Restoring Endangered Pagodas In The Land Of Morning Calm

Two pagodas
Left: Wongaksaji Pagoda c. 1465 , Right: Kyungcheonsaji Pagoda c. 1348. Photo credit: Courtesy, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea

Along with their resemblance (pictured above), the two marble pagodas– Kyungcheonsaji, AD 1348, and Wongaksaji, AD 1465 have similarities in many ways. It is not surprising that most visitors and even South Koreans easily confuse between the two. The two pagodas boast of delicately carved reliefs, and interesting royal histories. The pagodas leave critical evidence that underline the history of conservation of monuments in South Korea. Here, we can discover it from the three phases of timeline below.

From the Establishment of pagodas to the pre-modern period of 19th century

Constructed in AD 1348 near the city of Kaesung (now in North Korea), the Kyungchensaji pagoda served the royal Buddhist temple of Kyungcheonsa under the dynasty of Goryo (AD 918 – AD 1392). While the exact site for the temple of Kyungcheonsa is unknown currently, it is widely accepted that an high officer patron named Kang Yung ordered foreign stone carvers from Yuan dynasty (Mongolia )to construct the pagoda on behalf of King Chungmok.

In terms of typology, the order and style of Kyungcheonsaji Pagoda that Yuan craftsmen brought was much similar to those in Lamaism, or Tibetan Buddhism. It is not surprising that in the 14th century, the Yuan Dynasty established the strongest empire from conquest among East Asian kingdoms, which stimulated a blend of international cultures on and near their territories.

Therefore, one could easily relate that the Kyungchoensaji pagoda exhibits a clue of cultural interaction that happened in 14th century. Yet, there is little known about how the whole complex became abandoned due to the scarcity of historical accounts.

Chosun (1392–AD 1897) did not fully succeed the former dynasty’s religion of Buddhism, and eventually suppressed the Buddhist influence with Confucian teachings. According to several archival records, the patron of Wongaksaji, King Sejo (1417-1468), was one of the few patron rulers in Chosun who was a follower of Buddhism.

His strong belief and ambition to patronize Buddhism was realized through a fine number of Buddhism-related projects such as translation of several important scripts and construction of royal temples including the Wongaksa temple in the center of capital city. Being ordered to follow the same style and order of Kyungcheonsaji, the Wongaksaji pagoda was constructed by the royal craftsmen of the dynasty court.

The location of Wongaksa temple, currently named Tapgol Park, is close to the royal shrine of Jongmyo, which suggests that Sejo intended Wongaksa temple to trigger a new centrality to accommodate function and symbolism in his city.

However, the Wongaksa temple did not last long after Sejo’s death. A series of tragedies came after king Yeonsangun, a tyrant ruler, ordered the confiscation of the Wongaksa temple’s property by force in 1504.  Moreover, the conflagrations of 1519 and 1554 have taken the most of the properties down to ashes, from which the site became abandoned .

Hardships during modern period

Historical Photographs of Wongaksaji Pagoda,Photo credit: Courtesy, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea

Since the mid 16th century, poor citizens occupied the abandoned site of the Wongaksa temple until the construction of the ‘Pagoda Park’ in the Korean Empire Period. In the early 1890s, the plan for the park was recommended by a British-born councilor at the ministry of finance of the Korean Empire, JM Brown, whose idea was to propose a western park.

In his idea, the new army brass band was stationed at a new building in the park and performed for the visitors. Pagoda Park had a layout of ecliptic paths and garden with a new pavilion called Palgakjung in the center, constructed in 1902.

During the colonial period under chosen governor general of Japan (1910-1945), Pagoda Park became a major tourist destination. The southern street, called Jongro Ga, became crowded with tram traffic. The park itself underwent transformations; a dozen western restaurants were allowed business and a moat was made just around the Wongaksaji pagoda.

Historical Photographs of Pagoda Park (currently Tapgol Park). Photo credit: Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea

While the Wongaksaji Pagoda suffered minor hardships from park transformation and visitors, the Kyungcheosaji pagoda was once smuggled to Japan in 1907, by an imperial aristocrat andTanaka Mitsuyaki, an art dealer. Thankfully, two foreign press publishers residing in Korea – Homer B. Hulbert and Ernest T. Bethell made an effort to pressure the governor general through numerous news reports and petitions for the return of the pagoda.

The Kyungcheonsa Pagoda was finally transported from Tokyo to Seoul in 1918. Without any attempt to return it to its original location, the pagoda has stayed in the courtyard of Gyeongbok Palace since 1995.

Historical Photographs of Kyungcheonsaji Pagoda. Photo credit: Courtesy, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea.


Recent conservation efforts and lessons

The Current Locations of two Pagodas. (Left) Wongaksaji Pagoda at Tapgol Park, Jongro Gu, Seoul (Right) Kyungcheonsaji Pagoda at National Museum of Korea, Seoul. Photo credit: Myonghwan Ko

For the last 100 years, the two pagodas had been exposed to Seoul’s recently-emerged threats such as air pollution, bird droppings, and vandalism of visitors. It is only recent times that the conservation of outdoor monuments such as the two pagodas began.

While the Wongaksaji pagoda did not require serious restoration, the Kyungcheonsaji Pagoda required restoration for its poor condition in the 1990s. About 10 years of research and restoration at the NRICH secured important outcomes such as reinforcement of the pagoda’s structure and improvements in practical knowledge and restoration technology. The final decision to have the pagoda in permanent exhibition at the new National Museum of Korea building was made, rather than returning it to its former location.

For the conservation of Wongaksaji Pagoda, the city of Seoul decided to build a modern shelter structure over the pagoda, taking suggestions of past survey reports in the 1960’s which sais that the scheme for the new shelter structure should have glass windows, a roof for protection from rain and bird droppings, and adequate numbers of openings for ventilation.

In 2004, the contract was won by architect Kang Sukwon whose design presents a steel frame structure with aglass façade on four sides and ventilation openings around them.


The Types of Shelter Applications according to Structure and Functions of Environmental Control.
Photo credit: Myonghwan Ko

The two pagodas now are under protection of sheltered environment. What could be possible concerning issues?

Scientifically speaking, it is almost impossible to halt deterioration of the two pagodas. The shelter methods focus mainly on slowing it down.

For the Wongaksaji Pagoda, however, despite the presence of the shelter structure the major concerns are only related to the indoor environmental condition. Being heavily dependent upon a natural ventilation method, the current steel frame structure faces problems such as temperature rise, creation of indoor air current, and surface pollution by intake of unfiltered dust and polluted air.

In particular, high temperature may accelerate the processes of recrystallization, which must be delicately controlled with mechanical ventilation and air conditioning if necessary.

Conservation decisions are very subjective and limited to each different condition. With the help of scientific researches, proper measures might help improving the conservation environment at site. For the two particular pagodas, it seemed to reach the radical decisions of providing sheltered environment, mainly due to the fact that they are unique and endangered.


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