Conflict Between History and Modernity Plays Out in Seoul District

Single-story, tiled-roof houses called hanok used to cover the footprint of Seoul, now a city of skyscrapers and avant-garde architecture. Today many describe the hanok as "endangered,"and conflict has come to a head in the small district of Bukchon.
December 14, 2010, 10am PST | Emily Laetz
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The hillside district of Bukchon in central Seoul is the perfect microcosm for a larger conflict between traditional and modern cultural values that is presently escalating in South Korea. This is where some of the last traditional residential dwellings, called hanoks, stand clustered in noteworthy numbers. Hanoks are particularly admired by historical preservationists for their handcrafted construction and unique design elements such as interior private courtyards. The conflict parallels a larger debate over whether South Koreans are blatantly eschewing their cultural heritage in favor of the new and technologically-advanced.

According to Mark McDonald of The New York Times:

"For all its outward calm and quietly elegant architecture, Bukchon is also a place of anger and suspicion. The preservationists, you see, are at each other's throats."

" 'They want to kill my husband and drive us out,' said one resident, Jade Kilburn, a Korean entrepreneur, who, alongside her British husband, David, has battled their neighbors, the police, the courts and a range of city technocrats in an effort to protect Bukchon's traditional houses from being tarted up or demolished outright."

"Not so long ago, Bukchon had 2,500 hanok. Now there are barely 800, and only one street in the whole neighborhood remains untouched. Preservationists believe the original hanok are now as endangered as any whale or panda. Bukchon, for them, is the last rain forest in a city of chainsaws."

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Published on Monday, December 13, 2010 in The New York Times
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