The Korean House - 7. The Present and Future of Korean Housing

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Understanding Korea Series No.5
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The Korean economy has grown consistently and rapidly since the 1980s, and the urban migration of the country’s population has continued as well. Among all Korean cities, it was the capital, Seoul, that was at the center of the population influx. Since Seoul’s borderlands were a part of the regional green belt, the development of the lands crossing over this area was accelerated. As of 2014, the population of the Seoul metropolitan area had reached 25 million residents; in other words, over half of the Korean population is concentrated in this area. Globally, Seoul has become the second largest metropolitan area after Tokyo. Regularized new development of metropolitan areas proceeded after the 1980s with the continued building of apartment complexes to pursue economic efficiency.

In 1980, President Chun Doo-hwan pledged to build five million houses over the next ten years. The next president, Roh Tae-woo, successfully achieved his own election pledge—that is, to build two million houses—by exceeding this number during his five-year term. For the decade following 1980, Korea constructed over half a million houses per year, and most of these were apartments. Therefore, the approximate ratio of apartment housing to all other Korean houses in both urban and rural areas in 1997 was over 50 percent.

In response to Korea’s tendency toward a uniform housing style, one Western scholar once ridiculed Korea as the “Republic of Apartments.” Even though houses vary in size and have different floor plans depending on the builder, Korea still has a very uniform housing style because the number of differentiation is significantly low compared to the level of existing Korean apartments. This uniformity, however, is a result of Korea’s rapid modernization and the general aspiration for everyone to be equal. Another cause for uniformity is that, due to Koreans having the longest working hours in the world, a house was simply considered a place to stop and sleep, rather than being a place to enjoy family life. In addition, to Koreans, a house is predominantly viewed as an investment, since property prices have continuously increased.

More recently, however, there has been a slight change in the spatial layout of the house. In the 1980s, the living-room-centered floor plan was already in use, but there has been continuous improvement to the house and spatial layout. In particular, the introduction of ondol-maru flooring in the late 1980s greatly changed the interior space of apartments. An ondol-maru is thin but durable wooden flooring installed with hot water pipes underneath. At first this wooden flooring was only used in the living room, which was originally outfitted with a wooden maru, but it was later expanded to kitchen and dining room floors. Toward the end of the 1990s, bedrooms were also constructed with ondol-maru instead of vinyl linoleum. Moreover, in 2006, the Korean government legalized the expansion of interior spaces to include the space occupied by balconies. This means that after this point, rather than including an outdoor balcony, all apartments extended the interior space out to where the balcony would have been. Therefore, with the exception of the entrance, laundry room, and bathroom, the entire interior space of Korean apartments is now constructed on the same floor level and uniformly outfitted with ondol-maru flooring.

The appearance of ondol-maru is just like that of traditional maru, but it is capable of accommodating a floor heating system. This can also be explained as an integration of two flooring characteristics of traditional hanok: the ondol and the maru. The ondol, introduced to Korean housing in the mid-twelfth century, embodied unique characteristics and the Korean cultural identity and over time was designed to complement the hanok’s many different spaces, such as the maru and kitchen. Since the introduction of modern housing in the late nineteenth century, Koreans have employed trial and error while adjusting to new housing styles such as the yangok and apartment housing. And after all of these efforts, the formation of interior spaces has ended up similar to that of the traditional hanok.

Ondol-maru flooring is an integration of two flooring characteristics of traditional hanok: the ondol and the maru.

When the first apartment was introduced, a modern zoning plan and modern heating system with a radiator were applied—both of which could not survive. As a result, the living-room-centered floor plan and floor heating system were reinstalled, mainly because Koreans upheld their tradition of living on a clean, hard, and heated interior floor without their shoes. This echoes the period after liberation, when the first thing Koreans taking over Japanese houses did was replace the tatami floors with ondol. Even in the 1990s, when the expansion of balconies was illegal, Koreans installed hot water pipes on the balcony floor to make the apartment floors uniformly heated. What is interesting is that many Korean expatriates who live in locally designed housing overseas also leave a space at the entrance to take their shoes off before entering, so that the house can remain a clean living space.

