Tradition cannot be preserved like dried fruit or a photographic exhibition. It is a living thing – or it is dead and decays into a subject of historical research. An essay by Georg-Christof Bertsch on a unit-design project in South Korea.


In Hahoe and Yangdong, two villages in southeastern South Korea, lives a community that can trace its roots back to the European Early Middle Ages (10th century). Astonishingly, this sociotope has remained very much alive despite its extreme age and is consciously preserved and sensitively maintained. Not only that, but the Arumjigi Foundation for Hahoe and Yangdong has also managed to secure UNESCO World Heritage Site status for these two villages. In no way does this act – primarily an initiative of the Foundation's guiding light, Professor Li – amount to "museumization".


What is being preserved here? It involves an all-encompassing concept of cultural heritage – partly in the form of structures and the associated objects, and partly with regard to urban development land use. The primary function of this protection, however, is to preserve people's customs, ways of life and everyday culture – in other words, their living environments. This does not mean for a moment that residents are obliged to act as insipid "ethno-entertainment" by performing folk dances for tourists on package vacations. They can live just as they have done for a millennium. The siren call of modernity no longer needs to be followed, demanding categorical openness to the new, in the wake of the destruction that this very modernity has wrought on the world.


There are families in the area with verifiable family trees extending back 22 generations.

Legend has it that a man named Ho came to the Nakdong River in what we regard as the 10th century and settled there. The culture here has survived Chinese, Japanese and Franco-American imperial history and remained true to itself throughout. A cultural fossil, certainly; but one that should serve us all as a source of great socio-cultural value, a treasure in itself and cause for reflection. We can reflect, for example, on whether we now consider gender segregation appropriate in numerous social roles, whether we like the diet or not, or whether we want to follow the rituals of traditional Buddhism. We can be proud that at least some parts of today's great civilizations have recognized that just because a civilization is smaller and older does not necessarily mean that it has to be inferior. This makes it possible for institutional engagements, such as the UNESCO World Heritage campaign, to protect the two communities. Hahoe is the better-known of the villages, as it had already been the subject of socio-anthropological descriptions decades ago. The doyen of social anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009), lived there for six months. Lévi-Strauss' examinations of cultures foreign to the West famously led to a sentence from his book Tristes Tropiques (published in France in 1955 and released in English as A World on the Wane in 1961), suggesting that for the West, "the history of the past twenty thousand years is irrevocable." This fundamental criticism referred to the supposedly inevitable radical destruction of any society that had not been capable of resisting Western influence militarily, economically or organizationally. The two Korean communities are shining examples of fragments of old cultures that, thanks to luck, tenacity and prudence, have not fallen victim to an all-encompassing commercial mentality, to the frenzy of modernism that occurred in the 20th century or to brutal and despicable land speculation.


Attempts are now under way to secure the futures of these cultural time capsules, witnesses to ancient, pre-modern rites, by keeping them alive with heritage protection funding, sensitive tourism and a guarantee of extensive autonomy in terms of structural, planning and administrative standards. An over-simplified approach could have been dismissed as some kind of "ethno-Disneyland". A pessimistic observer might bemoan the inevitable decline of this culture. Yet the specific vitality and new, primarily intra-Asian appreciation of behavioral practices as cultural assets tell a different story. Hahoe and Yangdong are living entities. Even though these communities have been protected against intervention by destructive forces, it is impossible to isolate them completely. They must be able to interact, which means that they need means of communicating and an overall degree of approachability. Korea's taxpayers are entitled to demand this, while the citizens of Hahoe and Yangdong must have an interest in it being possible to convey elementary information to the outside world, even if only to protect them from excessively intrusive questions and the wasted time that goes along with them. To address this, the project by Bernd Hilpert has created a guidance system aimed at making it possible for outsiders to understand the sites without the residents perceiving it as too alien and as something that has been forced upon them. It is a mosaic of information modules, necessarily bearing very compressed text and maps in order to get across the complexity of what they are describing.


What I think is most characteristic of this approach is the way in which the bronze suggests a viscous nature for the material, which resembles a still-wet earthenware slab laid loosely on top of the stone.

There are three facets of the information system that should be considered in context: the intercultural dimension, the technical implementation and the sculptural quality. Thanks to a collaboration with Korean designer Ahn Sang-Soo (who enjoys a similar stature in Korea to that of Otl Aicher or Dieter Rams in Germany), the gap between the traditional communities and modern Korea was bridged through the international language of design. This helped, at least somewhat, to alleviate the post-colonial problem of legitimizing a European intervening in such a delicate historic framework. Nonetheless, there was the simple question of whether a German designer could bring the necessary sensitivity and empathy for dealing appropriately with the task of linking a thousand years of traditional culture to the outside world. Hilpert managed this by employing exactly the same approach as the village planners who originally constructed the buildings, taking the landscape as a point of reference and looking through the eyes of a product designer to explore the functions of everyday objects rather than just their forms. Following traditional rules, there is a harmonious relationship between the buildings and the topography. This explains the unusual balance evident in the appearance of the settlement. What is particularly admirable is the collective notion of an ideal connection between construction and the natural landscape. This was already inherent within the original complex and is constantly being optimized.


Hilpert was helped in this respect by his thorough studies of literature and numerous conversations, but especially by spending plenty of time amid the surrounding landscape to observe the sites from all conceivable angles. This gave him a mental picture that elevated the flat valley location to the status of a visual leitmotif, which he could then carry over to the curvature and volume of the information elements. Experiencing the dimensions of the landscape on foot in the manner of Lucius Burckhardt's "strollology" also helped – in other words, understanding spatial dimensions as perceived on a human scale. This resulted in formal basic details, as well as atmospheric and morphological consequences for the design of information objects. What I think is most characteristic of this approach is the way in which the bronze suggests a viscous nature for the material, which resembles a still-wet earthenware slab laid loosely on top of the stone. The powerful high relief of the lettering underlines this yet further. The ductile material nature of the information space is thereby brought to the fore without drawing too much attention to it as a mere object.


About the author: Georg-Christof Bertsch (born 1959) is a corporate branding consultant in Frankfurt am Main, honorary professor in design at Offenbach University of Art and Design and visiting professor and member of the Board of Governors at Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design in Jerusalem. Head of the Global Water Working Group of the Cumulus organization comprising 179 design universities, he has written numerous books, essays and papers on the subjects of architecture, design and the visual arts. His research focuses on design and water.