BUKCHON, Seoul – HAD I WOKEN UP on these uneven streets with a dose of amnesia, I could have easily guessed that I’d been dropped into some far off town or fallen through a seam in the fabric of time. This is a Seoul that I have never seen; it is calm, even reflective. Walking down its alleyways puts me in touch with the human element of times now past, like opening an ancient book of poetry and seeing tea stains made by the master who penned it.
The patchwork of traditional hanok homes that form Seoul’s North Village (Bukchon) is iconographic of the city’s roots, but so too is the plaster that fills in its cracks and the newly finished timber of half of the neighborhood’s doorways. This place may feel ancient, but the destruction wrought by war and development means that many of these homes are replicas. Still, they exude a homey character that has been decimated by the ambitious wrecking ball in most other corners of the city.
I can’t help but wonder what the capital might have looked like if the iron-fisted general behind South Korea’s economic miracle had possessed a nostalgic streak, or been even mildly inspired by traditional aesthetics. Imagine if the now shamelessly gaudy South River neighborhoods had preserved some of their rice fields; if the dilapidated, communist-bloc inspired apartment buildings that define the skyline were instead low, wooden housing developments that would last.
I’ve written before about the destruction of Beijing’s hutong. The difference between here and there is that at least there’s a conversation about China erasing the physical remnants of its history. Here, it is a non-issue. This neighborhood will likely continue to be protected, but elsewhere in the city, progress continues.