SEOUL, KOREA — 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 but has the 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. 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, and 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 (Korean Wave) 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 the contrast of raw wood on paper or the use of interior courtyards) that will give them a distinctive style. Such modern variations on the hanok house 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.
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 could 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 could 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 was built by a professor at University of Illinois with funds from Japanese industry. The Japan House http://japanhouse.art.illinois.edu/en/ serves as a place where traditional Japanese culture is 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. Japan House 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 and are instructed in Japanese aesthetics. Housewives also gather at Japan House for lectures on Japanese art and clothing. 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 would become places where traditional Korean culture and values could 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 learn about Korean culture and housewives could wear Korean clothing, the impact not just on how others 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 a foreign country in order to have impact.
There are of course “Korea Town” 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.
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.