A royal pavilion is rebuilt in Seoul


SEOUL – Three years after being dismantled piece by piece, a 19th-century pavilion where Korean royalty once frolicked has been reassembled, and lotus flowers – the ancient symbol of rebirth – will bloom again on its pond in the spring.

The Hyangwonjeong Pavilion, a 450-square-foot hexagonal setting of a timber-built building for the Korean royal family, stands on the grounds of the sprawling Gyeongbokgung Palace in north-central Seoul. The palace is the largest of five built during the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea from the late 14th century to the late 19th century, and stands in the shadow of the jagged hills that rise north of the city, with the South Korean President’s palace nearby.

After three years spent hidden behind scaffolding and plastic, the two-level pavilion, which has a single room on each floor, will fully reopen in April, but its exterior is complete and the grounds surrounding it opened this month. . It stands on the edge of a 58,000 square foot pond, which has also been renovated. The final landscaping of the grounds around the structure will also be completed in the spring.

Organizers said the work was a history lesson in how the structure was built, almost entirely of pine, and required modern guesswork on how it was maintained.

Work on the Hyangwonjeong pavilion – hyangwonjeong means “the scent is spreading far” – involved 12 master craftsmen from across the country and about 200 other workers. The project began by measuring, photographing and creating a full 3D computer rendering of the building, which included approximately 3,000 pieces of wood and 2,000 stones. Each had to be examined by an expert to determine if its condition was good enough to be reused.

“We were very impressed with what we learned as the pavilion has almost no historical records,” said Jung Hyun-jon, the project manager who is a member of the Royal Palaces and Tombs Division of the South Korean Cultural Heritage Administration. “We had to dismantle everything piece by piece: wood, stone, wallpaper. It has become our historic record.

Several restorations to the structure had been done since the end of World War II, but they all failed to prevent it from tipping over as the wooden fittings underneath continued to loosen, Ms Jung said. The pavilion was built with the traditional Korean gong-po detail, decorative wooden elements at the top of each column that support the weight of the building’s eaves, eliminating the need for nails or dowels.

The restoration strengthened the building – records show there has been at least one similar pavilion near the pond since the 15th century – and a wooden pedestrian bridge, based on the original 1880s design and recreated from of photographs from the beginning of the 19th century, was built. It allows visitors to cross the pond and enter the pavilion from the north, as the royal family has always done. (A metal bridge, built in 1953 and facing south, has been removed.)

On a windy and drizzly Monday afternoon a few weeks before the reopening, the plastic sheeting still covering the structure was blown away and the pond was empty. It’s an artificial, centuries-old feature – though no one knows exactly when it was created – fed by a freshwater spring near Mount Bukak, one of the city’s landmarks just north of the park. From the palace.

On this day, workers were preparing boxes for the lotus to be planted and then placed in the pond. And inside the pavilion, Kang Seong-chan, a baecheopjang or master craftsman in mounting wall hangings of all kinds, worked with his assistants, placing rich cobalt blue wallpaper on the downstairs ceiling. pavement.

Mr Kang said the hanji paper, a type first made in the third century from mulberry bark and mucilage from hibiscus roots, was a tribute to heaven. “When we tore up the pavilion, we found the original color of blue on the ceiling and the walls,” he said. “We wanted to instill this image and the color of the sky to make visitors dream high. “

Each wallpaper panel, measuring approximately 13 inches by 20 inches, was marked with a central image of the character “su” or “shou” which represents long life in Asian cultures and surrounded by the zigzags often found in Buddhist imagery. and Hindu. Each panel had to be aligned precisely with its neighbors to ensure the continuity of the pattern – which felt like painstaking work but luckily seemed easier as the ceiling was only a little over six feet high.

Several layers of white hanji paper had been applied as a base, to protect the aged wood. Mr Kang said his team found no evidence that wallpaper was used in the original construction, but found traces of beeswax, which was often used in the past to preserve the paper in Korea’s extreme weather conditions.

“We use beeswax because not only is it a traditional adhesive, but it’s water repellent and also repels insects,” he said.

Upstairs, sheets of white hanji paper hung to dry, looking a bit like clothes on a garden rope. Later, they would be affixed, like curtains, to the floor shuttered windows to provide shade and privacy as well as the feature that likely drew the royals to this room: a respite from the humidity. sweltering summer in Korea.

“This paper was used in the palate because it is a great way to keep moisture out,” Mr. Kang said. “In traditional Korean windows, we hang hanji paper in two layers and apply rice glue as an additional moisture barrier.

The upper story ceiling was a study in which the new meets the old, as almost neon red, green, and yellow blossoms dominated the areas of faded color. “We call the decorative painting of our buildings dancheong, and the painting is made of berries crushed with a stone,” Ms. Jung said. “You can see this very shiny paint now because at one point they put a layer of reinforcement wood in to protect the original. There was hardly any corrosion when we removed this wood in some places, and we simply polished these colors with perilla oil to bring out the original shine and help preserve the wood.

Later, in a demonstration of just one of the techniques used in restoration, Mr. Kang altered a strip of wallpaper by vigorously rubbing – no, pushing – a soft rock on a piece of hanji paper on top of the wall. ‘a wooden mold dozens of times, creating the desired zigzag pattern. The rocks, harvested from nearby rivers, had been softened by hundreds of years of erosion.

“When restoring cultural property, we have an institutional system whereby only master craftsmen from each area can carry out the restoration work,” Ms. Jung said. “This restoration was done 100% by hand, which is very unusual. No machine was used. We rebuilt it as they built it over 140 years ago.

Haemin Kwak contributed reporting.

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