the deep cheoma also prevent the warm indoor air heated by the ondol floor from escaping the house.
Decorations of Hanok – Minimalism
Decorations within hanok are kept to a minimum, usually inconspicuous and simple in nature, for example, latticework on doors and windows. Paintings, calligraphic works, simplistic but useful wooden furniture and chinaware are often used for interior decorations of hanok. Given its simplistic beauty, nowadays, some Koreans may make use of the hanok style of interior decoration for their apartments – you may watch this video to see how this is done – it really makes the apartment look very elegant.
In South Korea, there are several hanok villages in which hanok have been preserved for tourists to visit, the most well-known one being the Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul. While some hanok in these hanok villages are still lived by people, some have become tea houses, cafes, restaurants, traditional workshops or shops. You may visit them when you are in South Korea. For a list of these hanok villages, please refer to this website. You can watch this video for viewing the hanok located in Bukchon Hanok Village.
If you want a closer touch with hanok, there are some hanok which have been renovated as guesthouses for tourists to stay and experience the traditional Korean lifestyle and culture. These hanok are usually decades to hundreds of years old. You can view the list of hanok guesthouses available at the Korea Tourism Organization’s website.
Next time you are in South Korea, don’t forget to visit the hanok villages and stay in the hanok guesthouses to experience this traditional Korean culture.
Reminder: The next blog post will be published on 24 March 2015. Watch this space!
Arirang TV, “Korea Today – Beauty of Korea’s hanok transcends time“, Arirang Issue, 2015-02-22
Arirang TV, “Hanok“, 100 Icons of Korean Culture, 2013-08-22
Daniel Tudor著， 胡菀如譯，《韓國： 撼動世界的嗆泡菜》，台北市： 聯經出版事業股份有限公司，2013年版, 234-241頁
Nilesh Patel, “The Hanok: A glimpse into Korean eco-architecture“, The Culture Trip
Robert Fouser, “Housing“, Korea.net
“Hanok Traditional Houses“, Korea Tourism Organization
“Hanok House“, Korea Tourism Organization