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Preserving Conventional Korean Houses, One Tile at a Time


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On this metropolis of high-rise flats and uber-hip espresso outlets promoting $8 lattes, the handiwork of sustaining hanoks is a devotion to a slowly vanishing piece of historical past.

In two neighborhoods, a pair of hanoks — conventional Korean properties, each constructed over 100 years in the past — are being rigorously preserved. One a museum, the opposite a renovated house, these hanoks stay a lot as they at all times have, at the same time as Seoul continues its vertical ascent round them.

On one fall afternoon — what turned out to be the ultimate day of labor earlier than one other South Korean winter set in — Choi Jae Pil, a licensed grasp artisan, or wa-gong in Korean, and three colleagues have been placing the ending touches on one part of the roof on the Bukchon Conventional Cultural Heart within the metropolis’s centuries outdated Bukchon Hanok Village. Mr. Choi has been restoring hanoks for nearly 45 years. He’s completely at house among the many black clay tiles that line the gently sloping roofs of the timber and stone-block buildings.

The neighborhood, which comprises some 900 hanoks, together with personal properties, guesthouses, eating places and teahouses, attracts throngs of vacationers all year long. And the cultural heart, as soon as house to a distinguished Korean household, homes a guests’ heart and museum of a couple of dozen rooms that explains the historical past and constructing methods of the hanok type. Like every century-old house, it wants frequent restore.

Right this moment, that work, at one level, resembled the warm-up session earlier than a baseball recreation, as staff on the bottom threw clumps of clay blended with lime to a colleague on the scaffolding who then rounded them to a different colleague on the rooftop. The clay was then molded into place on the backside of one in all a number of vertical rows of tiles, so it could act as a sort of stabilizer to assist maintain the row in place. And the rows, in flip, assist maintain collectively the bigger horizontal curved tiles, referred to as giwa tiles, that drape a conventional Korean rooftop.

Mr. Choi and his co-workers are all giwa craftsmen, licensed by a division of the South Korean authorities that additionally mandates primary practices.

“The tiles have to be put in by an artisan licensed by the Korean authorities,” mentioned Mr. Choi, now 78, as he supervised the employees filling the previous couple of cracks on the roof tiles with clay. “And the tiles made, say, as much as 200 years in the past are so significantly better than those made within the final 50 years. We need to protect these.”

The giwa tiles, made from molded and fired clay, are every formed like a semi-flattened U (which staff name the feminine tiles) and are organized in horizontal rows alongside the roof, nearly like bumps or scales, which are held in place by extra vertically U-shape tiles (the males) inverted on both facet, about each 10 inches or so. No nails or pegs are used. All the things is linked and held in place like a jigsaw puzzle.

“We change the mud holding the male tiles in place and restore cracks and erosion within the feminine tiles, that are those extra uncovered to the weather and the place the water drains off the roof,” Kim Hyun Woo, an assistant director on the Hanok Coverage Division of Seoul’s municipal authorities, mentioned as he gestured towards one of many rooftops. (He is also licensed as a conventional carpenter.)

“The method of cleansing and restoration is like cleansing the scales of a dragon,” Mr. Kim added. “They should be accomplished in an actual and delicate method.”

Though the division estimates that there are 85,000 hanoks throughout South Korea, Seoul’s fast urbanization lowered their numbers within the metropolis to about 8,000 in 2020 from about 22,000 in 2006. Mr. Choi mentioned fewer younger persons are taking on the craft of restoring hanoks, as they’re being lured away by better-paying jobs in South Korea’s robust economic system. However he’s hopeful that may change.

“There are younger individuals studying the commerce, however principally outdoors of Seoul,” he mentioned. “It’s not going to vanish, however it’s troublesome handbook labor.”

One couple in Seoul, Park GoodWon and Boo YoungJin, know one thing about onerous work in relation to restoring a hanok house. Theirs has 5 rooms, with wooden beams and sliding wood doorways, centered round a courtyard of about 140 sq. ft, and can be within the Jongno-gu neighborhood, a couple of mile from Bukchon Hanok Village.

The couple has spent the final seven years finessing their 150-year-old hanok, which stands in stark distinction to the slick flats which have come to outline Seoul’s skyline, and town’s financial increase of the final 25 years or so.

“Once we bought the home, it had a drop ceiling, so we needed to take it down and renovate the unique ceiling, which took about six months,” mentioned Mr. Park, now 65, who leads Taoist meditation teams in one of many 5 rooms of the home. “The ceilings and wooden all needed to be repainted and cleaned. There have been additionally greater than 50 windowpanes and doorways to scrub.”

Additionally, that they had the home rewired, the brand new wiring operating alongside the unique beams in a fragile line of purple and blue.

The design of most hanok properties was based mostly on the buildings of the Joseon dynasty, which lasted from 1392 to 1910. Many hanoks have been constructed within the remaining a long time of that dynasty, though Mr. Kim of Seoul’s hanok division mentioned many of the ones that stay at the moment have been constructed within the Twenties and ’30s, because the centuries-old design remained fashionable even after the dynasty ended.

“It was throughout the Japanese occupation, particularly within the first couple of a long time of the twentieth century, when the nation was launched to modernity,” he mentioned. “But it surely was in a forceful method.”

In consequence, the restoration of many hanoks has been about undoing that modernity — and reminders of the Japanese occupation — and reclaiming the Korean heritage.

“We thought that if we purchased this home, we may repair it the way in which that we needed,” mentioned Mrs. Boo, 51, a retired civil servant. “It’s in our type, our style and with our contact, however we weren’t ready for the way a lot work it could be.”

“Ignorance ensures braveness,” she added with fun.

The restoration, which additionally included putting stones that had as soon as been heated below the flooring within the conventional Korean “ondol” type into the courtyard, was a full-time job. The entire course of was lastly completed in early 2017 — seven years after Mr. Park and Mrs. Boo purchased the home. They declined to say how a lot all of it price.

“Once we accomplished every part, I may see that the home was dancing, in a method,” Mr. Park mentioned. “Consider it as if you happen to hadn’t been in a position to take a shower for six a long time, however then you definitely cleaned your self up. How would you are feeling?”

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