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themightyfin has written 18 posts for Urban Neighbourhood

What makes a good neighbourhood?


In the last month or so, I haven’t been much of a neighbour. I’ve been working hard on my own neighbourhood portal site Ulsan Online. It’s an attempt to bring together years of experience and knowledge into one site in a hope to rebuild a sense of community and togetherness. An, I hope to make a steaming heap of money. But, as I stare at the 180 exams I should be marking, I find my thoughts wandering around my neighbourhood.

I live about 100 meters from the university residences of a larger regional school in a remarkably urban country. Not quite as urban as Hong Kong, but a hell of a lot more urban than Thunder Bay, Ontario. It’s a neighbourhood of working guys, pretty poor students, and young families. There are too many apartments, not enough trees and a lot of ugly hydro wires. But, there is a certain feel to this area that makes it stand out in my mind. In a city of over a million, I’d rather live right here than anywhere else.

Maybe it’s the once-every-five-day market that pops up at the end of the street and has the guy that gives me a great deal on potatoes. Perhaps its the cheap chicken and awful beer just down the road, where you can put on weight and get a hangover for 10 bucks. Maybe it’s running into my older students who just want to chat and have a beer on weeknights that I like. It’s a neighbourhood that I’ve been living in and around for years, and at one point or another half of my best friends lived here. There are memories of first dates with my fiance, and throwing stuff of the roof of my old work. Is it the sharp corner where cars triple park? or the intersection that is impossible to walk through because of the 4 one way streets that all meet?

Is a neighbourhood buildings, that change slowly, or the people, who constantly buzz through. Is it that pothole that’s been growing year-by-year?

When I wander around the new apartment complexes springing up around the city (and I literally mean spring up, you park your  car one night in an empty lot, and find it on display in a computer store the next) I find little or nothing that I like, even though these new complexes are designed for people, with open spaces and benches, and the cars neatly parked downstairs.

The theme song to ‘Cheers’ somehow wanders through my head, but everybody here just calls me ‘foreigner’.

At the end of the day, staring down bad beer and battered chicken, I still must ask myself: What makes a good neighbourhood?

Atlas of True Names: The world without the curse of Bable

England...in English

England...in English

Playing around on Stumble upon found me this fantastic link from Der Speigel, the world translated into English. This map gives the image of a peaceful world where people understand each other. Where someone could travel from the land of the long beards to the town of happiness.

The map makers researched global place names to find their origins, and then translated them to English.

Toronto does something right! The Red Rocket

There has always been something unique about the huge lumbering giants on the streets of Toronto, the slow, meandering backbone of the transportation system, the street cars. Somehow, for some reason, most other major cities in the west (and many in Asia) retired their street cars in favour of buses. Many argued that the cables made the cities ugly, or that building new rails wasn’t cost effective. Buses were the answer.

The Red Rocket

The Red Rocket

Not any more.

American cities are looking at the Europeans (again) for the answer. Many European cities have been developing LRT or tram systems for years, now the Americans are following them. Read more

Yet another reason why European socialism is Evil; bicycle-sharing

First, they invented public health-care, then the notorious welfare state. The latest evil to spread across Europe is Bicycle sharing. The tall athletic socialists who always win sporting events are now trying to surpass even America’s own superman with this endemic.

A red bicycle, a sure sign of commies

A red bicycle, a sure sign of commies

The idea is simple, borrow a bike from a central hub, ride it to work. Leave it at a hub, ride it home. Nobody’s going to steal it, because they can just spend 30 euros and buy a card. Read more here

Ugliest Building in Britian

This is ugly?

This is ugly?

The Independent has an article about the ugliest buildings in Britian. To be fair, the buildings are nothing compared to what I see everyday outside, but if they really think they are noteworthy, let them enjoy the contest. A ten minute walk around any Korean city would give them a list of 100 uglier buildings.

