Restoration fit for a king

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Restoration fit for a king

Gyeongbok Palace for centuries was the center of power in Korea, the home of the kings. And it looked the part, with the main palace building’s immense wooden pillars rising 22.3 meters in the air, on top of a 2.7 meter stone platform, all decorated in bright, royal colors.

But for the past several months, instead of regal majestry, the main palace, Geunjeongjeom, has been covered by steel scaffolding and a protective screen.

“Since some old pillars that held up the roof were broken, we have dismantled the roof to repair the building,” says Shin Eung-soo, 61, the master carpenter in charge of the repairs.

Mr. Shin nimbly walks on the steel frame surrounding the dismantled roof, looking down at the three gates to the south of Geunjeongjeon. It’s quite a view of the landscape of central Seoul as it sprawls outside the palace gates. He proudly points to a gate between the main gate, Gwanghwamun, and the nearest gate, Geunjeongmun. The middle gate, Heungnyemun, and the galleries linked with it have more vivid colors than their neighboring buildings because they were restored just last autumn. The restoration is part of the government’s 180-billion-won ($164 million), 20-year restoration of Gyeongbok Palace, which began in 1990.

The original Heungnyemun and the galleries were demolished in 1916 so that the main building of the Japanese colonial government could be constructed. Beginning with Heungnyemun, the Japanese tore down most of the palace’s 200 buildings during the colonial period (1910-1945). Only about 10 buildings, including Geunjeongjeon, survived. Japan sold the dismantled buildings to its people and moved Korean cultural assets, such as stone pagodas, onto the palace grounds to turn it into a park.

“Japan destroyed Gyeongbok Palace on purpose to liquidate Koreans’ national pride,” says Kim Chung-dong, a professor of architecture at Mokwon University. Mr. Kim found the foundation stones of Jaseondang, a building where the crown prince lived, at a hotel in Tokyo in 1993. Thanks to his efforts, the stones were returned to Gyeongbok Palace in 1995.

“Even after the restoration project is finished in 2009, we will have only 30 percent of the palace’s original buildings,” Mr. Shin says. “The restoration of the remaining ones will be the task for the next generation. It is also good to restore the main palace of the many generations of the Joseon dynasty.”

Between 1990 and 1995, Gangnyeongjeon, the building containing the king’s bedchamber, and Gyotaejeon, the building containing the queen’s bedchamber, in the center of the palace, were restored. Between 1994 and 1999, Jaseondang and adjoining buildings in the eastern part of the palace were reconstructed. Between 1996 and 2001, Heungnyemun was restored.

To make way for the reconstruction, the Japanese government building was demolished in 1996. “Some people said the building should be moved, rather than demolished, because it had historical importance,” Mr. Shin says. “But that would have been technically difficult. The building was actually made of concrete, though it was covered with stones.”

There are many difficulties in the Gyeongbok Palace restoration project. First of all, it is hard not to make mistakes because there is so little historical evidence. “When we had nearly completed restoration of the adjoining building of Gyotaejeon, save only the painting, we heard a photograph of the building taken around 1900 had been discovered,” Mr. Shin said. “Since the building in the photo looked different from the one we built, we had to dismantle it and build again. I regretted that we had to junk the elaborately- engraved wood.”

Sometimes, there were conflicts between the views of Mr. Shin and the advisory committee of historians and architects, which decides on all building plans. When Jaseondang was being restored in 1995, Mr. Shin could not agree to the pillar sizes in the plan. “I thought the pillars had to be thicker by 6 centimeters, from my knowledge as a carpenter,” Mr. Shin said. “But the committee members would not listen to me, saying that the plan came from the historical evidence. We had to work following the plan.” But, when the founding stones of Jaseondang were returned, they provided evidence that the original pillars were thicker by 6 centimeters than the plan. “So, we had to junk the completed pillars and find other wood for the pillars.”

Walking to Heungnyemun, he points out the eaves of the gate, which are powerfully and elegantly curved upward. “Oh, when the gate was completed, some people complained that the eaves were curved too sharply, compared with the eaves of Geunjeongmun,” Mr. Shin says. “It is true that the eaves of the gates that stand on a line should be in accordance. But they don’t know that the eaves will flatten somewhat in 100 years. In 100 years, they will be in accordance.” Mr. Shin adds that master carpenters learn such delicate things from experience and from observing old buildings.

Mr. Shin began to work in traditional Korean house construction when he was 17 years old. At one such construction site, he met Lee Gwang-gyu and Jo Won-jae, two masters of traditional construction, who have been recognized by the government for their expertise. By the time he was 29 years old, Mr. Shin was a master in his own right. He led the restoration of Changdeok Palace and Janganmun at the Suwon castle, as well as Gyeongbok Palace. “But I think Gyeongbok Palace is the masterpiece of my life rather than other buildings,” Mr. Shin says.

Currently, Geunjeongjeon and Taewonjeon are under construction. The restoration of Taewonjeon, the building for state funerals, and neighboring buildings in the northwestern part of the palace began in 1997 and will be finished in 2003, according to the Cultural Properties Administration, which is in charge of the restoration. Repairs to Geunjeongjeon will be completed early next year.

The 20-year restoration project will end with the demolition of the current Gwanghwamun and its restoration. “The current gate is awkwardly restored with concrete instead of wood,” Mr. Shin says. “And look -- the gate isn’t facing due south and is a little off-line from Geunjeongjeon. It should be corrected.”

Gyeongbok Palace had a stormy history, even before its destruction. The palace was constructed in 1395, soon after the start of the Joseon Dynasty. But the whole palace was burnt during the war with Japan in 1592. It was restored in 1865 by Daewongun, the father of King Gojong. Though he intended to raise national pride, the construction project was so massive that it actually damaged the national economy. “In my personal view, I think Daewongun did well, though,” Mr Shin says. “If it were not for him, we wouldn’t have any main palace to restore."

by Moon So-young

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