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Eunpyeong Hanok Village-A double pillared heritage (NYT Student Editorial 2018)

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

As Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the pioneers of modern architecture claimed, "God is in the details" of a work of architecture. But since the advent of this 'modern architecture,' have we remembered to include God's paramount legacy, mother nature, in our buildings?

Monolithic steel-and-glass skyscrapers, have crammed people into megacities and increased the efficiency of business, but left us oblivious to what a bracing walk into the forest can be like. Apartment buildings have provided more residential space but limited the flow of human interactions with erected grey, concrete barricades between inhabitants.

Often we forget, blinded by speed and productivity, that the best inspiration for architecture resides within openness of a natural environment, where all organisms are in full communion. 

The Eunpyeong Hanok Village, in South Korea, seems to herald this long-overdue change towards an organic vision of architecture. 

Arriving in this cluster of traditional Korean homes, I was greeted with raindrops rolling down curved roofs, made from meticulously-designed onyx tiles. Sturdy pine wood columns stood proud and tall, as if to glorify the existence of the tree since time immemorial. Waterlogged bodies rested on the warm Ondol, a traditional Korean masonry floor, heated with channels of hot air. The serene ambience of this Hanok enchanted me, extricating me from the cacophony and freneticism of city life. What really lured me, however, were the wooden elements. Wood had a beauty that stood on its own, rendering embellishments like effervescent lights and colossal glass facades unnecessary. It was a moment of reaffirmation that genuine beauty lies with nature. 

But this near-perfect aesthetic experience was infringed upon by a paradox: this “traditional” Korean village hadn’t existed only decade before. Rather than restoring an original site; these were new buildings. Korea’s past century underwent a period of brutal colonization and war, followed by rapidfire urban development. Many Hanoks now exist only in bits and parts -- or replicas -- in museums. 

But my visit to Eunpyeong Hanok Village revealed a silver lining. Newly-built villages give architects more room to experiment the fusion of traditional and modern styles. Indeed, the Hanoks in Eunpyeong village feature wide-glass windows and multiple stories, both of which are foreign to the traditional Hanok idiom. In Bukchon Hanok Village, for example, composed mostly of preserved Hanoks, they are a rarity. 

As my visit to the Eunpyeong Hanok Village comes to an end, I am left with a more nuanced view of the dichotomy between modern and traditional architecture. There is no doubting that traditional architecture’s poignant oneness with nature should be a more frequent occurrence on our streets. But those monolithic relics of utilitarian development? They, too, have their contribution to make. Inject the Hanok with their DNA of technical prowess, and perhaps we can arrive at an innovational architectural heritage: one propped up by a pillar of convention, on the one hand, and a pillar of innovation, on the other.

***The essay is a reflection of my experience visiting the Eounpyeong Hanok village alongside with my prior knowledge of Korean architecture. I thought the essay would be worth sharing, as it was awarded a runner-up in the 2018 NYT student editorial contest.***


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