Strange Maps

While looking for information about Korea I discovered this website (which I then shamelessly ripped off). It’s called Strange Maps and I’ve wasted the better part of the morning clicking around.

The site has a million cool maps

The site has a million cool maps

The South will rise again! Looking at Korean Apartments

There are not many people who would argue that North Korea will make a comeback and outshine their Southern brethern, but once, this wasn’t the case. During the war, both Koreas were raped, pillaged and flattened by waves of Chinese soldiers or American bombers. The North had more reminents of Japanese industry, the South (except for Seoul) had been used by the Japanese as a rice-basket.

Quite easy to find Pyeongyang on the map

Quite easy to find Pyeongyang on the map

By the early 1960s South Korea was heading the same way as the US backed Banana republics of Central America, or the Banana Republic of Asia, the Philippines. There was little or no industry, life, as the historians like to quote (Mills, I think) “was savage, brutal, and short”. This goes well for the architecture as well.  The other night I was flipping through my old Lonely Planet guide for SK with a student, and my student was complaining that all the photos were 50 years old. They weren’t, but they only showed the most rural aspects of the country. If you were to browse the book in a shop, you would get an image of Thailand’s North, or Laos.

South Korean cities, until recently, were much like their Northern counterparts. Filled with awful public buildings and horrific Eastern European apartment blocks. The two countries couldn’t possibly be more different now. In the North there are virtually no cars on the street, and people have even forgotten how to look for traffic, cars are so rare in the countryside. In the South, this isn’t the case. With car ownership reaching North American levels (almost 82% of people, compared to 89% in the US). This causes problems, as Korea is 70% mountainous, there just cannot be enough tunnels or bridges to handle the masses of cars.

I stole this photo fromOverlooking an old neighbourhood in Ulsan

A new way of thinking, Concrete and Green

A new way of thinking, concrete and green

The beauty of average Korean cities, on either side of the DMZ leaves a lot to the imagination. Both countries were rushing to build nations, not to build quaint neighbourhoods for strolling around on a Sunday afternoon. The military-industrial complex that Kim Il Sung and Park Jung Hee developed in the 1960s helped create a ‘quantity over quality’ mindset in their respective people. Of course, today nobody in the North has anything, but in the South the ‘Quantity’ mindset is slowly being replaced by the ‘Quality’ one. The endless white towers of the 1990’s and first half of this decade aren’t being built as much. Newer, larger towers (that usually end up painted a shade of white) are springing up around the country. The architects are finally being allowed to build more interesting projects. Space is still at a premium, but the parking lots crowded out with cars are being buried beneath inlaid brick paths and small parks.

The newest generation of Korean apartments are spacious and well designed on the inside, and much more community oriented on the outside. The old ‘domino’ apartments had only space for cars, not for people, but the human is being thought about now, and children play in playgrounds, rather than in carparks in the new complexes.

A historic comparison of Korea and Ireland

Korea and Ireland, diverse countries on other ends of the continent from each other, an encyclopedic comparative timeline can be found here. There are ups and downs, but the strangest thing is that two of the most famous events in either nations history happened in the same year, against a similar enemy.

Glendalough, Wexford (an ancient church in a mountain valley)

Glendalough, Wexford (an ancient church in a mountain valley)

Korea’s history has always been haunted by the Japanese, Ireland’s by the English. Both island neighbours have been the stronger for well over a millenium. Yet, both nations were built on the cultural architecture of their smaller brother. The Irish sent monks to convert and educate Europe, though their largest success was with the British. This took place during the 5th century. During the Three Kingdoms period in Korea, the south-west kingdom, Baekjae, was defeated by Shilla, but much of the Baekjae aristocracy and educated class fled to Japan. The Baekjae migration is hailed as the starting point for historic Japanese culture, and a Baekjae princess was married to the first emperor of Japan.

