…The Meaningful Life of a Guardian of Hanok…

Peter E. Bartholomew is an American expatriate who has lived in hanok for 38 years. He believes the hanok is a piece of art that combines philosophy, visual aesthetics and science. Bartholomew says he has studied architecture from around the world and is convinced hanok boasts some of the world’s greatest design elements.

It’s a Korean traditional house, or hanok, in Dongseomun-dong in Seoul, the nation’s capital and by far Korea’s busiest city. Peter E. Bartholomew, the American owner  of this house, is seated at the table in the main hall, sipping coffee and soaking in the arrival of the new season. Bartholomew is all smiles. “This is why I love hanok,” he says. “When I work outside, I am constantly stressed out. But when I smell this fresh spring air at home, it all goes away. This house is like a purifier for me.”

Bartholomew is known in Korea as a guardian of hanok. He has attended a series of seminars and debates on hanok and has been featured in the press, too. Korean people have also taken a liking to this blue-eyed man who extols virtues of the traditional form of Korean residence. It’s a great irony that most Koreans actually prefer Western-style housing, such as apartments, while Westerners like Bartholomew loves hanok. But if you hear him talk about the science of hanok, even the most skeptical Korean would be impressed. Here’s one story.

Last summer, Korea was hit by a monstrous typhoon. It came in through Incheon on the west coast, swept through Seoul and then left off the east coast. The wind was so blustery that large trees were uprooted. Inside the courtyard of Bartholomew’s house is a ginkgo three that he planted about 20 years ago and that now stands a good 15 m high. When the typhoon hit his neighborhood, he was smoking a cigarette on the main floor of his home, watching to see if his tree would be uprooted by the strong wind. But something incredible happened. While the tree was getting whipped into al directions, the smoke from his cigarette was shooting straight up. “My God, that just had to be science,” Bartholomew says. “There’s absolutely no wind protector between the main floor and the courtyard, but the wind was blowing hard out there and not here. Isn’t that amazing?”

The unique structure of hanok is to thank for the strange wind patterns. Bartholomew’s house takes the shape of an inverted “L”. Most Korean houses face south, and Bartholomew’s house had its back on the north side and turned slightly to the west. The house was designed to keep the wind out. The typhoon was blowing in from the west at the time, and the wall on the western side of his house blocked it all out. The eaves of the house also minimized the strength of the wind.

As Bartholomew discovered, the hanok is designed with the Korean climate in mind. The specific length of the house’s eaves keeps the sun out during dog days of summer and yet helps bring the warm sunlight in over the main floor during winter. The artistic frame of the paper sliding door is covered in changhoji (traditional paper of mulberry bark) to ensure air circulation. In the winter, the traditional floor heating system, ondol, keeps the house at a comfortable temperature.

Finding A Place for Hanok in Modern Seoul

Bartholomew first came to Korea in 1968 as a member of the Peace Corps. While working as an English teacher at a middle school in Gangneung, he discovered the hanok Sungyojang, one of the most famous hanok in eastern Korea. He had been interested in ancient architecture since grade school, and for Bartholomew, Sungyojang was a museum. After he visited the place four or five times to study it, an old landlady told him to just move in. Bartholomew went on to live there for about five years and fell in love with the house. It was during this time that he decided to settle down in Korea. Bartholomew found a job at a shipping company and moved to Seoul, but he could not forget Sungyojang. In 1974, he moved to the hanok of Dongseomun-dong, where he lives to this day.

Living in a hanok can be a bit more taxing on your body than a Western-style apartment, since the floor constantly needs sweeping. But Bartholomew loves his house because it is in touch with the slower way Koreans used to live.

Bartholomew also had a few choice words for Korea’s policy on hanok and on construction as a whole. In the name of redevelopment, traditional homes are being bulldozed and replaced with towering apartment buildings. Bartholomew says there’s something wrong with that picture. The growing population obviously means a rising demand for housing, but new apartments should be built outside Seoul, he argues. He thinks there is no need to take down the hanok, important cultural and historic icons. Bartholomew says tha Koreans treasure the landscape paintings of Kim Hong-do and Goryeo celadon, but hanok, something that captures people’s everyday lives, seems like its fading away. “You rarely see a country like this anywhere,” Bartholomew says, welling up. “When I first came to Seoul, there were about 800,000 hanok in the city alone. But today it’s just left fewer than 7,000.”

Bartholomew calls hanok a complete work of art that intertwines literature and visual aesthetics with philosophy and science. Perhaps it’s time for Koreans to take another look at hanok and rediscover the virtues that the traditional house has long provided.

Source: Korea People & Culture Magazine, March 2011

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