This aspect of Korean culture that distinguishes between outdoor and indoor lifestyles by putting on and taking off shoes is very similar to Japanese culture; the main difference, however, is that the ondol of the traditional Korean house was made of hard stone while Japanese houses had soft tatami floors. A tatami floor is designed to help keep the house’s temperature cooler during hot summers while a warm ondol is used for cold winters. Both countries traditionally used wooden floors, but the thickness of the floor was different in that the thicker Korean maru was harder and more solid than Japan’s soft flooring. Moreover, carpet flooring is rarely used in the modern Korean house. Even though there were significant changes to the interior design of Korean houses over a long period of time, the traditional use of interior space has been maintained.

For the future prospects of Korean housing, it is important to consider the relationship between a house and its surrounding environment, instead of simply focusing on interior changes. A house is a primary living space for human settlement. The status and importance of houses in a person’s life is determined by the society of that person’s time. For example, most of the activities that would have taken place within the house during the heyday of traditional hanok can be done outside the house in modern times. For example, a wedding ceremony would now take place in the wedding hall and a burial service in a funeral hall, and families will now leave the home to eat, do laundry, meet with friends, and more. Changes to Korean houses have also been spurred on by changes in family size: traditionally, an extended family with three generations, including grandparents and grandchildren, would live in a single hanok. In the present, however, most families are nuclear families formed with parents and children only. Moreover, in recent times, the age at which marriage happens is rising, a trend that contributes to a higher age for childbirth. As a result, the average number of family members has become fewer than three. This has also resulted in the preference for small houses instead of large-scale houses.

Considering universal social issues, such as the disbanding of the family unit, the construction of experimental housing types other than apartments will continue to accelerate in the near future. The housing supply ratio has already exceeded 100 percent, and younger generations have shown a repulsion toward the uniformity of apartment styles. Therefore, the demand for new large-scale apartments is expected to stay low. Moreover, a house is no longer an attractive investment in Korea because of the low economic growth rate, and many unmarried older adults are no longer able to afford expensive houses. In the meantime, the concept of “share house” in which several people share a single house has been introduced and practiced successfully. For over a decade, an increasing number of families are adoping modernized hanok that have been redesigned to suit the modern lifestyle. There has also been an increasing demand for leisure space within the house, especially with more seniors spending their retirements living at home on their pensions.

All of the above phenomena explain the increasing demand for detached houses while apartments decrease in popularity. The problem with this change is that it is difficult to afford land for new detached houses in urban areas. An urban express road and train system recently proposed by the Korean government may improve the accessibility of the newly developing residential areas.

This effect, however, will be limited, thus a realistic alternative for future Korean housing is needed. Such an alternative would not only involve choosing between an apartment and a detached house but also improving the efficiency of the detached house in urban environments. For this reason, recently, major cities in Korea, including Seoul, have actively promoted improvement plans for old urban residential areas. Some of these proposals address the formation of local communities, a process that should be expedited to improve the weaknesses of detached-house residential areas. In addition to crime and fire prevention, these areas require support for the construction of sport facilities, parks, day care centers, and other public facilities, as well as community centers offering house maintenance and mail delivery for each community. Such proposals will help urban villages develop into viable alternatives to the standardized apartment-oriented housing culture.

Understanding Korea Series No.5 A Cultural History of the Korean House

Foreword · Introduction

1. Nature & Culture of Korea

2. The Beginnings of the Korean House · 2.1 Prehistoric Dwelling Sites of the Korean Peninsula · 2.2 Formation of Ancient Society and House Patt erns

3. Hanok: The Formation of the Traditional Korean House · 3.1 Ondol and Completion of the Traditional Hanok · 3.2 Types of Hanok · ARCHITECTURAL FEATURES THAT REFLECT REGIONAL CHARACTERISTICS


5. Integration with Modern Culture · 5.1 New Housing Types aft er the Opening of Ports · EXPOSITIONS AND THE CULTURE HOUSE · 5.2 Transformation of Hanok in the City · AN EXAMPLE OF URBAN-TYPE HANOK: GAHOE-DONG · 5.3 The Emergence of Multifamily Housing · THE TERM APARTMENT|THE TERM APARTMENT|THE TERM APARTMENT

6. Modern Korean Housing · 6.1 Transformation in Korean Housing aft er Liberation · VARIOUS FEATURES OF THE URBAN DETACHED HOUSE · 6.2 The Popularization of the Apartment · SUPPLY OF APARTMENT COMPLEXES

7. The Present and Future of Korean Housing · CHANGES IN INTERIOR SPACES OF APARTMENTS

Glossary · About the Author