Carpenter's dream is missing only the final touches

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Carpenter's dream is missing only the final touches

A few kilometers south of Sudeoksa temple in South Chungcheong province stands a cluster of traditional tile-roofed buildings in the middle of a tranquil field. This is the almost-completed Korean Architecture Museum, to which Jeon Heung-su has devoted seven years and more than 10 billion won ($8 million).

But Mr. Jeon, 64, doesn't think of the museum as a treasure all his own; he plans to contribute it to society. "I will make it a great cultural property that everyone can enjoy," he said. "If I passed it to my children, they would fight over it."

The museum, when completed, will consist of a number of traditional-style structures, such as old houses and gates, as well as a few large exhibition halls.

Mr. Jeon had hoped to finish work on the museum and have it ready to be opened by the start of the World Cup, but his money has been running low and the work has slowed a bit. "I can't say when I'll finish, but I'll continue with this as long as I live," he said. "I spent five years not working so I could do this project, and now my money has run out." Mr. Jeon has started doing outside work again -- at temples all over the country -- to raise money to keep the construction going.

When you sit with Mr. Jeon for a chat, it's like sitting in front of solid rock. This is a man who is tough and determined, a man of will.

Mr. Jeon started to learn how to build houses at the age of 18. His father, Jeon Byeongseogong, now 92, was his teacher. Mr. Jeon said, "At that time I wasn't filled with hopes or expectations. People looked down on carpenters then, but I needed to make a living." After a while, he was moving around constantly to build houses. Often he had no one to teach him, so he learned new carpentry techniques just by watching. He displayed an extraordinary aptitude to observe and learn. With just 10 years of experience, he was working independently, mostly repairing or restoring old temples.

Over the years, Mr. Jeon has done restorative work on many famous temples, such as Beopjusa on Mount Songni in South Chungcheong province.

All that experience made Mr. Jeon an expert on Korean architecture, and someone perfectly qualified to take on a project like the one he dreamed up. Looking at one of the buildings of the museum complex, he said, "Its flow is natural and graceful, isn't it? If it were a person, it would be a beautiful woman who ages well."

Mr. Jeon first hatched the idea for the museum about 20 years ago, when he was building traditional-style houses. He decided that he needed to create a single place where people could take in the beauty of Korea's architecture. About 15 years later, in 1996, he broke ground on the museum site.

Mr. Jeon says he needs another 2 billion won to complete construction on the museum, and if he gets it soon he can open the facility by this time next year. Some of the exhibition halls are already filled with museum items, such as antique carpentry tools. The remaining work consists mostly of landscaping and constructing a traditional wall. To raise money, Mr. Jeon is now working at the temple on Mount Songni, restoring one of its auxiliary worship buildings.

Once opened, the museum will also strive to cultivate new experts on traditional architecture. Mr. Jeon pointed out that his dream is not only to put the architecture on display for the public, but also to teach good craftsmanship to students, and ensure that Korea's architectural traditions are preserved.

by Lee Tack-hee

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