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Project Profile


2009 Award of Distinction

Hanok Regeneration in Bukchon

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Project Title: Hanok Regeneration in Bukchon

Location: Gahoe-dong and Samcheong-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea

Size: 645,500 square metres

Cost: US$ 2,944,901

Responsible Party: Seoul Metropolitan Government, Residents of Bukchon and Hanok Committee

Heritage Architect: Junggoo Cho, Doojin Hwang and Chulmin Kim

Contractor: guga urban architecture, Kilseong Kim, Wontaek Construction Co, Seokgyu Park, H.R.C., Jaho Construction, Yeong-su Jeong, Jangrae Cho and Changwon Son

Date of Completion: 31 December 2006


Located on the Han River in the centre of the Korean Peninsula, Seoul enjoys a temperate climate with four distinct seasons. The warmth and humidity of the summers and the cold temperatures of the winter meant that the city’s traditional architecture had to accommodate a range of conditions. Traditional dwellings and public buildings had to protect their inhabitants from freezing winter winds and provide cool spaces during the hot summer months. The hanok (traditional Korean house) did just this, offering comfort year-round in the context of a pre-industrial society. 

A typical historic district in Seoul, Bukchon is a residential neighbourhood situated between two palaces: Gyeongbok-gung and Changdeok-gung. Most of the houses in this area are of the hanok type, a wood-framed building with a masonry foundation and a ceramic tiled roof. With their wide front porches, the hanok formed a distinctive village and neighbourhood type. Individual houses joined to create a harmonious streetscape through linked garden walls and continuous lines of traditional clay roof tiles.

Over the years, the hanok in Bukchon, as in other historic areas of Seoul, deteriorated and many of these buildings were lost. A conservation project was initiated by members of the community in 2001 and as a result of city and community efforts to restore the hanok in the area, the once threatened Bukchon hanok district is now a vibrant urban community, where Korea’s unique living traditions and architectural values are well maintained. Furthermore, the innovative conservation effort has made Bukchon one of the most noted cultural districts in Korea. In addition to the physical improvements to the neighbourhood, the project elevated peoples’ awareness of cultural heritage and provided an example for similar interventions elsewhere in Seoul and in other parts of the country.

Building History

The hanok in Bukchon were originally built to house aristocrats and courtiers of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Rapid population growth in Seoul during the period of Japanese occupation, which began in the late nineteenth century, caused a serious housing shortage within the city. Large parcels of land in areas such as Bukchon were therefore subdivided into smaller lots and new buildings were constructed, mostly in a similar style to the original hanok structures.

By the mid-twentieth century many of the hanok dwellings were in poor condition. The city’s building code did not accept the hanok form as a viable housing type and the city refused to issue permits for substantial repairs. Many owners therefore did not repair their dwellings and many replaced their traditional houses with new buildings. The advent of modern materials, construction methods and tastes combined to alter many hanok neighbourhoods, causing a further deterioration of building stock and of neighbourhood cohesion.

In 1976, the city of Seoul designated Bukchon as a traditional landscape district. This move represented a significant shift in policy and was a first step toward the recognition of the heritage value of the city’s older neighbourhoods. Designation could not alter the poor condition of many buildings, however. City officials and heritage advocates still faced the fact that many older neighbourhoods were in an advanced state of deterioration. Many had, in fact, reached the point of becoming slums. Many owners held on to their properties for investment purposes only, while others abandoned their properties altogether.

In the early 1990s, these districts faced additional threats when the city raised height limits within older neighbourhoods, effectively targeting them for even more unsympathetic development. Multifamily apartment units and low- to mid-rise condominiums soon began to replace the older dwellings, radically transforming Seoul’s few remaining historic areas. Bukchon, although managing to escape much of the pressure that had affected other historic core areas of the city, faced additional pressure when the local district office introduced a clearance and redevelopment plan. Fortunately for the heritage value of the area, the district’s renewal plan hit a number of obstacles, including a lack of funding. This provided a period for re-evaluation and the emergence of a new popular appreciation of the historic building type.

Project History

In 2000, a number of community members began to identify the loss of Seoul’s historic neighbourhoods as a distinct problem. In response to citizen interest, the Seoul Metropolitan Government formed a task force to take a further look at the problem. The task force included community members, experts and local authorities, each group with different types of interests in the hanok neighbourhoods. Their charge was to devise a plan for the regeneration of Bukchon as a demonstration project for similar neighbourhoods. 

The following year, the task force initiated the Hanok Regeneration in Bukchon project. As part of the effort, the Seoul Metropolitan Government provided planning advice and earmarked funds for the implementation. The final assistance package included revised building regulations, various technical services and a hanok restoration subsidy fund.

Some residents resisted the project, arguing that many of the hanok in Bukchon were dilapidated or had suffered numerous modifications. They also had suspicions about the project in general. To bring unconvinced residents into the fold, the leaders of the Bokchon project subsidized the restoration costs, on the condition that the hanok owners agreed not to demolish their buildings for a certain period of time, allying the fears of many that the steps were irrevocable. Experts also worked closely with community members, providing advice on design and construction. This helped assure many residents that the project was a sound one, especially once the results of the first renovation efforts were visible.

Project Scope and Framework 

One of the great strengths of the Hanok Regeneration in Bukchon project is that, while local authorities had led previous conservation projects the Bukchon project relied on community members’ ideas and opinions in the planning process. The city and community members worked together to make the project feasible. Throughout the process, the team members and public officials emphasized the responsibility of individual owners for conservation of the historic district.

