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Secret to preserving national treasures


In French, there is an expression that translates to “wait 107 years.” The reason why they say 107 years, not a century, is because it took that long to complete Notre Dame in Paris, the most notable example of 12th-century Gothic architecture. The expression means it requires so much effort and devotion to achieve such a great accomplishment.

Last year, the Ise Grand Shrine in Japan was rebuilt. It is seen as the essence of Shinto style, and visitors who go there want to learn the roots of Japanese architecture. The secret is to adhere to the old methods. The shrine is a wooden structure that cannot last long, so the monks in charge of its maintenance came up with the idea of periodically tearing down the temple and building a new one right next to it. They bring in timbers from the same forest from which the first materials were taken and rebuild the structure based on the same blueprint. The temple is built anew every 20 years and has remained intact for over 1,300 years.

Notre Dame is made of stone, but it still couldn’t withstand the wear and tear of time. For Napoleon’s coronation in 1804, the old walls were covered with tapestries. Some insisted it should be rebuilt. But Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” made the battered church into a landmark. The original architectural details were restored and new structures were added in the 19th century, all of which remain today.

It is quite cumbersome to rebuild a Shinto shrine every 20 years. It takes eight years from start to finish. But the reconstruction of the temple is a good business because it hands down carpentry techniques, conserves traditions, inspires people and attracts tourists.

Building a stone structure for over 100 years or rebuilding a wooden structure every 20 years is similar in that the workers strived to reach the best result. That’s why the Sungnyemun reconstruction is so regrettable. “Speed” seemed to be the only standard when making a decision, and it compromised tradition, spirit, technology, efficiency and pride.

To restore the prestige of Sungnyemun, how about demolishing the gate and rebuilding it from scratch? First, we would need to decide whether to use traditional or technological methods. It is not a bad idea to use 21st-century technologies and materials to make a creative restoration. But, if we want to use traditional methods, the logging and drying process should be meticulously conducted. The restoration process could serve as a tourist attraction, just like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, whose construction began in 1882 and is still in progress.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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