No quick solutions for 'door of virtue'

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No quick solutions for 'door of virtue'

Dongdaemun is breathing.

Amid rumors of cracks in its foundation and worries that its wooden pillars could crumble, Seoul's ancient East Great Gate has been found by scientists to be sturdy and undergoing a cycle of expansion and contraction that is normal for struc tures of its type. Experts on ancient architecture call this cycle "the breathing of wooden buildings."

Dongdaemun, Korea's Treasure No. 1, is also known as Heunginjimun, or "the door that promotes virtue." Built in 1396, the monumental, colorful city gate underwent major renovations in 1453 and 1869. Now it is equipped with witnesses to its respiration: six electronic sensors attached to its pillars. The government's National Research Institute of Cultural Properties installed the sensors, which are typically used at construction sites, last year. About half the size of a cigarette pack, the gadgets detect the most minute movement of the grand structure and transmit the data to a computer.

"It's natural for wooden buildings to tremble a little because of their loosely jointed structures," explained the head of the institute's art and architecture division, Kim Bong-gun. "From our data we see that Dongdaemun is breathing while trembling back and forth and left and right; but the trembling is minute, and because it isn't going in just one direction, it isn't especially worrying."

The sensors were installed recently at the suggestion of experts from Rome who visited Korea in the early 1990s to tour important cultural sites. The experts, charged with preserving the ruins of Rome, encouraged careful observation of Seoul's ancient gates over premature renovations and reinforcements. The sensors went up on Namdaemun, the South Great Gate, in 1998 and Dongdaemun last year.

Recently the Jongro-gu office, the administrative body in charge of Dongdaemun, hired a construction technology firm to conduct a thorough inspection of the gate. The firm examined the stone foundation and found some cracks, but concluded they were nonthreatening.

The consensus among the experts is that the cracks occurred during subway construction work in the early 1980s and will not get worse. Accordingly, they say, repairs are unnecessary; only careful monitoring is needed.

This does not mean that the preservation of Dongdaemun will be passive. The government's Cultural Properties Administration will soon request that the Committee of Cultural Properties devise a plan of action for Dongdaemun.

"Ancient cultural properties, especially large ones like buildings, always carry problems like cracks and fissures," an official at the Cultural Properties Administration said. "The question is what kind of repair job is appropriate and when. As for now, all the data and advice gathered from experts point to the conclusion that an immediate repair job is unnecessary."

by Oh Byung-sang

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