In the late 1500s both countries were writhing in war. In Korea, Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion had faltered into a bloody occupation where tens of thousands of Korean farmers were massacred and their ears were sent back to Osaka. The only shining light on the penninsula was Yi Sun Shin who almost single handedly defeated the Japanese at sea, again and again. His greatest battle saw him defeat a massive armada with only 12 ships. Yi died in his final battle (much like Nelson) he knew that he’d saved his country. His final victories and death were in 1598. That same year, on the other side of the world an Irish King, Hugh O’Niell was leading what was to be a doomed war against the English, but, like Yi, he was a master tactician, and won a major battle the same year.

Gumeunsa, an ancient temple in a mountain valley

Gumeunsa, an ancient temple in a mountain valley

The strange ways of history again meet. This time, for Korea, there was no saviour. The Japanese annexed the country in 1910 and began to colonize it. The reminents of the disbanded army formed together and staged a guerrilla war. Like most unsupported rebels, they suffered heavy defeats in 1916 to the better armed, better trained Japanese Imperial Army. Much like the Koreans, the Irish are known for their stubborness. Never relenting to English pressure, the Irish rose again, and during Easter, 1916, a poorly armed group were defeated in Dublin by the better trained, better armed British (Imperial) Army.

But, stubborn is as stubborn does, and one loss doesn’t end a war. The Irish rose again and from 1919 to 1921 they fought a war for independence, that though bloody, was ultimately successful. The Koreans, without the help of world media, and quiet American backing, were unable to win their war for independece, but in 1921, when the Irish were briefly celebrating, the Koreans too had a reason for celebration. The ‘righteous army’ had finally dealt the Japanese a serious defeat in Manchuria.

Both countries, with outside help, gain true independence and declare a republic. For Korea in 48 and Ireland, a year later, in 49. Ireland has seen a long, slow war fought in the North, where Korea had a short hot war, followed by a slow war fought with their own northern half.

Both countries started poorer than their northern brother, but later overtook them economically.

The similarities between the two nations is remarkable, but it has nothing to do with an Urban Neighbourhood.

Hanging on to the edge of a continent: A comparison of the Irish and the Koreans

Ireland's tallest building was officially unveiled last night, with the 17-storey Elysian now dominating the Cork city skyscape.

Ireland's tallest building was officially unveiled last night, with the 17-storey Elysian now dominating the Cork city skyscape.

Living in Korea as a part-time Irishman, the comparison comes again and again, the Irish and the Koreans. Today, I’m going to do my best to look at the two cultures that are hanging on to the edges of the largest continent on Earth.

Coming soon will be a massive historical comparison, but first, a few introduction to why.

On the surface, both countries seem exceptionally different. Ireland, with a small population of 4.5 million, known for it’s green scenery and lovely country towns. Korea, a population of almost 50 million, is know for it’s remarkable industrial rise, it’s urban density and it’s people power. But both countries are known for a stubborn national identity, and overflowing of emotions, and a strong link to their descendants overseas. Both countries have chosen America as their second home. Both countries were colonized by their larger, richer island neighbours this century.

Looking towards Shinae in Ulsan, seen from Camera Mart near KBS park

Looking towards Shinae in Ulsan, seen from Camera Mart near KBS park, the furtherest towers will be 55 stories when completed next year

The most intruiging peice of history I’ve found though is that Korea’s population in 1834 was 8.7 million people, and Ireland’s population in 1841 was 8.2 million. Yet today’s population of the Republic of Korea is 10 times that of the republic of Ireland, HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

Ireland’s Tallest building at a mere 17 stories is almost humourous compaired to the monsterous developments going on in Korea.

Why should we build subways?

At the heart of any good urban community is it’s transportation system. The heartlessness of most North American cities comes from their growth in the postwar years, during the pinnacle of the car. 30% of the modern city is covered in tarmac and concrete. 30% of the value of a city is lost due to roads. 30% of our land is covered. Why? For cars.

Trains? Who needs stinking trains???

Trains? Who needs stinking trains???

