[58 Anniversary] Sungnyemun to Be Rebuilt by 2013
Master Carpenter Vows to Restore Bruised National Pride
By Chung Ah-young
There was an outpouring of public grief when Sungnyemun, Seoul's 600-year-old landmark gate listed as National Treasure No.1, was destroyed by fire earlier this year, but the pain was much more personal for Shin Eung-soo.
The 67-year-old master carpenter, who was involved in a repair project of Sungnyemun in 1962-3, felt as if a limb had been severed as he stood there all night watching the gate crumble under the flames.
``It was around 9 p.m. when I rushed to the site. I saw Sungnyemun burning down throughout the night. I couldn't speak when the gate finally collapsed after four hours,'' he bitterly recalled in an interview with The Korea Times.
He was 20 when he joined the Sungnyemun restoration team led by his late mentor and master carpenter Cho Won-jae. In the 1960s restoration, Shin dismantled the rafters of the gate and laid the roof-filing timbers to pave the roofing tiles.
``Whenever I passed by the gate, I felt as if my mentor (Cho) was still there. So when the gate was burning, I felt as if my mentor was trapped in the fire and burned with it,'' he said.
The 67-year-old Shin is a renowned ``daemokjang'' or master carpenter who was designated as Intangible Cultural Property No. 74 in 1991. There are only three master carpenters, including Shin, appointed by the Cultural Heritage Administration.
Daemokjang are responsible for every process in repairing wood-structured buildings ― royal palaces and temples ― from cutting the wood, trimming the lumber and designing the structure to supervising the entire process of construction, working with other master craftsmen such as tilers, stone carvers and painters.
Currently, Shin is an advisor to the Sungnyemun restoration committee organized by the Cultural Heritage Administration.
Although he was involved in major restoration projects such as Gyeongbok Palace, Changgyeong Palace and Changdeok Palace over the past decades, he said that it has always been a tough task.
``Restoration is always tough because we should preserve the old forms while revitalizing them with a new touch. Building a new house is simple and rather easy because we just do it as we learned. But restoring a cultural heritage means following the old ways in materials and techniques even if they were different from those I learned,'' he said.
He stressed in the restoration project, it is important to reuse the remaining old materials as much as possible.
``When old structures need repairs, people think we should replace the old and worn-out materials with new ones or rebuild it completely. But it's wrong. Restoration is making it the closest to the original form by recycling the remnants of the materials from the old structures as much as we can,'' he said.
The reconstruction of Sungnyemun should also follow the same rule by using the available material from the ravaged structure, Shin said.
``It is difficult to use the term of `restoration,' because even if the structure would be technically restored, it will not be a perfect restoration from the original construction of the early Joseon period as the 610-year-old wooden structure and tile roofing were burnt down,'' he said.
``So Sungnyemun should be restored in old ways. If we use the remnants of the wooden materials of the lower stories that survived the fire, based on the detailed drawings made in 1961 and 2006, I think the structure will be close to the original shape,'' he said.
Loving the Labor of Love
Sungnyemun, made of wood and stone with a two-tiered, pagoda-shaped tiled roof, was completed in 1398. When the last major restoration took place in 1960s, only a few parts of the structure were replaced, as most of the materials were reused and sustained, he said.
Although the flames brought down the upper tier, the lower structure was relatively unscathed and also some parts of the ravaged materials are reusable, Shin said.
The restoration work of Sungnyemun will begin in 2010 and will take three years to finish with walls on both sides of the gate that had been present prior to the Japanese colonial period, with the overall cost of restoration reaching 25 billion won, according to the Cultural Heritage Administration.
The 67-year-old carpenter criticized the lack of human resources to guard cultural heritages, especially wooden structures that are vulnerable to fire.
``As technology has developed, people think it can replace the roles of people in the management of cultural heritages. To protect them from the fire or other disasters, we should increase the number of security guards on the spots. We cannot trust just high-tech gadgets. Once the fire occurs, it is too late to save the structures. Putting more staff is the best way to protect historical assets,'' he said.
Shin also pointed out that in rebuilding ancient wooden structures, the sourcing of homegrown pine is the most difficult task as they are becoming rare.
This is because pines were massively cut down and destroyed under Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953). The recent spread of deadly diseases, such as pinewood nematodes and pine gall midges, is reducing the amount of available pine, and the series of major forest fires in Gangwon Province isn't helping either.
For a rafter of the wooden structure, at least 20-year-old pine is necessary, Shin said. The lumber for a girder or a central pillar should be more than 200-300 years old. The pillars of Gwanghwamun are all more than 300 years old.
However, Shin said that it is not difficult to secure the amount of the wood necessary for the Sungnyemun reconstruction as some 20 pine trees in Samcheok, Gangwon Province will be used for the restoration.
``When building a wooden structure, the first and foremost thing is to secure good lumber (pinewood). Even if we have a good design, it is impossible to construct a good building without good lumber,'' he said.
Shin explained the pinewood is ideal for wooden structures, because the resins act as a preservative and prevent it from cracking or decay.
``Although much imported lumber is good, it is incomparable to the home-grown pine trees that have strong durability. Particularly, all royal palaces were built only with the pine,'' he said.
The carpenter also pointed out that it is difficult to find historical resources, which prove the original shape of the architecture when he restores old structures. ``There are no photos. So we can only imagine how the patterns, designs and shapes were,'' he said.
As one of the nation's top carpenters with the finest skills, he praised wooden structures. As for the protruding corners of the eaves, slightly curved pine trees well represent the beauty of natural curved lines of the eaves, he said.
``The wood structures last for more than 1,000 years if we take care of them well. Korean traditional architecture consists of all natural materials ― earth, wood and stones. They are very eco-friendly,'' he said.
``Builders should keep in mind that the structures we are now constructing should last for more than 1,000 years. We carpenters should have such a strong and proud spirit looking forward when we are working,'' he said.
Gwanghwamun Restoration ― Recent Landmark Project
The Gyeongbok Palace renovation project is another landmark work for Shin. It began in 1991 and will be completed by 2010 with the ongoing rebuilding of Gwanghwamun, the main entrance gate of the palace.
``When I first took the helm of the restoration team, I was 50. Now I am reaching 70,'' he said.
``In the past, when the royal palaces were to be built, the nation's top carpenters were called and the best of the best were selected. So their skills are the finest of their times,'' he said.
Among the restored structures in the palaces, he chose Geunjeongjeon as the best of all these structures. Its restoration was completed in 2003.
Geunjeongjeon, the royal throne hall of Gyeongbok Palace, has the essence of the beauty and grandeur of Korean architecture, he said.
``When I dismantled the 140-year-old structure in 2000, I could see its interior and was amazed at the excellence of the original designs by our ancestor carpenters. I learned a lot about the old structures,'' he said.
The Geunjeongjeon restoration project, which started in May of 2000, was intended to lessen the weight of the roof to secure the roof's balance and rearranged the structure of joints to create a void between the slopes.
He is now working on rebuilding Gwanghwamun Gate, Seoul's landmark structure that was restored in 1968, to recover its original Joseon Kingdom form.
The new main entrance will be moved 14.5 meters to the south and rotated 5.6 degrees clockwise to its original position. The new building will be two-thirds the size of the previous one.
Recently, he held his first exhibition, ``Old Palace & New Royal Palace'' at Gyeongbok Palace, which showed miniatures of the architecture and the wood materials he has worked on during his 50-year career. It also shows how traditional structures were built to hold the interest of people in their cultural heritage.