“The Critical New Role of the Traditional Hanok House” (essay by Emanuel Pastreich)

 The Critical New Role of the Traditional Hanok House

Emanuel Pastreich

9 May 2012

At a time that Koreans are playing such a critical role in the most advanced fields of technology, biotechnology, electronics, new materials and nano technology, there is one field of technology in which Korea has been losing ground and that has potential to be a billion dollar industry with profound implications for Korea’s global standing.

That field of technology is the traditional skills of carpentry and design associated with the building of the traditional Korean hanok house  (한옥).  Although few youth would consider this field of technology from the past as interesting career in an age in which new fields of science are opening up, a strong argument can be made that a massive investment in the technology of the hanok house is exactly what Korea needs at this point in its economic development.


Korea has already reached a par with the Western countries in terms of technology, or in some cases is leading the world and creating global standards. In scientific research Korea still lags behind in some fields, although it is making rapid progress. When it comes to setting new norms as to what is perceived as attractive in design, in lifestyle, in culture, however, Korea has yet to make a deep impression. The new Harryu boom presents new ideas for youth about cultural identity, but it certainly does not impact what sorts of houses people design, what sorts of clothes people wear, or influence how people conceive of the world and their place in it.


But promoting hanok architecture at home and abroad can have immense impact. Elements of design from hanok, the soothing appearance of unpainted wood enclosing walls of paper, the attractive exteriors that are perfectly with nature, the human scale design that invites the visitor to slowly discover its depth, these elements can be increasingly introduced into modern Korean buildings. Even modern high-rise office buildings can successfully use elements from the hanok (like raw wood on paper or interior courtyards) that will give them a distinctive style. Such modern variations on the hanok could make Korean architecture stand out and as a result Korean construction will no longer be competitive only in terms of price, or quality, but also set global standards for design, style and sensibility.

We associate the hanok style of architecture with one-story traditional homes, but many of the elements of Hanok can be synthesized into tall modern buildings. Using our imagination, we can create intimate spaces within tall modern buildings that follow the aesthetic principles of the hanok building. A single floor of a high rise can be broken up into small hanok spaces separated by gardens. Such a unique design can revive traditional Korean concepts of architecture as a way of giving new vitality to modern buildings. These new hanok houses can be an inspiration for global city planning and design around the world

Hanok can be a central part of Korean diplomacy; diplomacy in the sense of “soft power” promoted by Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University. Let me give the example of the Japan House at University of Illinois where I taught as a professor for seven years. The Japan House 일본관 was built by a professor at University of Illinois with funds from Japanese industry. The Japan House serves as a place where traditional Japanese culture could be presented to average Americans. The building was built by Japanese craftsmen trained in traditional Japanese carpentry and Japan House is surrounded by a traditional Japanese garden. It is located in the middle of the university campus where no other trace of Asian culture can be seen. Children from local schools visit the Japan House where they learn about the tea ceremony (茶道)  and are told about the beautify of Japan. Housewives also gather at Japan House for discussions about Japanese art and culture. Many of them are deeply impressed and start a life-long obsession with Japanese culture.   The Japan House serves a critical role in inculcating in Americans an awareness of Japan at the deepest level, a sense of Japan as a source of inspiration in terms of philosophy, habits for living and spiritual enlightenment.

If Korea were to invest in training people in traditional Korean carpentry and send them out to build hanok houses around the world, hanok houses could be places where traditional Korean culture and values would be taught, that simple act could have the most profound implications. If there were hanok houses in Moscow, Paris, London, Tokyo, Bangkok and Chicago where young children could go to learn about Korean culture, housewives could practice Korean traditions and in general foreigners could be inspired by Korea’s great culture, the impact not just on how foreigners think about Korea, but also on how they think about themselves, would be immense. In a sense, one has to actually have a space that feels Korean in foreign countries in order to have impact.

There are of course Korea Towns all around the world, but they are aimed at Koreans. If foreigners go to them, they go to Korea Town to eat Korean food or buy Korean products. There really is no space for them to experience Korea. I have visited many Korea Towns in the US and Japan and I have never seen any space that introduces Korea’s philosophy or art for non-Koreans.   Many Koreans seem to oddly think that foreigners are simply not interested in the Korean tradition.  That is not the case at all.

Let us start to invest in the technology of hanok, and raise a new generation of youth who know how to build these remarkable buildings. Then let us set out to build them all over the world as part of a new Korean dream for everyone.

2 responses to ““The Critical New Role of the Traditional Hanok House” (essay by Emanuel Pastreich)

  1. Kathryn Weathersby May 15, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Very good point, Emmanuel. I personally feel a strong sense of well-being whenever I am in a hanok style building, and I am sure many other Westerners will respond that way as well.

  2. Guy lessard August 28, 2013 at 11:20 am

    I am a Canadian and I would be interested in learning the technology were can I go to learn

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