Seoul sur Seine | Monocle

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A hanok sits in the idyllic landscape of Vaux-sur-Seine, a rural commune on the north-western outskirts of Paris. The architecture of this traditional Korean house is defined by its screwless construction and the use of structural timber columns, beams and giwa (clay roof tiles). This one is perched on a ridge overlooking the slow-moving Seine and surrounded by greenery amid a landscaped campus of four other buildings, including an old French country house and a striking contemporary structure.

Inside the traditional ‘hanok’

“Every building here has a longstanding story,” says the proprietor, Park In-kyung. A postwar and contemporary Korean artist, Park has girlish good looks that belie her 98 years of age. The campus has been her home for more than 30 years. Born in Korea in 1926, she married renowned mid-century artist Lee Ungno in Seoul in 1949.

Keen to explore the intersection of Korean and European art, Park and Lee – who was also known by his nom de plume, Goam – relocated to Paris in 1960 at the invitation of renowned art critic Jacques Lassaigne. Over the ensuing years, Park and Lee continued to work and champion Korean art in Europe, establishing the Academy of Oriental Painting in Paris in 1964 and teaching traditional painting and calligraphy. Since Lee’s death in 1989, Park and their son, artist Lee Young-sé, have worked hard to continue his legacy. Key to this was buying a plot on the highest ridge in Vaux-sur-Seine on which to build the hanok. “A long time ago we lived in a place overlooking the Han river in Seoul’s Mapo district,” says Park. “I always felt a longing for my hometown so we chose a location where I could overlook the Seine.”

The building is perched on a ridge overlooking the Seine
Artist Lee Young-sé

The initial idea for the structure had come from Ungno, with the artist expressing a desire for a daemokjang (master carpenter specialising in traditional Korean wooden architecture) to build a home for the family in France. “He said, ‘I want to build a hanok and hang a few of my paintings in it,’” says Park. To honour his wish and preserve some of his work, Park and Young-sé oversaw the ambitious house-building project. They knew that, in order for the structure to be authentic, it would have to be built in South Korea then dismantled before being shipped to France.

The structure was made using pine trees from Gangwon State, South Korea’s northeast state. To protect the timber from humidity on the journey to Europe, every component was starched with traditional Korean paper, which tightened around the wood as it dried, preventing the timber from twisting when it was exposed to moisture.

The project was reassembled with the approval of the local authority in Vaux-sur-Seine. On the final day of work, a message  was engraved into the central ridge beam of the hanok, reading “At 11.00 on 28 June 1992 this ridge beam was raised to complete the framework of the roof. Infinitude and endlessness.” Those last three words expressed a desire for the building to have a timeless quality, much like Ungno’s work.

And indeed it does: the L-shaped structure finds harmony with the natural surroundings thanks to its clay walls and the hanji-finished wooden window frames – a materiality suggesting that the building might one day return to nature. It’s a quality enhanced by the hanok’s exterior windows, which frame views of the Seine. “Windows are the face of a hanok,” says Sim Yong-sik, a somokjang (Korean carpenter with a specialism in traditional wooden furniture) who worked on the project. 

Low windows allow the view to be enjoyed while sitting on the floor

Park and Ungno’s contemplative nature is reflected in the decision to install low windows, which allow people to enjoy the views while sitting on the floor of the hanok, in traditional Korean style. “It’s crucial to consider not only the size of the house, the intensity of the wind and the amount of light but also the personality of the resident to make good windows,” adds Sim. The hanok is now used as a residential space.

Complementing the work of The Academy of Oriental Painting in Paris is the on-site Goam Academy, which has hosted calligraphy and ink-painting classes in a contemporary concrete building designed by French architect Jean-Michel Wilmote in 2014. “The Goam Academy continues the legacy of the Academy of Oriental Painting, which was the first institution of its kind in Europe,” says Young-sé, who explains that the building, like the art programming, aims to promote cross-cultural understanding between South Korea and Europe. Wilmote’s design is characterised by a uniquely shaped roof, which references the low hip-and-gable form of a hanok. Inside there is a similar sense of openness thanks to high ceilings and full-height windows, which establish a relationship between the indoors and outdoors, making it a perfect backdrop for creating art. “It’s a space where it is easy to move large-scale artworks in all directions,” says Young-sé, who uses the studio between academy terms. “And it has plenty of natural light."

The Goam Academy
Art from the residence programme
Decorative wall
Park In-kyung, 98, has lived here for more than 30 years

While completed posthumously, both buildings capture Ungno’s ambitions. It is a legacy that is protected by the fact that both Park and Young-sé continue to live on the site. Young-sé’s residence is an old farmhouse, which was already here when Ungno and Park bought the land; Park’s residence and studio is situated on the lot’s highest point – a two-storey building also designed by Wilmote. The latter is a bright space with a wide terrace from which Park continues to paint and draw. Her creative energy is also channelled into the role of honorary director of the Lee Ungno Museum in Daejeon in South Korea, where she is deeply interested in nurturing younger generations of artists who are looking to follow in her and her husband’s footsteps. 

As part of her work with the museum, Park has launched the Paris Lee Ungno Residence programme, which brings three artists across to France every year. “I started running the residence programme to pave the way for young artists to interact with the wider world,” says Park, who remains glad that she and her family have been able to offer a warm welcome, and a spectacular setting, to contemporary South Korean artists in Europe. –– L

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