Our modern lifestyles have to undergo a radical rethinking. With the price of gas being pushed higher by such diverse causes as raids on facilities in Nigeria, or a storm in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Polar Ice caps rapidly turning into new habitat for endangered tropical fish, we all must seriously consider, is driving a car worth it?

There is a great article at the Independent which can be summed up as this. We aren’t quite doomed yet, but if we keep flying around the world for vacations, we are. What we need is high speed trains. I’d take this argument a lot further. Yes, planes cause a lot of damage, but a lot of people don’t take many long-haul flights (except those of us who live in Asia…we are excused). Most people do commute to work. North Americans are guilty of creating entire commuter cities, which are filled with nothing but parking lots.

Half of the problems in North America could be helped with better URBAN train systems. I’m going to avoid arguing for high speed trains in N.A. because I’m trying to be realistic. North America would be fantastic if it had a train system like Japan, but let’s get serious, it’s never going to happen. Urban rail is possible, even plausible.

Seoul, a city with a greater metropolitian region of 22~25 million has a subway system that carries 8 million passengers a day, with 8 lines, and 2 suburban lines.  They are currently building 2 new lines in the city, both due open by 2010, and putting additions onto 8 other lines.

Building new lines and stations is critically important if we hope to tackle urban problems. Subway stations act as hubs for development. Development which ultimately slows urban sprawl. The electric trains carrying hundreds of passengers reduces a city’s carbon footprint dramatically. The amount of traffic in a city center is reduced. The air of the city is remarkably cleaner. People are actually fitter because they are walking MORE. The city will be much more traveller friendly, ultimately attracting more tourists. Trains have fewer accidents, saving lives, and more importantly to governments, money. More jobs are created as people must build, maintain, and staff the trains and stations.

We must start forcing our governments to spend more money on transportation systems, and less on road building and maintainence.

Heliotropic Houses are getting around OR Dubai does it again with the Dynamic Tower

As a young child I used to love lying in the sunbeam on my livingroom floor, but, then the sun would shift and I’d lose my sunbeam. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just swing your house around to follow the sun?

This isn’t a new idea, there have been spinning houses for half a century, built by various inventors and nutjobs around the world


François Massau built his first rotating house, pictured, in 1958 for his sickly wife so that she could enjoy sunshine and warmth any time during daylight hours. (Jock Fistick for The New York Times)

François Massau built his first rotating house, pictured, in 1958 for his sickly wife so that she could enjoy sunshine and warmth any time during daylight hours. (Jock Fistick for The New York Times)

There are other spinning houses around the world, but are remarkably uncommon, and the concept is just not very popular. Who wants the neighbours to see the back of the house that hasn’t been painted yet? How can you buy circular furniture? What if the motor goes crazy and starts spinning the house like a merry-go-round?

But the benefits are unbelievable. The houses are very energy efficient, simply by moving the inhabited room into the sun all day reduces heating costs all year long.

This is great for a house in the suburbs…but isn’t this website called the URBAN Neighbourhood?

Enter Dubai. The city famous for building whatever the hell they feel like. You want new islands in the shape of the Earth? No problem. You want to build the World’s tallest building. Fine. You want an apartment that you can swing around to watch the sunset? Why not?

Enter David Fisher and his brilliant new apartment concept.

The New Village movement or What's the name of the dictator that helped build Granny's?

A Village formerly known as 'A New Village'

A Village formerly known as 'A New Village'

Believe it or not, this is part 2 in my history of the development of Korea.

So gather ’round, because today, little children, I’m going to tell you the story of the Dictator and the village.

During the Korean war, the president was Syngman Rhee, who, all told, was a wanker. He was outrageously anti-communist, which is why the American’s liked him, but he was also completely pro-me. In other words, even though the American’s had hoped to see democracy spring in Korea, what they ended up with was another life long dictator.  By 1960 the Korean people were sick of him, and gave him the boot.  He was rescued by the CIA and was set up in Hawaii. After Rhee there was a shortly lived republican government, then a coup by Park Jung Hee.

