From post-war poverty to their nation’s rise as a post-industrial global powerhouse, South Korean baby boomers have experienced remarkable change. So when Architect K was tasked with designing a house for a Korean retiree, it reimagined the traditional vernacular of the hanok in a modern way.
In 2018, South Korea is one of the wealthiest countries in the world – by GDP, in fact, it’s the 14th richest nation globally. And that shows in both its cities and architecture: Seoul, with a population of 10 million and multiple downtowns, boasts a tech-focused mini-city, a High Line-inspired elevated park imagined by MDRDV and a Zaha Hadid-designed cultural centre. The port city of Incheon, too, has emerged as an architectural destination, famed for its international airport – which includes a high-profile terminal designed by Gensler for the Pyeongchang Olympics – and IARC’s futuristic Tri-Bowl, which anchors the city’s harbour. The list goes on.
Indeed, for the last decade, South Korea has been experiencing a design boom. Yet much of the nation’s contemporary buildings are Western-influenced and Western-designed – and for older generations, it’s a marked difference from the architecture of pre-war Korea. So when Busan-based studio Architect K was tasked with building a home for a baby boomer client who wanted “a countryside home with a modern feeling,” it responded with a design that synthesizes elements of contemporary and traditional Korean architecture.
The project aimed to be sensitive to the cultural change witnessed by its inhabitants. As the studio explains, Korean baby boomers have thrived through postwar poverty and into a period of economic boom, experiencing first-hand the opening up of democracy in the aftermath of military rule. They grew up with Korea’s Confucian values – but, as a result of globalization, they now live in an age of capitalist mass culture and global values.
“The baby boomer generation is a multi-layered generation that exists through all the whirlpools of modern Korean history,” the studio says.
The apt-named Grandpa’s Cool House is located on the rural outskirts of Gimhae, on the southeastern corner of the Korean Peninsula. It immediately establishes itself as part hanok – or traditional Korean home – and part contemporary residence. Its facade is clad in carbonized bamboo, a material grown and sourced in Gimhae, and its outer edge is rimmed by a narrow porch known as a toenmaru.
Traditionally, toenmaru were used to provide shade and, depending on how far they were set back from the house, control the amount of natural light that enters the house. It’s a space also used for common household activities, such as laundry and ironing. (Across from the toenmaru, separated by a courtyard, is a smaller building intended as a dedicated meditation space.)
The home’s pitched roof, as in hanoks, mirrors the gentle slope of the surrounding mountains. Even the cheoma – the overhanging eaves and rafters that shield the house from the elements – are a nod to local vernacular.
Built on a 675-square-metre inclined site – a common challenge to architects in Korea, where roughly 70 per cent of the land is hilly – Grandpa’s Cool House consists of two volumes connected by a single roof. The smaller volume, located on the western edge of the plot, is a dedicated hobby room, perfect for a retiree; the eastern volume features living quarters on two levels. The home’s construction materials are in line with contemporary Korean architecture: it’s made from a steel frame, reinforced concrete and cement bricks.
The corridor between the two volumes provides permeability – and allows for sweeping views of Gimhae’s rolling green mountains.
The living spaces were kept deliberately minimal. Guests enter a shared living room-kitchen space, where the home’s cement bricks and polished-concrete floors are left bare. To combat the coldness of these materials, Architect K encased the kitchen in a wooden volume resembling a pitched-roof house. “We organized spaces in a way that adds modern functionality and aesthetics while maintaining the layout and meaning of traditional architecture,” the firm says.
Indeed, the layout of Grandpa’s Cool House is also similar to hanoks in that the rooms are organized in a straight line. The master bedroom, with an ensuite bathroom and walk-in-closet / dressing room, is located directly behind the kitchen. From there, steps lead downwards towards a lower-level library and terrace (below).
The result, the architect says, is a home fitting for a resident who can appreciate both traditional and contemporary Korean touches – in other words, it’s built for a baby boomer. “It’s the modernization process of Korean native architecture.”