Focusing on the remaining hanok in the area, the conservation and restoration project encompassed 645,500 square metres of streets and buildings. The effort involved the restoration of 275 hanok, improvements to services, repair of sidewalks and streets, and landscape enhancements. Six years of work, supported by civic groups and community leaders, resulted in a transformation of historic Bukchon. 

Conservation Methodology and Materials 

The first step in the conservation process was a thorough analysis of existing conditions. This effort included archival research, interviews with community residents and completion of measured drawings. This research provided the core data for decision-making and identified many of the problems present among the hanok. From the drawings, the project team was able to create a master set of working plans for the project, as well as preparing individual restoration schemes for the selected dwellings. The team also added other information about Bukchon and hanok dwellings to the database, establishing a permanent record for future reference. The project team members met regularly with the community to keep residents apprised of the project’s progress. Residents received copies of the plans and copies of the city’s designs for the enhancement of streets and alleyways.

A committee of experts reviewed the measured drawings and photographs of the existing hanok and the drawings of the planned restoration to evaluate changes and give guidance on the spatial characteristics of the area and on traditional building practice. The committee also inspected each of the restoration sites during the implementation period. Upon completion of each restoration, the committee members visited the sites again to ensure that the work had followed the submitted plans. Only then did the committee release the full subsidy funds. The purpose of this meticulous review process was toensure that the project met the highest standards and that the restoration work preserved the unique qualities of hanok in Bukchon.

In the individual hanok, attention was paid to bringing back the traditional layout of the courtyard houses, as many of the houses had seen various reconfigurations over the years. Based on the results of archival research and on-site surveys, the original compositions of the dwellings were reinstated, with the clear distinction between the sarangchae (master’s quarters), anchae (women’s quarters) and mungangchae (gate section). Traditional features such as maru (raised wooden floors) and darak (attics) were restored. A key feature of the vernacular Korean house, the ondol (under-floor heating system) was reinstated in many of the houses, which required installing agungi (fireplaces under the ondol) and chimneys in the courtyards. The traditional low walls were also reconstructed, enhancing the public streetscape.

To provide modern amenities for the occupants, kitchens, plumbing, and other services were improved, but in a manner compatible with the historic building structure. For instance, in remodelling kitchens, traditional elements such as the wooden flooring and seokkarae (exposed rafters) were kept, to be true to the original aesthetics. Likewise, the design of existing windows was retained, but an additional layer of glazing was added for better heat insulation. Modern devices such as wireless internet modems, security systems and air conditioning were enclosed in built-in closets or under raised floors.

Important Issues 

The project benefitted from the fact that a number of skilled local carpenters were available for the project. These carpenters and other artisans played an important role in the project, working closely with the conservation team’s architects. Many of these workers still possessed knowledge of traditional techniques and were familiar with the materials employed in the project. Because the carpenters had understanding of traditional forms and techniques, it was possible to restore the original structures from their deteriorated or altered conditions to a state approaching that of the original buildings. Without the advice and efforts of these skilled workers, the project would not have been possible.

Project Sustainability and Viability  

Overall, the general public showed considerable enthusiasm for the project, and the project resulted in the formation of a number of support groups. These included organizations such as the Gathering of People

Who Love Hanok, the Bukchon Culture Forum, the Seoul Urban Action Network and the Bukchon Project Supporters. Project personnel actively sought to include recommendations from all of these groups into the final action plan. The wide involvement of a large number of people and experts built a solid base for future sustainable development of this district.

Unlike many conservation projects, which find themselves constrained by financial limitations, the Bukchon programme had adequate funding and financial oversight. The city government was the primary support for the project. The government decided to invest in Bukchon over a six-year period and established Hanok Aid Ordinance, a legal step that helped provide for the cost of restoration of each of the selected dwellings.

The city provided matching funds of up to 75 per cent of restoration costs, with owners contributing the rest. Loans averaged $US13,000 and grants $US2,000. Owners provided an average of US$ 45,000 to complete the restoration of each house. This proved to be an effective partnership and one that ensured the continuing support of owners.

Project Impact 

As a result of the project, Bukchon has been transformed into a significant cultural resource, a place where tradition and modernity coexist. The project has also helped to promote the traditional values of Bukchon and similar communities.

The Hanok Regeneration in Bukchon project provides many valuable lessons for urban conservation. The regeneration programme provided an opportunity to re-evaluate the Korean traditional dwelling, the hanok, as a viable building type. Prior to the project, many residents viewed hanok as unsanitary and inconvenient, avoiding hanok communities if other forms of housing were available. The project brought about a remarkable change in this perception. Following the completion of the project, the traditional hanok is now recognized as an attractive and environmentally friendly building type, and many people now express an interest in living in similar settings. Hanok have become particularly popular among young people and foreign residents, many of which seek out hanok dwellings.

Through the Hanok Regeneration in Bukchon Project, the residents of the community have rediscovered the special value of the traditional hanok streetscape and their culture. The project has also instilled an elevated sense of heritage awareness among Seoul’s residents. This awareness will no doubt serve as a continuing support for future efforts in Korea. The project was also successful in helping to demonstrate to government officials the value of historic neighbourhoods and their place in city-planning efforts. This resulted in a revision of building codes and a greater knowledge of special conditions for older dwellings.

Quote from the Project Team

“The Hanok Regeneration in Bukchon project ended the mistakes of the restrictions that resulted in Bukchon being frozen, and in deregulation that resulted in reckless development in the previous 20 years. The project was initiated in response to community needs and was successfully delivered by the establishment of a new conservation and regeneration policy and by public-private partnership.”