A happy house with late summer crops drying in the sun

A happy house with late summer crops drying in the sun

President Park was another strongman, but this time he had some vision. He rounded up the usual suspects, a group of gangsters and mob breakers, and handed them the countries future on a plate. These baddies were such players as the presidents of Hyundai and Samsung. Both companies later grew into massive global organizations, all backed up with Park’s money. There was more then just corruption though, President Park actually meant to build a country, and he did. He forced a highway to be built from Seoul to Busan, and pushed Korean soldiers into the Vietnam war, where they basically fought as American mercenaries, bringing home the dough to help propel their country. During this period he started a moved called the ‘new village’ movement.

The basic goal of this program was to build modern infrastructure in the country. Seoul had electric street cars in the 30s, but most of Korea in 1960 was still mud and wattle huts. President Park planned to change this. He gave each village a few hundred tonnes of free concrete. Then, the next year, whomever used the concrete best would get more. This lead to be building of industries, and a revolution in the countryside. The mud and wattle began to disappear, as newer (though still very traditional) concrete houses began to spring up around the country.

Though these villages abound in the countryside, few remain in the cities. The houses were all traditionally designed, with small outbuildings surrounding a center courtyard and closed in by a large gate. These courtyards were the heart of the old villages, where all the veggies were dried (Korean food involves a lot of dried foods), games were played, life was lived.

New Village?

New Village?

But, as President Park was fated to be killed by his right hand man (who feared that Park was becoming a megalomaniac) the villages were troubled. Thanks to Parks massive reforms, underhanded business dealings, the extra-ordinary efforts of the common working man and woman, and plain dumb luck, Korea started to boom. With a modern boom comes urbanization, and the death of villages.  Though there are still tens of thousands of ‘new villages’ spread across Korea, the inhabitants are almost all ‘silver citizens’. Korea is now one of the most urbanized countries in the world, and men who still make a living on the farm find it almost impossible to attract a Korean wife. 52% of rural weddings in South Gyeongsang province last year were Korean/S.E Asian weddings. Rural men are finding it easier to acquire a foreign wife who is willing to farm than a modern, urban Korean girl. The fate of the Korean countryside is in question.

The battle of the Super towers

It’s always said that a guy who has a big skyscraper has a big … investment portfolio. South Korea is a country where all men aspire to have big … investment portfolios. In the last few years, every town, village and post office box has announced it’s plans to build the tallest building in the neighbourhood, town, province, or galaxy. It’s gotten rather confusing, but I’m going to try and sort through the hype and look at some of the future giants that will make the skylines of Korea more unique. People might try to point out the lack of supertall buildings currently in Korea, but one must remember that the Burj Dubai is being built by none other than Samsung construction.

samsung tower g

Samsung Tower Palace, Dogok-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul

Currently the tallest building in Korea is the beautifully named “Samsung Tower Palace building G”. The logic behind these towers sprouting up in almost every neighbourhood in Seoul is simple. Land is too expensive, but everybody wants 45 pyeong to themselves. (Don’t ask me what a pyeong is, I couldn’t tel l you even if I wanted to since the word became outlawed last year).

Seoul doesn’t have a Manhattan skyline, which is probably why it has avoided being destroyed by aliens. But, hoping to attract foreign and possibly alien visitors, Seoul is branching UP. Yongsan, currently the home to a US army base that (in theory) will be closing, and an ugly railway yard is going to change, and like all change in South Korea, it’s going to be drastic. Seoul’s office vacancy rate is currently hovering around 1%, which has driven prices up by as much as 25% this year. The Korean government is trying to attract foreign companies to the city, but with spiraling costs, it seems unlikely without new office towers being built.

