By Woo Jae-yeon
SUWON, South Korea, Oct. 25 (Yonhap) -- Standing on Janganmun, the main gate of Suwon Hwaseong Fortress built in 1796, one might have the bizarre feeling of having fallen into a time warp, although the sound of cars whooshing by is likely to snap one back to the present in no time.
On the right side of the six-lane, asphalt-paved roads ahead, a cluster of shops stand, all built in the style of "hanok," the Korean traditional house with tilted tile roofs and wooden-slat windows, in stark contrast to Western architecture on the other side.
Earlier this month, the 229.06-square-meter Jangan Sarangchae, which is comprised of shops for coffee, souvenirs and the Korean traditional attire "hanbok," was awarded "Hanok of the Year" by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport.
Since 2011, the ministry has been choosing the best hanok building of the year to preserve, as well as boost the public's interest in, the traditional Korean architecture and continue developing the old way of living to meet modern tastes and needs.
For this year's edition, the award considered hanok's possibility for commercial buildings in particular, a shift away from its primary usage as upscale residential houses.
Jangan Sarangchae won the award, beating 46 other finalists that were whittled down from 233 candidates by a group of judges -- mostly hanok experts -- for its "excellent design elements that enable the structure to gently balance between a tranquil hanok village and a busy commercial district."
"More than any other, it received high praise for fully displaying design elements deemed necessary to urban architecture going forward," the ministry said in a statement.
The hanok added modern amenities, such as elevators, folding glass doors and equipment for the disabled, to the vernacular features, while keeping hanok's basic structure and design elements intact and using the traditional construction materials of wood and earth. It also removed outer stone walls, thus connecting the entrance directly to the road and making the space more inviting and welcoming to the public.
"Hanok has been mainly used for residential purposes, but we actually see a high potential in using them for commercial buildings," said Han Seon-ju at Eso Architects, the Suwon-based company that designed the hanok.
"It looks great in terms of design, and its inside feels very airy and open due to the high ceiling," he added. As for a limitation, however, he pointed out that it is hard to build a hanok more than two floor levels at the moment due mainly to construction costs.
"The floor area ratio is quite small. But when we compare it to low-rise buildings, hanok's space efficiency is as good as those of buildings of today."
When architect Kim Wan built a two-story hanok for himself two years ago in Suwon's Sinpoong-dong, a special zone earmarked for hanok, he had many questions in mind that he wanted to find answers to.
More than anything, he wondered how much potential and appeal hanok had as modern architecture, and what its limitations were, if any. Living in one, he thought, would be the most surefire way to answer those questions.
When the construction completed, he moved into Howonjae, his office-cum-residence fitted with an attic and a balcony that stood on a 129-square-meter lot. Due to space limitations, he forwent a central courtyard, a salient feature of traditional hanok.
Having designed the hanok and lived there, he got to learn a few flaws, he said. Above all, it cost twice as much as an ordinary two-story house because of expensive wooden materials and labor costs for experienced carpenters.
"High construction costs are a big hurdle to using hanok buildings for commercial use," he said, elaborating that it won't be easy for a tenant to make profits big enough to cover the pricey rent.
He also learned that hanok's wooden pillars and beams, which are directly exposed to the elements outside, makes preservation challenging and incurs bigger maintenance expenses. Weak insulation from the cold weather, due to paper windows among other things, was found to be another challenge to overcome.
"In the end, it all comes down to money. But I think there will be always demand for hanok because of the psychological comfort the structure gives to Koreans," he said. The architect, however, wasn't sure about its commercial appeal and the possibility of its popularization.
As part of efforts to preserve Korean traditional culture and the tilted-roof wooden residences, the central and provincial governments subsidize hanok projects.
Kim's hanok was also subsidized. And he doubted people would still spend much money on building hanok were it not for financial support from the government.
"If hanok were to independently survive today as modern architecture, building it should feel affordable even without the government's aid," he said. "Having said that, it would be best, for now, for state agencies to build hanok for public use and to improve the urban landscape," all the while researching and studying how to reduce construction costs and solve functional defects.
"It is hard to look at hanok from one perspective, and we should respect its traditional and cultural value. We will start to see solutions when more people build hanok in many different ways."
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