Preserving Traditional Korean Homes, One Tile at a Time

In this city of high-rise apartments and uber-hip coffee shops selling $8 lattes, the handiwork of maintaining hanoks is a devotion to a slowly vanishing piece of history.

In two neighborhoods, a pair of hanoks — traditional Korean homes, both built over 100 years ago — are being carefully preserved. One a museum, the other a renovated home, these hanoks remain much as they always have, even as Seoul continues its vertical ascent around them.

On one fall afternoon — what turned out to be the final day of work before another South Korean winter set in — Choi Jae Pil, a certified master artisan, or wa-gong in Korean, and three colleagues were putting the finishing touches on one section of the roof at the Bukchon Traditional Cultural Center in the city’s centuries old Bukchon Hanok Village. Mr. Choi has been restoring hanoks for almost 45 years. He is perfectly at home among the black clay tiles that line the gently sloping roofs of the timber and stone-block buildings.

The neighborhood, which contains some 900 hanoks, including private homes, guesthouses, restaurants and teahouses, draws throngs of tourists throughout the year. And the cultural center, once home to a prominent Korean family, houses a visitors’ center and museum of about a dozen rooms that explains the history and building techniques of the hanok style. Like any century-old home, it needs frequent repair.

Today, that work, at one point, resembled the warm-up session before a baseball game, as workers on the ground threw clumps of clay mixed with lime to a colleague on the scaffolding who then rounded them to another colleague on the rooftop. The clay was then molded into place at the bottom of one of several vertical rows of tiles, so it would act as a kind of stabilizer to help hold the row in place. And the rows, in turn, help hold together the larger horizontal curved tiles, called giwa tiles, that drape a traditional Korean rooftop.

Mr. Choi and his co-workers are all giwa craftsmen, certified by a division of the South Korean government that also mandates basic practices.

“The tiles must be installed by an artisan certified by the Korean government,” said Mr. Choi, now 78, as he supervised the workers filling the last few cracks on the roof tiles with clay. “And the tiles made, say, up to 200 years ago are so much better than the ones made in the last 50 years. We want to preserve those.”

The giwa tiles, made of molded and fired clay, are each shaped like a semi-flattened U (which workers call the female tiles) and are arranged in horizontal rows along the roof, almost like bumps or scales, that are held in place by more vertically U-shape tiles (the males) inverted on either side, about every 10 inches or so. No nails or pegs are used. Everything is connected and held in place like a jigsaw puzzle.

“We replace the mud holding the male tiles in place and repair cracks and erosion in the female tiles, which are the ones more exposed to the elements and where the water drains off the roof,” Kim Hyun Woo, an assistant director at the Hanok Policy Division of Seoul’s municipal government, said as he gestured toward one of the rooftops. (He also is certified as a traditional carpenter.)

“The process of cleaning and restoration is like cleaning the scales of a dragon,” Mr. Kim added. “They have to be done in an exact and delicate way.”

Although the division estimates that there are 85,000 hanoks across South Korea, Seoul’s rapid urbanization reduced their numbers in the city to about 8,000 in 2020 from about 22,000 in 2006. Mr. Choi said fewer young people are taking up the craft of restoring hanoks, as they are being lured away by better-paying jobs in South Korea’s strong economy. But he is hopeful that will change.

“There are young people learning the trade, but mostly outside of Seoul,” he said. “It’s not going to disappear, but it’s difficult manual labor.”

One couple in Seoul, Park GoodWon and Boo YoungJin, know something about hard work when it comes to restoring a hanok home. Theirs has five rooms, with wood beams and sliding wooden doors, centered around a courtyard of about 140 square feet, and is in the Jongno-gu neighborhood, about a mile from Bukchon Hanok Village.

The couple has spent the last seven years finessing their 150-year-old hanok, which stands in stark contrast to the slick apartments that have come to define Seoul’s skyline, and the city’s economic boom of the last 25 years or so.

“When we purchased the house, it had a drop ceiling, so we had to take it down and renovate the original ceiling, which took about six months,” said Mr. Park, now 65, who leads Taoist meditation groups in one of the five rooms of the house. “The ceilings and wood all had to be repainted and cleaned. There were also more than 50 windowpanes and doors to clean.”

Also, they had the house rewired, the new wiring running along the original beams in a delicate line of red and blue.

The design of most hanok homes was based on the buildings of the Joseon dynasty, which lasted from 1392 to 1910. Many hanoks were built in the final decades of that dynasty, although Mr. Kim of Seoul’s hanok division said most of the ones that remain today were built in the 1920s and ’30s, since the centuries-old design remained popular even after the dynasty ended.

“It was during the Japanese occupation, especially in the first couple of decades of the 20th century, when the country was introduced to modernity,” he said. “But it was in a forceful way.”

As a result, 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 bought this house, we could fix it the way that we wanted,” said Mrs. Boo, 51, a retired civil servant. “It’s in our style, our taste and with our touch, but we weren’t prepared for how much work it would be.”

“Ignorance guarantees courage,” she added with a laugh.

The restoration, which also included placing stones that had once been heated under the floors in the traditional Korean “ondol” style into the courtyard, was a full-time job. The whole process was finally finished in early 2017 — seven years after Mr. Park and Mrs. Boo bought the house. They declined to say how much it all cost.

“When we completed everything, I could see that the house was dancing, in a way,” Mr. Park said. “Think of it as if you hadn’t been able to take a bath for six decades, but then you cleaned yourself up. How would you feel?”

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