The Proposed Yongsan Tower by Samsung

The Proposed Yongsan Tower by Samsung

Proposed Hyundai Mir Tower for the same site

Proposed Hyundai Mir Tower for the same site

The planned Yongsan Landmark building

The planned Yongsan Landmark building

“In Seoul, the planned 151-story Yongsan Landmark Building, at 2,046 feet, will tower over all the city’s existing structures, and even some nearby mountain peaks. “Seoul is the capital, so it must have the tallest building,” said Han Bong-seok, an executive at Korea Railroad, the national railway company, who heads the project to build the tower on the site of an old train yard. “This is for the pride of Seoul.” “(NYtimes, May 2007)

lotte world tower seoul

Proposed Lotte World Tower Seoul by Skidmore Owings & Merrill

seoul international buis center

International Buisness Center

Also on the South side of Seoul there are other monsters planned, the Sangnam International Business Center which will (possibly) become the center of Sangnam Digital Media city. This one will be 580m and 130 stories tall. The other is Lotte World Tower Seoul, which would be 555 meters. Lotte World is already the world’s largest indoor amusement park, but construction has not started on either of these projects.

But, as Seoul might be the largest city in the country, it isn’t the only major city looking to change it’s skyline. Both Incheon and Busan and rebuilding their cities, and their images. In Incheon they are currently building some massive apartments that will become part of Songdo International city. Korean’s love placing “International” into titles, even if it has little or no meaning at the time. Songdo is being built in the former industrial south end of Korea’s western port city.

This is another 151 story monster that
will become the heart of a new waterfront development. There is also a new bridge under construction that will link Incheon city to the slightly ironic Incheon airport, which, though in Incheon’s metropolitian boundaries, must be accessed by driving into and then out of Seoul. Incheon, facing towards China, is dreaming of being the heart of growth and investment as the 21st century looks to China, just as the 20th looked to America.

The third city to be planning towers is Busan. Currently there are two towers being planned or constructed in the city. Busan is one of the busiest port cities in the world, and as such, has a much seedier and grittier image than either Seoul or Incheon. Most of Busan’s recent development has been centered around Haeundae beach and Gwangali bridge. Haeundae new town is the home to many of the tallest buildings outside of Seoul, and is seeing even more development planned in the future. In the south end of Busan is the old city center, Nampodong, which has missed most of the recent additions to the city. Nampodong has a rundown air, and is in serious need of urban and transportation revitalization.

How many of these towers will be constructed is anyone’s guess. Koreans are famous for talking big, but then, they are also famous for doing things that seemed impossible. Posco, Samsung, and Hyundai were all but dreams 40 years ago, and now each stands amongst the giants of the world. It is easy, as a foreigner, to dismiss Korea as just a small Asian country, but it is a small Asian country with big dreams. I wouldn’t be surprised if ALL of these towers were completed.

Overcrowding in the summer

People escaping Seoul on a summer day

People escaping Seoul on a summer day

Overcrowding is a problem in most major cities. In the summertime the temperature climbs, and peoples nerves start to boil. Overcrowding, as per wikipedia, has a large number of consequences, including; inadequate freshwater, depletion of natural resources, deforestation and loss of ecosystems, changes in atmosphere, desertification, mass species extinction, high infant mortality rate, new epidemics, starvation, capital inflation, low life expectancy, unhygienic living conditions, and elevated crime rates.

Haeundae Beach on a Saturday afternoon

Haeundae Beach on a Saturday afternoon

It would seem logical to avoid overcrowding at all costs, a few of the consequences seem to be calling cards of the apocalypse. It would take a lot for people to PURPOSEFULLY seek out overcrowded places.

When the temperature hits 35C and the humidity is dancing around 99%, you’re thoughts start to turn to ocean breezes and the splash of cool water. As the office afternoon drags on, the image of beautiful girls in bikinis might enter ones mind (or guys in tight speedos). Why not hop a bus to a beach and cool off. Maybe even call up your friends, get an umbrella and a small barbecue…and make a whole day event? Wouldn’t anything be better during the summer?

