[INTERVIEW]Questions for the man behind the project

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[INTERVIEW]Questions for the man behind the project

The IHT-JoongAng Daily spoke with the principal architect, Chang Soon-yong, about the reconstruction of the Old Legation House:

What’s in the main ridge beam of this house?

This is the central beam of the house, and traditionally, Koreans wrote a series of characters on the beam and held a special ceremony.
The letters [written vertically] start with a Chinese character meaning “dragon,” and end with one meaning “turtle.” These wish for the longevity of the house and its occupants.
Between the two, it reads, “American Legation House in Korea” in Chinese characters, followed by the date of the ceremony that marked the completion of the main beam, “5 p.m., Nov. 7, 2003.”
According to Korean architectural tradition, a small space inside the beam would be created to hold a record of the construction, so I had really looked forward to reading it. But when I tore the beam down, strangely, I found nothing in it. I suspect that in old days, architects were so insignificant socially that the tradition might have been ignored when building this house.
So when I was finished, I put a few important documents written in Korean and English, which are to be read 100 years later when the building will be restored. Along with the official statement of the ceremony, I put a CD-ROM that contains a list of the 2,500 technicians working on the house, along with the materials used, photographs, moving images of how the house was reconstructed, and so on.

There is a lot of wood used in the house.

This is 100 percent Korean pine from Gangwon province, which had been dried for at least three years, to prevent it from cracking. About 25,000 sai of wood was used. In Korean terminology, one sai equals 12 ja, which is a plank measuring about four meters long by three centimeters by three centimeters. We Korean architects and contractors use these Korean terms.
If you look at all the beams, you can tell which ones have been replaced. The old wood is darkened, and the new one is much lighter. The floor remains intact. We removed the dirt and polished it with flaxseed oil.

How did you get to work on the restoration?

It was a competition. Many Korean companies dropped out because they had to write a report in English. Me? I just hired a translator. It took one year to write a report on the condition of the house. And then I had to work with State Department personnel as well as embassy staff members.
I wish the stones in the back of the house were covered in plaster, which is how traditional Korean houses were made, but the Americans wanted to leave it as it was.

What are the changes you have made?

We had to start from scratch. Americans didn’t trust the Korean-style foundation, which had mud and pebbles, etc. packed in it. So we did it with concrete. The point was to bring out the best aspects of a traditional Korean home, designed for an American way of life.
Under the floor lay complex pipes, and now there is centralized heating and air-conditioning, making the chimney outside obsolete.
There used to be what’s called banja, or ceiling decoration, when we came to look. The design, which was not allowed for commoners’ homes, was from the style of royal palaces. We removed it to create an open space, revealing the beauty of exposed beams overhead.
Also, there was a Western-style arcade motif made with plywood on the wall, which we decided to remove, leaving the wall simple and natural.

What got you into architecture?

I’m a second-generation architect. My father, Chang Ki-in, established fundamental principles of early Korean architecture. He wrote numerous books and textbooks. When I entered university, I thought I would continue under my father’s influence.
My first job was to build a stone wall that was seven to eight meters high. I spent days calculating and recalculating the structure.
I’ve also worked on a number of restorations of important Korean cultural properties. Currently, I’m restoring the old Gwangtong Bridge in Cheonggyecheon.
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