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Hanok: Room for Change

Modern Adaptations for Broader Usage

Concert venues, libraries, hospitals and banquet halls have increasingly incorporated the design features and construction techniques used in Korea’s traditional houses. Municipal governments in particular have subsidized many hanok-inspired educational facilities and commercial establishments, spurring a change in the public perception of traditional Korean architecture.

Western-style buildings constructed with reinforcing steel, concrete and glass began to emerge in Korea in the early 20th century. This in turn prompted remodeling of old traditional structures, such as government office buildings, state guesthouses and local Confucian schools, to fit new purposes. However, these projects were soon abandoned due to the technical and spatial limits of traditional architecture. Even when upholding tradition was touted as a collective task during Korea’s rapid modernization following its liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, traditional-style buildings were more often made with concrete than wood. This was the case in both South and North Korea. Monumental edifices like the Independence Hall of Korea (1987) in the South and the Grand People’s Study House (1982) in the North are hanok-style concrete structures. But buildings of this type were negatively evaluated as they were far removed from global architectural trends and people’s daily lives.

The tide began to turn in the mid-2000s; once shunned, hanok grew popular again amid phenomenal changes in socioeconomic conditions. Greater financial means afforded by the increase in national income rekindled interest in traditional culture, caused primarily by the development of popular culture. Meanwhile, the search for alternative types of housing amid expansion in housing supply brought new attention to the merits of traditional Korean houses.

Local governments seeking to increase the brand value of their respective regions and attract new residents encouraged site development and subsidized hanok construction. In tandem, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport pushed ahead with technical development and promotion policies. Other government agencies and public organizations also endeavored to promote hanok. Consequently, hanok-inspired designs have been applied to a wide range of commercial, cultural and educational facilities, not to mention private homes.

The revival of hanok architecture in the 21st century led to exploration of the merits of traditional materials and techniques. As a result, the utilization of natural materials and the secrets of emotional well-being hidden in the spaces of traditional architecture have been brought to light again from a modern perspective. The hanok concept has been particularly well received in public facilities that cater to children and the elderly, such as day care centers, schools, community centers and hospitals. Going forward, hanok initiatives will likely expand to overseas projects, namely Korean cultural centers and diplomatic missions. The following are some outstanding examples of hanok-inspired structures.



Ganghwa Anglican Church
Early Christian architecture in Korea, most notably Myeongdong Cathedral (1898), was built in the Gothic style, characterized by a soaring spire. But in the provinces, some churches were built adapting the structure and stylistic elements of traditional Korean houses. Ganghwa Anglican Church (1900) is a prime example of the latter.

Bishop Mark Napier Trollope, who oversaw the construction, obviously hoped to achieve a distinctive style of Korean Christian architecture with the voluntary participation of the local faithful. With donations from church members, a palace carpenter and Chinese brickwork technician were hired and hardware and ornaments were imported from England. The result was a unique, hanok-style church with a long nave and hipped-and-gabled roof.

Many hanok churches from the early 20th century are in eclectic styles blending Easternand Western aesthetics. Geumsan Church (1905) in Gimje was designed according to the Confucian principle of gender separation, with separate naves and entrances for male and female believers. Nabawi Catholic Church (1906) in Iksan was originally built with a hanok roof with a spire on top, and a large part of the structure was later replaced with brick.



Seoul Namsan Gugakdang
A traditional music venue designed by Kim Yong-mi at GS Architects & Associates, Seoul Namsan Gugakdang (2007) consists of several single-story hanok built with pine wood from Mt. Taebaek. The buildings, which surround a courtyard, serve as a lobby, hands-on experience room and offices. They blend beautifully with the adjacent Namsangol Hanok Village, which opened in 1998.

The 330-seat main concert hall was built underground, hidden from view. It can be accessed through the backyard, which features Chimsangwon, meaning the “garden of sunken beds.” Terraced flower beds on the sloping terrain and the crocks placed here and there create an intimate atmosphere. Visitors rave about the beautiful night view of Seoul from this spot in particular.