Haeundae beach in Busan is the most popular beach in South Korea, and per bather density (if anybody studies these things) is quite probably the most popular beach in the world. This beach is only 1200 meters long and yet it sees up to one million visitors in ONE DAY. Source.

The water, unseen in this photo is alive with yellow tubes up to 20 meters out, then there is a line of buoys which nobody crosses. Swimming is almost impossible as the simple mass of bodies and yellow inner tubes makes free space almost impossible. Also, one must have the patience to line up for 5 minutes before even reaching the water.

Overcrowding is more than just a problem in Korea, or even a lifestyle. It is purposefully sought out for fun!

Obviously not the one million Saturday

Obviously not the one million Saturday

But where is the apocalypse? The famine, the drought, the disease? Well, the famine and drought are taken care of by old women wandering through the crowds selling fried chicken and beer. The crime is managed by large groups of ‘boycops’ or conscripted police officers. Safety is handled by the same conscripts but wearing lifeguard uniforms instead of police, riding jet skis up and down the buoy line. Capital inflation certainly takes place, as everything is at least twice or three times more expensive than the rest of the city. I’ll leave questions about low life expectancy or unhygienic living conditions up to you to discuss.

Old Korean houses

As I promised, this is the first entry in my series about the development of one of the world’s most crowded countries.

Unlike modern times, Korea’s population wasn’t always high, during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1920) it hung somewhere around 8 million. For a country (complete country) twice the size of Ireland, 8 million people isn’t densely populated. It wasn’t until the Japanese arrived with tenant farms and forced quotas did the productivity of the land increase dramatically, driving up the population as well. The centre of Korean life was always the village. Though Seoul was a city of approximately 1 million people during the Joseon period, most of the countryside was undeveloped, and the major cities of today, Busan, Daegu and Pyongyang were actually quite small.

Traditional Village

The average Korean was quite poor, as the Joseon Dynasty followed the writings of Confucius, and believed that trade and commerce were at best a necessary evil and at worst a destabilizing influence on the people and the nation. Foreign trade was all but eliminated except the occasional tribute mission on Ming China. The main focus of the dynasty was on studying the Chinese classics, drawing all the nations intelligensia away from modernization, trade or military developments.

The rich people lived in wooden houses called Hanoks with floor heating and heavy tilled roofs. The poor lived in mud and wattled houses called Cho-ga-chib. The Hanok has been reborn in for the nouveau rich around the country, while the Cho-ga-chib are dying a slow death in villages around the country.

Sloping Korean roof at Haeinsa temple

The floor heating system, called Ondol, is a uniquely Korean design. Traditionally the floors were heated by wood fires, as the rich houses were built on stone foundations. Korean winters, especially in what would become North Korea can be harsh, easily reaching -20C in some provinces.

The Hanok is characterised by the sloping roof and the and soft ‘U’ shape, whereas Chinese and Japanese roofs are straight. The shear weight of the tiles used in Hanok roofs is

A house within a temple compound

A house within a temple compound

shocking. The roof beams must be on average 12 inches in diameter. This, not surprisingly, makes construction of modern Hanoks prohibitively expensive. Even if the land is affordable (which it isn’t) the cost of wood makes building a new Hanok a multi-million dollar project. One of the solutions is to replace wood with reinforced concrete painted to look like wood. From the exterior the difference is almost unnoticeable, but the house seems much colder than those built traditionally.

Hanok re-construction has undergone a bit of a renaissance in the last 10 years, with a number of Hanok design and construction courses being offered at local colleges. The government in Seoul has tried to protect various neighbourhoods, such as Bukcheon, but much of the restoration money has been misplaced as many of the original Hanoks were torn down and replaced with two story concrete ‘mock’ Hanoks with shops or restaurants built in, destroying the original character of the neighbourhood.
Hanok with surrounding walls Gyeongju
Original country house in the mountains, a dying breed

Original Hanok house in the mountains, a dying breed