A closer look at Korea’s palaces

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A closer look at Korea’s palaces

There is a noticeable tinge of pride when Shin Young-hun refers to himself by his pen name, “mok su.” The two words, which mean “wood” and “hands” in Chinese characters, mean “carpenter” in Korean.
But when Shin signs his pen name in Chinese, he writes it with “su,” which refers to “life” rather than “hands.”
That gives Shin a dynamic credential: that of a man who gives new life to wood, which is exactly what he does.
An expert in Korean architecture and the author of several books on hanok, the traditional Korean houses, Shin has spent more than half of his life restoring wooden relics and designing Korean hanok for major expositions worldwide.
Yet despite how he is often mischaracterized in Korean media, being a professional carpenter has never been his priority. More of his time has been spent producing dynamic ideas for modern housing and chronicling the history of traditional architecture in densely theoretical books, such as the one he just published on Korean palaces.
“I am really nobody,” he jokes, sitting in a plush chair in his office near Bukchon, one of the few villages in Seoul where old hanok still remain. “I am not a writer. I am not a carpenter either. People make fortunes out of building houses or spread fame writing books, but I’ve barely done both.”
Yet as a scholar and a theorist in his field, his reputation is unparalleled. Among industry professionals, he is regarded as a cultural pioneer who took hanok from tradition into modern, state-of-the-art housing.
He built a private museum in Paris for Ungno Lee, the renowned Korean painter. In 2000, he designed a Korean gallery for the British Museum, which houses the museum’s collection of Korean artifacts from the Paleolithic period. He directed major historical renovation projects in Korea, including Namdaemun, Gyeongbok Palace and Seokgulam, a cave temple in Gyeongju.
His new book, “Korean Palaces,” which will be translated into French and English for overseas publication, examines the architecture of five Joseon Dynasty palaces, with special focus on Huwon, the “secret garden” in Changdeok palace, and Jongmyo, the royal shrine. The French version will be displayed at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, at which Korean books will be featured.
Uniquely, the book classifies the palaces in relation to each other based on an old map of Hanyang, as Seoul was once called. For example, Changdeok and Changgyeong palaces are called “eastern palaces,” because they are east of Gyeongbok, the Joseon Dynasty’s most important palace. Gyeongbok Palace is “a northern palace,” because it is north of the city fortress, abutting Mount Baekan.
The 390-page book is illustrated with photos shot from sensational angles by Kim Dae-byeok, who has specialized in photographing historic architecture since the 1960s. The images and text provide fresh insight into the artistry of the palaces’ architecture, and the technological achievements it involved.
Shin draws attention to details, like the construction of a brick gate leading from Changdeok Palace’s “secret garden” to the prince’s library, and the stone used below the palace gate, where brick would have been worn down by the flow of visitors. He points out the elaborately engraved longevity symbols on a chimney by the king’s bedroom ― a contrast with Western architecture, in which chimneys were often hidden.
One photo offers a stunning view of Changdeok Palace from Gajeongdang, a hidden annex that was reserved for pregnant women, to which public admission is still restricted. The book’s cover depicts a granite walkway leading up to the king’s main office in Changdeok Palace, where iron rings were installed to secure tents for royal ceremonies.
“It’s a pity,” Shin says. “Nobody in Korea looks at this and wonders how these rings were coated 100 years ago to keep them from rusting for more than a century. All they care about is passing trends imported from the West.”
The neglect of Korean architecture is a sad reality, he says. No Korean universities currently offer degrees in hanok architecture. For years, being a hanok builder in Korea has meant little more than being a carpenter who clings to bygone traditions.
The closest that can be found to a degree in traditional housing is a two-year certificate at Hanok Cultural Institute, a small school in Bukchon that Shin himself set up in 2003. Universities have justified not offering hanok degrees by saying that students wouldn’t find work after graduation. But Shin, who is a native of Kaesong in the North, once Korea’s capital, says there is a lack of interest in cultural authenticity here.
Lately, he says, he has begun to think that the most effective way to get Koreans to embrace their own culture would be to teach it to foreigners and ethnic Koreans living abroad. That seems counterintuitive, but he believes the message would have greater impact here if it came from outside.
Indeed, that’s one of the reasons he has begun giving lectures overseas, and networking with Korean students who are studying abroad.
“You simply can’t create substantial work without knowing your identity anywhere you go in the world these days,” he says. “In Korea, it’s exactly the opposite. We only teach when we are certified from outside. We are one of the rare people who need the world to tell us about our own culture.”


by Park Soo-mee

“Korean Palaces,” published by the Hanok Cultural Institute, is being sold in stores for 42,000 won ($41). A French translation will be released next month, and an English translation is due early next year.
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