This charming venue for traditional Korean music is acclaimed for its graceful, unpretentious beauty, achieved by employing traditional construction methods, building materials and color schemes in harmony with its surroundings. It is similar in concept and layout to the Gosan Yunseondo Artifact Museum (2010), a memorial for Joseon-era poet and scholar Yun Seon-do on the premises of his old house in Haenam County, South Jeolla Province. Designed by the same firm, the museum also consists of a single-story hanok on the ground level, a spacious exhibition hall in the basement and a sunken yard that allows plenty of natural light into the lower level. Both facilities integrate the traditional spatial composition of hanok with a large cultural space underground.



Dr. Lim’s Breast Clinic
Dr. Lim’s Breast Clinic (2012) in Samdeok-dong, Daegu, was built around an existing hanok and a Japanese-style house. The original form and layout were retained as much as possible to ensure that they fit in with the cozy atmosphere of the old neighborhood. Patients register in the atrium resembling a greenhouse, on one side of the courtyard, then change into a hospital gown and wait their turn in the wood-floored main hall. The Japanese-style house at the back is an annex, with an appealing spatial depth. It’s a multifunctional space for relaxation, lodging and even baking.

A parallel in Seoul is a dental clinic in Gahoe-dong, part of Bukchon, which opened in 2005. It combines two hanok structures restored with traditional design features. The courtyard was turned into an atrium serving as a waiting area.


Fazio House, Phoenix Springs Country Club
This banquet hall, built in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province in 2009, was designed by Hwang Doo-jin. It consists of two hanok structures facing each other across a large courtyard, one reminiscent of a royal palace or Buddhist temple and the other a luxurious mansion. With their doors and windows opened up to the yard, the two buildings create one fluid space that can accommodate large-scale events.

The banquet hall is an eclectic blend of tradition and modernity. A sturdy, traditional tile roof sits on top of entasis pillars that stand on well-trimmed foundation stones. The flooring is done with dark square bricks, common in old Korean houses. However, instead of filling the interior of the sloped tile roof with soil in the traditional way, an empty space has been created in which various equipment is installed. The glass-covered corridor connecting the two buildings gives the space a distinctly modern edge.


© Park Young-chae


Circular Corridor, Lotte Resort Buyeo
Located in the Baekje Historic Area, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Lotte Resort Buyeo (2010) spurs imaginative contemplation on history.
A collaborative project between architects Kim Seung-hoy and Cho Jung-goo, the resort is a meeting of pleasant modern buildings and geometrically reconfigured hanok structures. One particularly striking feature is the huge circular corridor in front of the entrance, which is especially impressive when looked up at from the inside of the circular driveway.

In order to execute a perfect circle, all the components and frames were measured and designed with precision to exactly fit the curvature, prefabricated at a factory and assembled on site. A traditional pavilion has been built into the Mondrianesque facade of the main building, creating an exquisite surprise.



Hanok Library, Seoul Jungsu Elementary School
Seoul Jungsu Elementary School, located in Jeongneung in northeastern Seoul, has aroused great interest with its hanok-style library and special activity classroom constructed in 2020. Faculty, students and parents participated in the planning and design, and came up with unique names evoking love for Korean language and letters; the library is called “Hansolgak” and the special activity classroom “Narijae.” The two structures are connected by a long corridor, which provides shade in which students can rest after running around the school playground. The library has a terraced bookshelf that extends over two stories, and the special activity classroom has a large wooden porch where the children can sit and chat.

To create a safe space for students, the school received the technical support of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport’s hanok research and development project. Experts in diverse fields from Dongyang Mirae University, Daeyeon Architecture, QNA Urban Architecture Lab and Hyeonyeong Construction collaborated on the construction, using precast walls and laminated wood to create modern timber frames.


Lee Kang-min Professor, Department of Architecture, Korea National University of Arts
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer


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